How Museum Collections Are Gathered, Cared For, and Used

Send to Kindle

By Frederick W. Schueler

Editor's Note: This paper was originally written for the Board of the Queen Charlotte Islands Museum in the Spring of 1989. As such it makes reference to older technologies that have been replaced or supplemented by GPS, computer databases, and making curated collections available on the internet. However, it remains one of the better discussions I've seen as to the rationale and use of nature collections. -sg

Photo: Denver Museum of Nature & Science

People who visit museums only to see the exhibits will often get an incorrect idea of the activities of museums, because they assume that the exhibits they come to see are the reason the museums exist.  In fact, the exhibits are the consequence of the museum's activities, not the reason for it. 

The reason museums exist is to preserve collections of objects that are authentically associated with stories that people tell about the World. These stories may be historical narratives or scientific theories, or the mixture of both that comprise the historical sciences, but they are intimately bound up with the scientific view of Truth.  This is the paradoxical view that the World is constant and orderly, but that we can know its complexity only as a kind of negative image --- by accepting statements about the World that could have been false, but which have not been found to be false. We approach the Truth by telling stories of great complexity that have been tested at myriads of points where they could have been proven false, but which have, so far, survived this testing.  Museum collections are one of the great testing places of these scientific stories, or theories, and museum exhibits are displayed to teach the stories, to show objects that demonstrate the truth of the stories, and to allow people to judge the relevance of the stories to their lives and beliefs.

One of the simplest kind of stories that are documented by museum collections are the geographic ranges of plants and animals. Most popular nature guides include verbal statements of the ranges of species, or maps that show the range as a coloured area.  Within the coloured area one presumes that the species will be found in areas of suitable habitat.  Where do these maps come from? In semi-popular and technical works one finds a different kind of map on which the coloured areas are replaced by dots. In these dot distribution maps the range is not outlined by a boundary, but is made up of dots representing places where the species has been found.  In most cases the evidence that the species has been found at a place is a museum specimen, and in the more thoroughly documented maps all of the specimens are listed.  The coloured areas on the simpler maps are the regions that include all the dots.  The story that they tell is "found in suitable habitats in the area outlined," and the smallest non-false story is the polygon enclosing the outermost dots.

To see how the dots get on such maps, we can follow a plant specimen from its native soil to the pages of a book. Let us say that a naturalist is participating in a search for lost girls on the banks of the Tlell River.  He is shown a clubmoss that is interesting to him, Lycopodium selago, and which he thinks might be interesting to botanists.  He collects a stem of the plant, recording the locality, date, and habitat, and brings it home to flatten and dry between the blotters and corrugated cardboard of a plant press.  He assigns the specimen a field number and enters the collection data into his field catalogue.

The dried specimen is sent to a museum collection, where the entire shipment is assigned an accession number, and the field number is used to associate the field data with the specimen.  A label is printed with the collection data on it, and the label and specimen are glued to the same sheet of paper.  If there were several specimens they would be distributed on several sheets, and the 'duplicates' might be exchanged with other plant collections or herbaria.  In the herbarium the sheets are filed in cabinets under the name of the species and the region from which the specimen came.

When a botanist wants to make an updated map of the distribution of the species, he writes or visits many herbaria, and, by hand or photocopy or computer, the data from each sheet is listed, and a dot is placed on the map for each locality. If there is any doubt about what species the record refers to, the specimen is right there to be examined.  If the botanist has doubts about the identity of a record from another herbarium, he can borrow the sheet to examine and compare with other material.

Just to document distribution maps museums must preserve many hundreds of specimens from many hundreds of localities, but this is just the beginning of the uses of museum specimens.

PHENOLOGY: Since specimens preserve the state of the organism when it was collected with the collector's notes about its colours and breeding condition, they document the seasons of growth, breeding, and other activities.  Our Lycopodium selago had spores in its sporangia and the foliage was a pale yellow colour.

GEOGRAPHIC VARIATION: By assembling specimens from a wide geographic area it is possible to study the differences between individuals from different areas, and to test evolutionary and ecological ideas about the causes of such differences.  Lycopodium selago is notorious for its regional variability in growth form, chromosome number, and leaf shape.

ECOLOGICAL INFORMATION: Often the most efficient way to record an ecological observation is by associating it with a museum specimen, which will eventually be seen by a serious student of the species.  In northeastern Ontario Lycopodium selago is found mostly on the sandy margins of lakes, but here it was growing in a shady mature Cedar forest.

TEMPORAL CHANGE: As time passes a specimen becomes an historical rather than a current record, and can document changes in distribution and morphology, and the failure to collect a related species that later invades an area can be evidence for its absence.  If fire or logging elminated the mature forest of eastern Graham Island, the specimen would document the occurrence and growth form of Lycopodium selago in the mature vegetation.

UNFORESEEN USES: No one can foretell the uses that future workers can make of their specimens.  The levels of mercury and other contaminants in specimens from uncontaminated areas are the classic examples of this, but many advanced methods of studying plants and animals - chromosomal, biochemical, and morphometric - depend on the existence of collections that were made when these methods were unheard of.  A potentially important drug was recently found in Lycopodium selago, and museum specimens led investigators to Summit Lake, north of Prince George, where they were able to gather enough of this usually rare plant to determine that the chemical in question was the same as that found in some commoner plants.

One type of specimen cannot preserve all kinds of information about a species, so museums keep many kinds of specimens. The National Collection of Amphibians and Reptiles, for example, contains about 100,000 specimens of adult animals preserved in alcohol, many larvae and eggs in formaldehyde, frozen tissue samples in liquid nitrogen, skeletons, dried skins, shed skins of snakes, live animals, tape recordings of calls, photographs of animals and their habitats, paintings, correspondence, field notes, manuscripts, unpublished theses, and stuffed specimens and curios of endangered species impounded by Canada Customs.  Central to the maintenance of the collection are the catalogues, heavy leatherbound books where each lot of specimens is recorded in permanent waterproof ink.  A tag tied to each specimen identifies it by its catalogue number.  A card file includes not only the specimens in the collection, by species and province, but also Canadian specimens in other collections and sight records.  Volunteers sort specimens, write labels, feed animals, and write computer programmes.  This past year all of the collection data has begun to be entered onto a computer curating system, so that it can be searched and retrieved quickly.

Information about all these collections is constantly flowing between museums in the form of handwritten lists, photocopies, and computer printouts and tapes.  Curators study the classification of species, and reidentify their collections on the basis of revisions by others. Scientists visit for days or months, examining and measuring specimens for their research, lecturing about their work, and identifying specimens from groups on   which they are authorities.  When scientists cannot visit they borrow specimens by mail, and they constantly correspond, asking about ideas and specimens, and circulating manuscripts and copies of publications for criticism and use by their colleagues.  A constant stream of questions by other scholars, the public, and government agencies, is answered, and a steady stream of publications reports on research or makes research findings available to the public.

All this time the roof leaks, temperatures fluctuate between 5 and 35 C, the computers break down, and there is never enough money to do the work that everyone knows needs to be done. The opportunity to work with authentic records and objects brings the staff and volunteers in to work long hours in these conditions, struggling to tell true stories about the history and inhabitants of the World.  Local museums can reflect a similar culture of authentic experience, by doing many of the things that larger museums do, though on a smaller scale, by exchanges of people and material with larger collections, and by involving the community in the understanding, recording, and discovery of the natural and human history of their areas.

This entry was posted in Amateur Science, Best Practices, Biology, Botany, History of Science, Nature Study, Research Tools, Wildlife. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply