Why 99% Of Smithsonian’s Specimens Are Hidden In High-Security

Muse­ums are the mem­o­ry of our cul­ture and they’re the mem­o­ry of our plan­et. — Dr. Kirk John­son, Direc­tor, Smith­son­ian Nation­al Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry

For many of us nat­ur­al his­to­ry muse­ums are emblem­at­ic of school field trips, or rainy day out­ings with (or as) chil­dren.

There’s always some­thing to be gleaned from the recon­struct­ed dinosaur skele­tons, daz­zling min­er­als, and 100-year-old spec­i­mens on dis­play.

The edu­ca­tion­al prospects are even greater for research sci­en­tists.

The above entry in Busi­ness Insid­er’s Big Busi­ness series takes us behind the scenes of the Smith­son­ian Nat­ur­al His­to­ry Muse­um, a fed­er­al­ly-fund­ed insti­tu­tion where more than 99% of its vast col­lec­tion is housed in the base­ment, on upper floors and employ­ees-only wings of exhi­bi­tion floors, or at an off­site facil­i­ty in neigh­bor­ing Mary­land.

The lat­ter is poised to pro­vide safe space for more of these trea­sures as cli­mate change-relat­ed flood­ing pos­es an increas­ing­ly dire threat. The museum’s Nation­al Mall loca­tion, which draws more than 6 mil­lion vis­i­tors annu­al­ly, is now vir­tu­al­ly at sea lev­el, and Con­gress is mov­ing at a pace for­mer­ly known as glacial to approve the expen­sive but nec­es­sary struc­tur­al improve­ments that would safe­guard these pre­cious col­lec­tions.

The muse­um cur­rent­ly boasts some 147 mil­lion spec­i­mens, and is con­tin­u­al­ly adding more, by means of field col­lec­tions, dona­tions, and pur­chas­es made with endow­ments, though as a non-prof­it insti­tu­tion, it’s rarely able to out­bid deep-pock­et­ed pri­vate col­lec­tors at auc­tions of hot-tick­et items like large dinosaur bones.

The Divi­sion of Birds’ dai­ly mail brings sam­ples of “snarge” — whatever’s left over when a bird makes impact with an air­craft.

Upon arrival at the Smith­son­ian, what­ev­er its size or mar­ket val­ue, every item is sub­ject­ed to a process of inspec­tion known as “acces­sion­ing”.

After that, it is metic­u­lous­ly cleaned.

Bee­tles in an off­site Osteo Prep Lab get to work on resid­ual organ­ic mate­ri­als like skin and tis­sue.

Human experts use a hand­held air scrape tool to incre­men­tal­ly sep­a­rate fos­sils from the rocky matrix in which they were dis­cov­ered

The goal is per­ma­nent stor­age state.

Geo­log­i­cal spec­i­mens are clas­si­fied accord­ing to Dana’s Sys­tem of Min­er­al­o­gy and stored in draw­ers. High-val­ue items are assigned to the Blue Room or the Gem Vault.

Bones that are look­ing to spend the bet­ter part of eter­ni­ty on a shelf are fit­ted for cus­tom fiber­glass and plas­tic cra­dles to pro­tect against pests, mois­ture, and grav­i­ty-relat­ed stress frac­tures.

The Depart­ment of Ento­mol­o­gy dries and pins incom­ing insects, arach­nids, and myr­i­apods, and stores them in hydraulic car­riages.

Mam­mals, rep­tiles, fish and birds are stuffed or pick­led in alco­hol.

Many items in the museum’s col­lec­tion date back to the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry.

These days, staff strive to pre­serve as much as they can, using every tool and sci­en­tif­ic advance­ment at their dis­pos­al. As ornithol­o­gist and feath­er iden­ti­fi­ca­tion spe­cial­ist Car­la Dove, states, “It’s our respon­si­bil­i­ty to do as much as we can with the spec­i­men if we’re going to take it from the wild for research.”

These care­ful prepa­ra­tions ensure that the world’s largest nat­ur­al his­to­ry col­lec­tion can con­tin­ue to serve as a liv­ing library for thou­sands of vis­it­ing scientists…climate change per­mit­ting.

Access to the Muse­um of Nat­ur­al History’s col­lec­tions and data­bas­es result in the pub­li­ca­tion of hun­dreds of research papers and the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of hun­dreds of new species every year.

In addi­tion to pro­vid­ing valu­able intel­li­gence for research ini­tia­tives on such top­ics as dis­ease trans­mis­sion, vol­canic activ­i­ty, and of course, the effects of bird strikes on air­planes, muse­um staff is work­ing toward a goal of pre­serv­ing each item with a dig­i­tal scan — 9 mil­lion and count­ing…

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Smith­son­ian Design Muse­um Dig­i­tizes 200,000 Objects, Giv­ing You Access to 3,000 Years of Design Inno­va­tion & His­to­ry

The Smith­son­ian Puts 2.8 Mil­lion High-Res Images Online and Into the Pub­lic Domain

Smith­son­ian Dig­i­tizes & Lets You Down­load 40,000 Works of Asian and Amer­i­can Art

The Smith­son­ian Picks “101 Objects That Made Amer­i­ca”

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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