The hidden side of museums

Museums have been used by scientists to preserve and showcase everything from Apollo missile capsules to Pre-cambrian fossils. In modern times, museums serve as excellent community activity and education centers, but there is also a great deal of science that still happens behind the scenes.

Wikipedia informs me there are 136 different categories of museums, ranging from art museums to zoos and botanical gardens (who knew?), and there are roughly 55,000 museums in the world. Someone told me there used to be a museum in Worcester, MA that focused solely on battle armor and weapons. Why there was a random armory in the middle of Massachusetts, I have no idea, but given that it closed its doors in 2013 due to a lack of funding, other people seemed to have the same question. But this example speaks to the pervasiveness of museums in our society.

According to this article by CNN written in 2013, museums are leading the educational movements in America, investing $2 billion in educational programs for people of every age. They are huge tourist attractions, they serve as community activity centers, and they provide distractions from world-wide events and allow people to feel connected to something bigger (the Smithsonian in NY saw a huge spike in attendance after 9/11).

Along with everything they do for the public community, museums are also centers for the academic community. One of the unexpected perks of visiting graduate schools was touring the schools’ museums. Out of six school visits, four of the schools had museums and collections.  Here, I’ll start focusing in on natural history museums.

Museums vs Collections

What is the difference between a museum and a collection? Museums are generally public venues with select organisms and pieces on display for the visiting masses. The displays are chosen very carefully in each section, either to tell a story or to display the biodiversity of an area or a time.

Short side note, creating museum displays is incredibly hard. Studies have shown that the average museum goer spends less than 30 seconds looking at a display, with the average actually hovering somewhere around 10 seconds. Those precious few seconds are spent grazing or ‘speed reading,’ if you will. Going with that analogy, they’re not looking for a word-by-word comprehension of the page, but rather a general gist of the plot.  Designers and scientists have to choose what goes into a display to convey a certain plot or key point that can be understood with a 10-second glance by someone they’re assuming knows nothing about what’s behind the glass. A respectable number of museum goers never even look at the plaques. That’s…astounding to me. But then again, my family did the Louvre in about an hour, so I certainly can’t say too much. I’d like to think that 23yo me would appreciate the Louvre more than 13yo me did. Anywho…moving on.

Collections, on the other hand, are often private affairs, the behind-the-scenes of some of the bigger museums, if you will. You can have one without the other (like when you hear a fortune 500 CEO say he’s a collector of priceless artifacts–his items are private, meant solely for himself and his guests). However, it’s common for museums to be accompanied by collections. Generally speaking, for every individual item on display in a museum, there are dozens if not hundreds of pieces in the basement that aren’t displayed to the public. The Field Museum in Chicago says that less than 1% of its 30 million specimens are on display for the public to enjoy.

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This slideshow has images from the collections of the Field Museum in Chicago, the mammal/bird/insect collection at Harvard (located 3 floors beneath the Northwest Building, curated by Dr. Jim Hanken–he’s pulling out some of the collection draws), and the lab space of Dr. Paul Sereno at the University of Chicago (he’s the one in the denim shirt in the dinosaur skull photo and has a collection).

While you’re busy most likely not reading displays, some poor underpaid academic is probably two floors down comparing the morphology of a toad’s little toe across dozens of toad species in the collection.

The Logistics of Collections

As you might have guessed already, one of the primary uses of collections is to collect things. (I know at least one of you saw that coming.) This isn’t as easy as it sounds, because how do you preserve something once you’ve collected it?

For most fish, reptiles, and amphibians, the answer is easy. You stick it in a jar of alcohol. The slideshow below has pictures of multiple ways to preserve fish (and one picture is an aisle in the herpetology collection–you can see the snake coiled in one of the jars closest to me). So, obviously the first and most common method is to stop the decaying process of whatever it is you want to preserve with a formalin bath and then stick it in a glass or metal container filled with alcohol. Witness the aisles and aisles of jars and jars of alcohol-preserved specimens.

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An old-school way of preserving specimen is to dry, stuff, and paint them. There’s a picture or two of those fish hanging on a wall or stuffed in a drawer in the slideshow. Maybe your grandfather was a fisherman and he had a taxidermy-ed fish hanging on his den wall (mine did).

When you have 1.5 million specimens in jars of alcohol weighing somewhere between a few ounces and a hundred pounds each, that weight really adds up. This is why a lot of wet collections are housed in the basement–any floors above and the building would literally collapse in on itself from the weight. There’s also the issue of earthquakes and spills-alcohol is flammable and stinks to high heavens, so actually building suitably safe spaces, both for the specimens and the people, is difficult.

When you have dry specimens–namely everything not living in water–bugs and humidity are other main issues. The humidity problem is most often addressed by moving the collections into humidity-controlled rooms, which also tend to be below the building. For the bugs, every specimen goes through a rigorous drying and cleaning process, and then most standard collection rooms are in sealed rooms that prohibit food and drinks. Mostly everything is taxidermy-ed. Here’s a short video showing the process. Bones, fossils, and rocks are simply…stored.

If the specimens are kept in unsuitable conditions (not humidity controlled, for example),  the skin will crack and they’ll begin to fall apart, bones will begin to deteriorate, etc.

One of the main points against collections is that, simply by collecting, are we not contributing to the endangerment and extinction of some species? Going off the strict numbers, yes. But if you compare the few specimens collected to the potential hundreds if not thousands killed off by accident or hunting or for food every year, collecting doesn’t make that big of a difference, statistically.

Another argument against keeping collections is ‘technology’. Why not 3D scan and snap pictures of all the specimens, upload the data to an online database, and save billions of dollars every year in operating costs? Well, first of all, the fish collection alone at Harvard have million specimens. It would take a team of people multiple years to scan, photograph, and upload everything. Logistically, this undertaking is quite ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, museums and collections are already doing this, simply uploading photos and whatnot so people can see what we have and do some preliminary checking. But it’s a slow-going process, given that on average, a collection will have less than five people working to maintain it. Also, yes, we can scan and do everything possible with the technology available today. But let me point something out: think about the iPhone camera and just how much that camera technology has advanced in just 5 years. The technology will advance faster than we can photograph and scan collections. But let’s say we get it all done before any substantial tech devo; everything is scanned and online and collections are no more. But then you have a question about a feature that people weren’t able to capture with the technology they had–you need the actual, physical specimen to look at and compare. But it’s gone! What then?

TL;DR: physical collections are probably going nowhere fast because we can’t predict what questions people will ask and what technology will allow us to do in the future.

Using Collections for Science

Someone measuring something on a fossil of something in the Field Museum in Chicago. I took the picture, but I honestly have no clue, I’m sorry.

Of course the obvious thing people use collections for is to identify and compare unknown specimens to known and cataloged specimens. I’m assuming you know of the Zika epidemic currently building, right? Well, it turns out that the Zika virus is only carried by two species of the same mosquito genus, (Ae. aegypti and Ae. albopictus). Who found that out? How did they come to that conclusion? Somebody had to find a mosquito collection and compare samples of contaminated mosquitoes to known specimens.

People do comparative morphology studies. There’s a student here at Harvard who’s looking at how the horse evolved through history. The horse went from having 3 toes on each hoof to only one, and these loss of toes corresponds to when horses made the move from forest areas to flatlands and the change of diet. Why was it more advantageous to have one big hoof in the pastures and 3 in the forest? I’m putting my money on maneuverability requirements.


Back when DDT was starting its role as an important insecticide, ornithologists noticed how brittle the eggshells of certain bird species were becoming. They turned to collections. Scientists went back and measured how thick eggshells were for the years 1880 -1967 and then compared that data to the current measurements. They saw the drastic change and somewhere down the line they eventually reached the conclusion that DDT was the cause.


By integrating certain factors, you can get an idea of climate change and how different animals responded to them. You can compare the effects of invasive species on the native species. You can look at predator-prey relationships and how to warring species will co-evolve and adapt to whatever weapons and defenses the other comes up with.

The list goes on and on and on. Going through all the actual science that takes place in museums would be incredibly difficult and time consuming.

Now I’ll switch gears a bit and focus on the grants and fellowships available to scientists who want to use collections.

Each museum will generally have grants available to which scientists can apply to study something in the collection. To give you an idea of what these look like, let’s check out the Field Museum (a public museum) and the Harvard Natural History Museum (HNHM, a private museum).

The Field has 9 different programs and applications, each catering to a different audience (high school students, science educators, graduate students, undergraduate students, post-docs, and senior scientists, and scholars in general) and each for a different period of time (ranging between 6 weeks and 2 years). While the actual stipends aren’t stated on a lot of the programs, I expect they’ll at least cover living expenses for the duration of the program (which is pretty standard). The visiting professor program will cover Chicago living expenses but the rest of the salary should still come from the professor’s home university. The graduate fellowships look like they can completely replace whatever RA/TA stipend a student receives from their home university (up to $30,000). All of these are accompanied by a proof of english proficiency requirement and it seems priority will be given to applicants that want to use the collections for interdisciplinary research.

The HNHM funding is a bit trickier and a lot more limited than the Field’s because it’s a private museum. The Museum itself doesn’t appear to have any funding available to visiting scholars, but those scholars can apply to funding opportunities from the Museum of Comparative Zoology, a subsection of the HNHM. Specifically, the Ernst Mayr Travel Grants in Animal Systematics is open to anyone and focuses on stimulating taxonomic work on neglected taxa. The other grants in the MCZ are restricted to various levels of Harvard affiliates (professors, post-docs, grad students, and undergrads).

And of course there is governmental funding. For example, the NSF has something called the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology  (PRFB) and it focuses on these three tracks: (1) Broadening Participation of Groups Under-represented in Biology, (2) Research Using Biological Collections, and (3) National Plant Genome Initiative (NPGI) Postdoctoral Research Fellowships. However, like I mentioned in the GRFP posts, the NSF’s goals change year to year, decade to decade, and the buzzwords they want to hear also change. It even says in the solicitation (linked above): “These areas change periodically as new scientific and infrastructure opportunities present themselves. For this reason, this solicitation will be changed as necessary to reflect the areas being funded.” So while one of the PRFB’s tracks might be catering to what you study this year, it might not next year.

The second track has a section in the solicitation where it says:

This postdoctoral track seeks transformative approaches that use biological collections in highly innovative ways to address grand challenges in biology. Priority may be given to applicants who integrate biological collections and associated resources with other types of data in an effort to forge new insight into areas traditionally funded by BIO

In other words, to be competitive in the second track, you need to bring something new to the game. You can’t just get this fellowship for doing the same-old same-old in collections. For instance, you could apply with a project using XROMM (a very cool technology, definitely check it out) to study different biomechanical aspects across numerous mammal or bird species in the collection (or multiple collections).


There’s a lot that goes on beyond the museums’ “Restricted Access” doors. Several museums have Members’ Nights, where if you’re a paying member of the museum, the museum opens the collections for you to peruse and enjoy for a night. If you live near a museum, this would be something fun to do for a year every now and then.

But it has been really interesting to learn, especially for me, just how often scientists use collections and how they use them. They’re a lot more pervasive in modern science than I originally thought, and chances are they will become increasingly important.

Some Lite Reading

The Value of Museum Collections for Research and Society

I was inspired to write this blog through my various visits and tours at colleges and Harvard, and the podcast Inquiring Minds’ episode “The Stories That Collection Museums Hold.” It’s just over an hour long and you hear from three different specialists: the Chief Curiosity Correspondent from the Field Museum, the Chief of Science at the California Academy of Sciences, and the chairman and curator of CAS’s ornithology and mammology department. Well worth the listen. I got a lot of my information here from that podcast.

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