Why Do You People Have So Much Stuff?

Dinosaur models, mounted specimens and field-jacketed specimens in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Nature.“Why do you people have so much stuff?” That is a question that museum staff hear all the time, especially those of us who are responsible for the organization and preservation of collections. Here at the Canadian Museum of Nature, we care for more than 10 million specimens—as small as diatoms and as large as dinosaurs. The collections have been assembled by museum staff for more than 160 years. They are collected from all over Canada, as well as around the world.

Shelves with jars containing fish specimens preserved in ethanol.

Whole fish specimens are preserved for future research in ethanol solutions.

We occasionally hold special tours for the public of our research and collections facility. (In celebration of Earth Month, we will hold an Open House on Saturday, April 30, 2011.) People are always amazed at what we have—shelves full of beautiful mineral formations ranging from deep purple amethyst to green fluorites, cabinets with delicate Arctic-willow (Salix arctica) plants collected in the High Arctic and carefully mounted on paper stock, glass jars containing beautifully preserved fish or big bullfrogs… And we do not preserve just two of each—we have row upon row and shelf after shelf of plant and animal specimens!

First and foremost, collections are data in physical form. They are the evidence or proof of someone’s research. If you apply the principles of the scientific method, you always ensure that the evidence to support your observations can be reviewed by others, tested, and verified or rejected.

A Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) perched on a garage roof.

A Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) hen I photographed on the garage roof in my backyard, in March 2009.

If I said, “I saw a Wild Turkey in the yard today,” you might take that at face value and accept that as possible, especially if you thought I lived in a rural part of the Greenbelt that surrounds Ottawa. You might have your doubts if I told you I live near Westboro, which is an urban area west of Parliament Hill. That might prompt you to ask me if I took a picture of my “visitor”—that is one form of evidence.

But imagine if I then told you that my feathered friend was spotted walking along a fenceline in Iqualuit, Nunavut; you would be right to demand more evidence because that type of bird cannot live in that kind of climate. Having a preserved bird specimen in a collection, with a record of where it was collected, when and by whom, offers up evidence that can be viewed and verified.

An open herbarium cabinet, with an open folder showing vascular plant specimens on a herbarium sheet.

Vascular plant specimens are dried, mounted onto card stock and filed in cabinets.

So here we are, surrounded by the evidence of scientists studying freshwater mussels today, along with plants collected in 1885 by the museum’s first botanist, John Macoun.

If someone wants to understand all the variety of size and colour in a bird species such as the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula), we have dozens of examples: male and female, adult and juvenile, some from Saskatchewan, some from Nova Scotia, as well as some collected when Queen Victoria was on the throne, along with others collected in the last few years.

Collections staff are proud to be the keepers of this evidence and think of it as Canada’s memory. The real measure of our success will be that these examples of Canada’s flora and fauna and mineral record will be around for our great-grandchildren to enjoy and appreciate!

Further Reading

The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections is an international organization devoted to the preservation, conservation and management of natural history collections.
http://www.spnhc.org

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