Finding a new home for a researcher’s valuable collection

“Finally, it’s here!”, I exclaimed after waiting three weeks for a delivery all the way from Newfoundland. But suddenly, my anxiety and stress level ramped up with the realization that my next few months (and probably more) would be spent extracting, sorting and recording this huge bounty of scientific material.

Shelves with jars containing marine specimens.

Original storage of the Steele Collection (one of 11 shelving units) before the material was packed for shipment to the museum. Image: Jean-Marc Gagnon © Canadian Museum of Nature

But let me start at the beginning. I was a couple of weeks away from visiting my son and daughter in St. John’s, Newfoundland, when I received a call from Dr. John Green, a retired professor at Memorial University. After exchanging a few pleasantries (which were well overdue since we had not seen or talked to each other in nearly a decade), John informed me that a colleague and friend of his, Dr. Don Steele, had recently passed away. Dr. Steele had left behind a collection of marine invertebrates that needed to be moved very soon.

I knew Dr. Steele fairly well since I did my Ph.D. at Memorial a couple of decades ago, at a time when he and his wife were active researchers there. They each invested more than 30 years studying mostly marine invertebrates, and particularly small crustaceans belonging to a group called Amphipods.

Knowing that I would be attending my daughter’s wedding in St. John’s at the end of June, I reserved an extra day to visit the university. I met up with John and we headed to the location of the collection where Don’s son (Sean) and daughter-in-law (Wendy) described the situation. What follows is the beginning of an adventure I will not forget…

Four stacked books from the library of Dr. Don Steele.

Examples of some of the old publications making up the large personal library of Dr. Don Steele. Illustrated here, the four volumes of Le règne animal by Georges Cuvier (1817). Image: Jean-Marc Gagnon © Canadian Museum of Nature

Picture this: Two reasonably large offices filled wall-to-wall and nearly up to the ceiling with books, invertebrates (either in jars or dried) and many other items such as microscopes, sampling gear and even a cannon cartridge shell. It is now clear that Dr. Steele was a passionate collector of many things. Being a kindred spirit, it was difficult for me not to jump in and say, “I’ll take it all!”

There were many interesting things, but my attention was drawn to some of the books. Amongst the hundreds of volumes—from the specialised taxonomy texts to what seemed to be the complete series of novels by Margaret Atwood—were several antique biology texts dating back to the late 1700s and early 1800s. I was in awe (and salivating…).

Fortunately, to ease the work of evaluating the invertebrate collection (which was really the purpose of my visit), Sean and Wendy had already spent a few days clearing surfaces as well as a path to get to the collection. Like the books, I did not anticipate the research samples to be so numerous. It was only later, once I had a chance to review my photos, that I estimated the extent of his collection at approximately 2,400 jars and vials.

A jar containing vials of a species of crustacean.

One of the hundreds of jars containing multiple vials of specimens collected by Dr. Steele during his career at Memorial University of Newfoundland. In this jar, the vials contain many specimens of the amphipod crustacean Gammarus duebeni, a species commonly found in the North Atlantic Ocean. Image: Jean-Marc Gagnon © Canadian Museum of Nature

By now, I was facing the difficult decision of what to do with the collection. A quick call and visit from a colleague at The Rooms (the provincial museum of Newfoundland & Labrador) confirmed my feeling that the collection has a good research value and is worth preserving. But as far as its ultimate destination, it was also clear that The Rooms was not in a position to accept it. Also, the fact that the collection contains mostly crustaceans suggested that a better destination would be the Canadian Museum of Nature, where we already have a strong collection and active research on the subject. This new material would certainly fill gaps for species found around Newfoundland.

And so, I proceeded to informally accept custody and start planning the packing and move to the museum’s collections and research facility in Gatineau. But the logistics of accomplishing this within a few days was no small feat. Unfortunately, I was scheduled to leave St. John’s a day later and could not assist with the packing.

Want to know what came next? Read my next blog about the challenges of packing, delivering and then sorting through a major collection to make it accessible for future research.

About Jean-Marc Gagnon

Curator, Invertebrate Section, Canadian Museum of Nature. Conservateur, Division des invertébrés, Musée canadien de la nature. President, Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (2010-2012) (www.spnhc.org)
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One Response to Finding a new home for a researcher’s valuable collection

  1. Pingback: Part 2 – Finding a home for a researcher’s valuable collection | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

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