Part 2 – Finding a home for a researcher’s valuable collection

Dr. Jean-Marc Gagnon, the museum’s Curator of Invertebrates, received a special treat this summer with the delivery of a large collection that had been developed by a researcher at Memorial University in Newfoundland. In a previous blog, Jean-Marc described the circumstances that connected him with the collection in the first place. Now, he explains the next steps to examine, sort and catalogue this valuable legacy.

My journey to St. John’s, Newfoundland to see the collection of Dr. Don Steele was brief but confirmed that it would be an important collection to bring into the Canadian Museum of Nature.

I can only imagine the many hours that Sean (Dr. Steele’s son) and his wife Wendy spent clearing up specimens from the two office spaces during what should have been their family vacation time—not to mention all the books they had to pack and move to the residence in St. John’s until they could find someone interested in acquiring them.

Well, three days later, they securely packed all the research samples into 100 bankers’ boxes and delivered them to my son’s warehouse in St. John’s for temporary storage. This delivery comprised four large pallets (4 ft. x 4 ft. x 4 ft.); clearly a great effort by them and a significant imposition from me on my son. Finally, after addressing a few packaging and transport details, the four pallets started their three-week journey to safely arrive at the museum’s loading dock in Gatineau on August 7.

Stacks of boxes containing the Steele collection sit on wooden pallets.

The material from Dr. Don Steele’s collection arrived at the Natural Heritage Campus packed in bankers’ boxes, with a plastic liner in each box in case of breakage. The boxes were stacked on large pallets, stretch-wrapped and transported by truck from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Image: Jean-Marc Gagnon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

You may wonder what’s next after all this. Well, it was certainly not an easy task to get all this material to the museum’s collections facility. It’s a rare occasion for the museum to get large collections from retired researchers, but when it does happen (probably every decade or so for invertebrates), such collections usually require a fair bit of work to make them freely available to everyone as part of the national natural history collection. These collections are three-dimensional in nature, but not just because of the actual objects—the scientific data (taxonomic, temporal and geographic) attached to these objects through the course of discovery and research are extremely valuable.

Jar of dried specimens of an amphipod.

In this jar, dry specimens of the scavenging amphipod Anonyx nugax were collected in the Canadian Arctic, just east of Igloolik during a sampling cruise on the small research vessel M/V Calanus. Image: Jean-Marc Gagnon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

So, after emptying all the boxes and laying out the material on shelves, we’ll start sorting it by taxonomic groups. We will also identify samples that have deteriorated to a point where they have lost all their value to science; fortunately, that is only true for a few samples. Then, for the samples that we will keep, each one will be matched with data contained in a series of field notes; labels containing all the collecting information can then be produced.

Since the ethanol used to preserve most samples has evaporated to various degrees over time, we’ll have to replace it with the proper 70% concentration; most lids will also be replaced with better quality ones. And after a few other necessary steps, each catalogued sample will find its way into the proper location in the collection.

Sounds relatively simple, doesn’t it! In reality, it will probably call for a fair bit of detective work as we try to figure out which sample comes from where. And of course, there will be the long and somewhat tedious processing of the material so that it can be preserved for at least 100 years. After all, this collection is part of Canada’s natural heritage.

Jean-Marc Gagnon and a volunteer stand beside a shelving unit in the museum’s collections.

Jean-Marc Gagnon (right) and volunteer Ken McMillan examine the Steele Collection to lay down a plan of action to process it. The specimens are safely stored in one the many collections rooms at the Natural Heritage Campus specifically designed for alcohol and formaldehyde-preserved samples. Image: Jean-Marc Gagnon © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In future blogs, I hope to report some of the interesting findings as we go through this material—I suspect we’ll find some scientifically valuable specimens in there.

Read the previous blog about this collection:

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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