I’m standing in Warehouse 2 in the museum’s research and collections facility looking at 225 stacked metal cabinets. Lane cabinets, to be exact. It took five trucks to haul them up from the US. The warehouse, which looked so huge when it was empty, is now so tightly packed, I can barely see the walls!

A man stands beside towering ranges of stacked boxes.
Warehouse Manager Stephane Gratton organized the transfer of the 225 cabinets from the trucks to our warehouse. Image: Kathlyn Stewart © Canadian Museum of Nature

Lane cabinets are heavy-duty cabinets that are each 74 × 76 × 81 cm (29″ × 30″ × 32″) with 10 shelves. They are made specifically for storing natural-history specimens.

These cabinets will potentially be home to tens of thousands of fossil specimens and minerals at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Where did these specimens come from and why? To answer this, we need to take a trip back in time.

A portrait of a man sitting in a chair.
William Logan, 1856
Artist: George Theodore Berthon
Gift of the Geological Survey of Canada
Canadian Museum of History, 2007.171.223, IMG2008-0209-0057-Dm

Back in 1842, the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC)—Canada’s first scientific agency—came into being. William Logan, its first director, had the ambitious goal of the GSC undertaking a geological assessment of the complete Canadian landmass. Not long after, several geologists—including Logan—were scattered throughout Canada, mapping geological formations and collecting rocks, minerals and fossils.

During this Age of Exploration, so many minerals and fossils were collected that Logan established the Geological Museum in Montréal, Quebec, for their storage and display to the public.

Eventually, the GSC headquarters and museum collections moved to Ottawa, and in 1911 the museum collections found a “permanent” home in a newly constructed building, known as the Victoria Memorial Museum Building (VMMB). Here, their spectacular collections could be displayed to a large audience.

A fossil exposed in a flat rock.
A trilobite (Olenoides serratus) from the Late Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale, Yoho National Park, British Columbia. Specimen at Geological Survey of Canada (W.E. Logan Hall, 601 Booth Street, Ottawa). Image: Jean Dougherty © Geological Survey of Canada

The VMMB and its collections were an instant success with the public. Continued success resulted in expanding collections, but increasingly less space. In 1959, the GSC moved its collections and staff to its present location on Booth Street in Ottawa. The National Museum of Natural Sciences, having been separated from the GSC in 1927, remained in the building. (The National Museum of Natural Sciences is a precursor to the Canadian Museum of Nature).

The move meant that big decisions needed to be made on dividing the geological and fossil collections between the GSC and the museum. It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall for those discussions! In the end, most of the rock, mineral, fossil invertebrate and plant collections went with the GSC. The botany, zoology, fossil vertebrates and cultural collections remained with the museum at the VMMB.

Three mollusc fossils and a leaf fossil.
Plant and mollusc fossils collected by G.M. Dawson in the 1880s. Image: Jean Dougherty © Geological Survey of Canada

Today, the GSC collections remain at the Booth Street complex, under the umbrella of National Resources Canada (NRCan). Recently, for various reasons, it has been decided that these buildings will be vacated. In late 2013, the NRCan Assistant Deputy Minister expressed NRCan’s interest in having the Canadian Museum of Nature curate their fossil invertebrate and mineral collections. A Memorandum of Agreement was drafted, stating in part that NRCan and the museum would collaborate to “ensure that the geological national collections are curated and managed to modern standards”.

A group of people pose for the camera.
The Geological Survey of Canada (GSC)–Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) Collections Transfer Working Group.
Back row, left to right: Kathy Stewart (Research Scientist and Section Head, Palaeobiology, CMN), Ann Therriault (Manager, Earth Materials Collections, GSC), Scott Ercit (Research Scientist and Section Head, Mineralogy, CMN), Kieran Shepherd (Curator, Palaeobiology Collection, CMN).
Front row, left to right: Cathryn Bjerkelund (Sub-Division Head, Geology and Metallogeny, Central Canada Division, GSC), Michelle Coyne (Curator, Organic Materials, GSC), Shannon Asencio (Head, Collections Services and Information Management, CMN). Image: Kathlyn Stewart © Canadian Museum of Nature

From there, the ball started rolling quickly. A working group was set up. From the first meeting it was clear that the GSC staff loved their collections and were reluctant to see them leave the GSC. But, it was also clear that the building that housed these collections had deficiencies that put the collections at risk. The Canadian Museum of Nature, with its much newer collections facilities, could provide a better standard of care for the collections. The idea of transferring at least some of the GSC collections to the museum—as a loan or permanently—took shape.

The working group has met frequently, hammering out the steps to be taken in the transfer. This is not a job for the faint of heart! The total fossil invertebrate and mineral collection occupies something like a whopping 2600 cabinets at GSC, far more than can be accommodated at the museum’s collection facility. The working group has chosen for now to focus on a more workable number of 500 cabinets. These would include the type collections and several smaller orphan or at-risk collections.

A large room filled with stacks of boxes.
The receipt of 225 empty cabinets is the first step in the transfer. Next, we will move the first specimens, the equivalent of 35 cabinets, and carefully store them here at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Image: Kathlyn Stewart © Canadian Museum of Nature

Right now, we are celebrating the first step in the actual transfer: the receipt of the new cabinets, mentioned above. Our next challenge will be to carry out a preliminary dry run of packing, transporting and unpacking about 35 cabinets of specimens, some highly fragile, and then moving them into the new cabinets. The number of people and the amount of time and resources involved in this pilot project will allow us to estimate what is needed for the much larger project.

We’ll keep you posted how things go…