What’s In the EcoTarium’s Cellar?

Nobody knows what’s in the EcoTarium’s cellar.  Seriously, not even me, and I’m our Collections Management Specialist.  Only about 1% of our collection is on display, which is perfectly usual for a museum.  However, we’ve only catalogued about 25% of what we have- the rest is a mystery. Sorting this out is my job.

Our collection is very old, which is part of why it’s so mysterious.  It began in 1825, when the EcoTarium was founded as the Worcester Lyceum of Natural History.  We’re the second oldest science museum in the United States; the country was less than 50 years old at that point,  and still trying to make a name for itself as something other than Britain’s bratty colony. One way to do that was by showing the world what we had to offer scientifically.

At that time, the plants and animals of the Americas were not well known.  Carl Linnaeus had started trying to categorize every living thing in Sweden in 1735, and he and his students had made pretty good progress on Europe by the 1800s.  However, they had only been able to catalog American specimens that had been sent to them on ships. They had no way of knowing about any plant or animal that lived too far from the ocean, and had only dead specimens of anything that couldn’t survive a long trip.  

Scientists living in Worcester had a unique opportunity to see plants and animals that lived far from the sea, and to observe them living in their natural habitats.  Not content to just watch, they collected specimens- pressed plants, bird feathers, and taxidermy mammals. The Lyceum was founded as a way for these scientists to show off their collections and learn from one another.  

They were very enthusiastic. Some of them collected specimens faster than they could keep track.  Others might have kept track really well, but the only record was in a notebook or a set of file cards, and it’s easy to lose track when you mix a dozen or more collections in together.  That’s where we are now- we have a storage room with an estimated 55,000 specimens and a handful of notebooks. Luckily for me, I don’t have to sort this out all by myself.

To start with, we have experts going through our specimens to identify what they are, and sometimes even when and where they were collected.  Currently, Ed Nieburger of the American Malacological Society and Martha Gach of the Massachusetts Audubon Society are working on our seashells and birds, respectively. After they are done, volunteers like Steve Hubbard and Lynn Winchenbach take photographs and record some basic data.  Other volunteers, like Leslie Seymour, enter the data and make the pictures available online.

That is the EcoTarium’s goal- not just to figure out what we have, but to make sure that everyone else can find out, too.  Because our collection is so old, it has specimens of animals that used to be common, but have since gone extinct, like the Passenger Pigeon.  And because our collection is so broad, we have specimens that have always been rare. Murat Receivik, an expert who retired last year, uncovered a remarkable collection of jewel-colored Philippine land snails that are still almost unknown to science.  By making our specimens available online, we can show them to scientists who are conducting related research.  

Marty Christiansen is the EcoTarium’s Collections Management Specialist.  He has a degree in Anthropology from Wellesley College and a Master’s in Museum Studies from Harvard College, but his real qualifications are that he has enjoyed putting things in neat rows since he was three and has been fascinated with skulls since he was seven.  This is his dream job.

For instance, in our large collection of whelk shells, Mr. Nieburger has found evidence of ocean acidification.  The newer shells have much thinner walls than the older ones, showing the difficulty that the snails were having in keeping their shells strong against increased levels of carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean.  Similarly, Dr. Gach says that historical collections of songbirds demonstrate that their body sizes have decreased over the past 50 years, reflecting the way that human-mediated climate change has made it harder for them to find food.  Because our collection extends further back than other museums, we could provide additional evidence to the researchers, allowing them to test their hypothesis. We want to fulfil our founders’ scientific ambitions by sharing their collections with the world.

For more information about climate change, and to get a peek at some of our seldom-seen specimens, please come to our Community Curators exhibit, opening January 11.