The Awe of Natural History Collections

Darwin 200 / by Carl Zimmer /

Visiting the hidden side of natural history museums, where the vast collections of scientific specimens are kept.

CLICK FOR SLIDESHOW. “The Waiting Room,” from the Saved by Science series by Justine Cooper.

A natural history museum is really two museums, and when you’re in one of them, you can hardly imagine the other. I don’t know how many times I’ve wandered around the halls of the American Museum of Natural History, among the armored fish and the stegosaurs. But it wasn’t until I was a 26-year-old science writer that I had the chance to pass through to the other side. I wanted to learn about pterosaurs, those stork-faced, bat-bodied reptiles that soared for 150 million years. I found out about a Brazilian man named Alexander Kellner who was getting his Ph.D. at the museum, studying new fossils of pterosaurs from the Santana Formation. Kellner invited me to the museum, to take a look at the bones and talk about his ideas about what pterosaurs had actually been like in life.

I followed his directions and came to the Grand Gallery. I waited by the Great Canoe, and eventually a gangly paleontologist emerged from the acoustic fog of school groups on field trips. He led me through exhibit halls, and then, between two dioramas, he stopped. At first I thought he was lost in thought, and then maybe that he had forgotten something. There was no reason, after all, to stop by a dim wall between a pair of displays. But then I heard keys ringing in Kellner’s hand. He slipped one into an invisible lock, and the wall swung open. We slid through and Kellner locked the door behind us. I was in the other museum.

“You’ve never been back here?” Kellner asked. The answer was obvious; I was staring like a gob-smacked tourist at the rows of storage cabinets, which loomed overhead like wardrobes for giants. I knew that natural history museums kept fossils and other objects in storage, but I assumed that most of their material was on display, back in the other world. As we walked down long hallways, with drawer after drawer pressing in on either side, I realized how wrong I was. We could look into rooms as we passed, most of them with cabinets and drawers of their own. Kellner reached out to a hallway drawer and opened it. A hip bone from a dinosaur sat inside, knobbed and flared like a Calder sculpture.

It was the first of many journeys I’ve since taken to the other side of museums. Scientists love to show off their collections by pulling drawers open at random, the way Kellner did — exposing me to an army of flies from Peru neatly pinned to slips of paper, or a flock of lyrebirds lying on their backs as if dozing in a collective nap. I’ve gawked at fossil whale feet and jars of tapeworms, at leeches and Mesozoic ferns. But Justine Cooper’s photographs at the American Museum of Natural History take me back to that first shock. They capture the crowded stillness of those halls, the unexpected treasures. The seals in the attic.

Cooper’s photographs belong to an artistic tradition that reaches back over four centuries, to the origins of natural history museum collections themselves. In the 1500s, illustrators began to publish engravings of “cabinets of wonders” — where Renaissance monarchs housed personal collections of exotic oddities, like bizarre deep-sea fish, glittering crystals, exquisitely geometrical shells. Kings and queens would retire to these cabinets to contemplate nature, or just use them to dazzle their visitors.

Gradually, royalty’s cabinets of wonders turned into libraries of flesh and rock, where scholars could research the workings of the world. Ole Worm, a 17th-century anatomist, became famous for his collection of narwhal skulls, stuffed lemurs, dried armadillos, and other natural specimen. Museum Wormianum, an illustrated catalogue of Worm’s collection, was published posthumously in 1655, and what makes his illustration so mesmerizing is the strange way in which nature’s fractal beauty appears so unnaturally organized. It’s the same jarring effect seen in Cooper’s photographs of modern natural history collections.

Museum collections may have their roots in the obsession of collectors and the public’s love of oddities, but they’ve always served much greater ambitions. Worm used his collection to teach his students: “Let us take off the spectacles that show us the shadows of things instead of the things themselves,” he wrote. In the 1700s, a worldwide system for naming species arose, which depended on museums to preserve the original type specimens that naturalists used to name them.

By the mid-1700s, naturalists were using collections of fossils to study the history of life on this planet, discovering dynasties of diatoms and conodonts that gave way to revolutionary new assemblages of species. Charles Darwin had some of his deepest insights into evolution while spending years studying fossils of barnacles from the British museum. And Ernst Mayr, the German ornithologist, developed the central explanation for the origin of species while curating a collection of bird skins at the American Museum of Natural History. As he studied the plumage of the birds and charted them on maps, he began to develop a theory for how new species arose through geographic isolation.

Cooper’s photographs show how, over the course of centuries, museum collections grow into their own cumbersome beasts that require much care and feeding. It is no simple task to conserve these collections. Their information remains embodied in tissue and stone, even in an age in which we prefer our information abstracted and digitized, coursing without mass along fiber-optic cables. Earlier this year, a team of scientists unveiled the Encyclopedia of Life, an online repository of knowledge that they hope will someday contain data on every species that calls this planet home. One could imagine that each species page might someday include a DNA barcode, high-resolution photos of its exterior, MRI scans of its interior, and movies of it in the wild. On the morning of its launch this past February, the Encyclopedia of Life attracted 11.5 million visitors — so much traffic that it crashed the servers. That’s more than twice the number of people who visit the American Museum of Natural History in a year.

Yet it would be a catastrophe if museums offloaded their pickled fish and stuffed lizards every time a species made its Internet debut. We can never declare a collection of walking sticks or kangaroo rats exhausted of all its secrets. In 1856 quarry workers in Germany unearthed some mysterious fossil bones that became the type specimen of Homo neanderthalensis — the Neanderthals. Naturalists made drawings of the bones and carefully compared them to humans, but were unable at that time to conclude whether Neanderthals were human or belonged to another species. The bones were moved to the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn, which has cared for them ever since. A few years ago researchers managed to extract DNA from the bones — a molecule that was unknown when the fossil was discovered. After analyzing the DNA, scientists concluded that Neanderthals are a separate lineage from our own, sharing a common ancestor with us that lived some 600,000 years ago.

Museum collections also uniquely capture nature’s variety across space — a tray of butterflies can reveal the flow of genes across a river basin, the rise of new mutations, and the effects of genetic drift and natural selection — as well as time. The collections at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, include a trove of mice, gophers, and other small mammals collected in Yosemite National Park in the early 1900s. A century later, scientists from Berkeley went back to those exact sites and trapped for mammals once more. It was not an exercise in redundancy. The scientists discovered that mammals have moved up the slopes due to climate change. They are an ominous reminder that the collections that Cooper so lovingly portrays are not just a repository of the past, but a stake in our future.

    Darwin 200More From Our Darwin 200 Celebration.

Originally published February 12, 2009

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