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A Trip to the Harvard University Museums
Inside the Harvard Museum of Natural History, on display behind glass cases, are tip-of-the-iceberg objects. These are what more than 200,000 visitors a year come to see. They include striking displays of ornate beetles, mounted specimens of birds with brilliant feathers, ancient fossils, and hand-crafted, glass replicas of flowers and sea creatures. The quality of these objects is high, as is the rarity of many, and the caliber of the permanent, public displays bespeaks the wealth of what is not flaunted.
On Tuesday, the REU students (and a couple of very fortunate proctors), were treated to a glimpse of that immensity of data, specimens, and specially-made containment units, which is the true body of the Harvard University Museums.
We began the day at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), where the museum director, Linda Ford, had arranged for us to receive guided tours of the herpetology and ornithology collections. Collection Manager Jose Rosada showed us examples of salamanders that are new to science, giant tortoise shells, and many skins of snakes and alligators. We observed the old files of note cards containing hand-written data on specimens, and next to them the newer files of colored notecards, which allowed records to be organized geographically. Technology has changed the work of the curatorial staff in the MCZ several times in the past thirty years. Now, data are digital as well as physical. While computers have made the process of finding data on physical specimens, whether based on region or taxon, a matter of key strokes, engineering technology has allowed for the creation of stainless-steel drawers that can be filled with ethanol to allow for better storage and preservation of specimens. Thus, the herpetology archives are a repository, not just for specimens, but for the evolving methods used to preserve and catalogue those specimens.
In the ornithology archives, new archival cabinets hold thousands of skins, nests, eggs, and cotton-stuffed, feathered forms. Despite the modern housing, a large portion of the specimens in the collection (which includes representatives of over 80% of the world’s bird species), date back to the 1800s and earlier. Jeremiah Trimble, the ornithology collection manager, and Curatorial Assistant Katherine Eldridge led us around. They rolled wall-sized cabinets together and apart, opening galleries and giving us access to the shelves. We admired the hummingbirds, with their iridescent, physical color – a result of the microscopic structure of their feathers, which only reflect light of certain wavelengths (for us, wavelength translates to color) in certain directions. From hummingbirds we scaled-up to condors, emus, and albatrosses, and learned a little about migration patterns, diversity, and coevolution between birds and the flowers they pollinate.
In the afternoon, we gathered at the Harvard University Herbaria. Curatorial and Research Associate Michaela Schmull greeted us and introduced us to Dr. David Boufford. Dr. Boufford is a senior research scientist at the herbaria, and studies plants inhabiting one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots on the edge of the Himalayan Plateau. He showed us images of species that have transparent, window-like leaves and others that are covered by dense, long hairs, making them appear almost animal. Gretchen Wade, the research and collection development librarian, then demonstrated for us the online tools available to the students this summer as they conduct their research. These tools include an immense library of images and texts that have been digitized and can be called up on the computers back at the Harvard Forest.
Our trip down into the archives of the Herbaria was a notably different experience from the tours earlier in the day. The archival cabinets were there, as were the books, computers, and filing systems just as in the other collections, but looking at corpses of plants is simply different from looking at corpses of animals, as some of the students pointed out with relief. Emily Wood, the senior collections associate, delighted us with anecdotes and historical information associated with a handful of prized plant specimens and documents, which were laid out for us to see.
It is rare for a person to truly comprehend the full magnitude of specimens, data, and staff upon which museums rely, but having even a rough idea of it changes how one is likely to regard the tip-of-the-iceberg objects that comprise the main museum exhibits.