Thursday, March 03, 2016

Natural History Museum Infrastructure

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, research

Just over three years ago I posted about my impending retirement, noting that I intended to volunteer with at least a couple of organizations. In mid-February 2013, I began to volunteer as a Historical Interpreter at the Hagley Museum. For a year or so I was there about weekly, but now it is more like monthly, for reasons I'll relate below—nothing bad about Hagley!

The second place is the Delaware Museum of Natural History. I began there also in February 2013, learning how to prepare specimen labels for the mollusks (seashells) and how to put away the lots in the cabinets. In a mollusk shell collection a "lot" refers to one or more shells that were collected at a particular location on a specific date. Usually they are in a box of appropriate size.

This image shows a tray of lots ready to be put away. These are all in boxes that fit into a space 3 inches (76 mm) wide, but there are plenty of mollusk species that must be put in larger boxes, and a few for which the five or so shells in the lot take up an entire tray. If you look closely, you'll see that while most of the boxes are paperboard, two are plastic boxes with lids, and also that smaller shells are put in a cotton-stopped vial in the lot box. Small numbers of the littlest shells are put in a gelatin capsule, and that goes in a small vial, in the lot box.

Over a few weeks' time, lunchtime conversation turned to what I'd done in my "prior life". When the curator and the collection manager learned that I knew something about databases, they immediately had a wholly different line of work for me to do! They were just beginning a project to change their database software from Access to a museum-oriented product called Specify, and they desperately needed help with that, and with the requisite data cleansing.

Here is a riddle: What is the difference between a Hoard (or more politely, an Accumulation) and a Collection?

The answer? The Index. An index is a database.

Here is what the original museum "database" looks like:


Some time in the 1980's they had a large enough contingent of volunteers, and an energetic collection manager, and were able to get nearly all the data in these ledgers into a DB5 database. I have found since that a major portion of one of the ledger books was skipped, but that is a tale for another day. After about 20 years, they had a software service company convert the DB5 database to Microsoft Access, which they were using when I began showing up.

The mollusk collection contains at least 250,000 lots and comprises about 2 million shells. I was asked if I could clean up the geographic data for about 15% of the collection, the land snails (formally terrestrial snails, such as garden snails and the large tree snails found in the tropics). This came to 38,000 lots. I did so in about two years of working, much of that at home, on data extracted to Excel. I learned a great deal about correcting misspellings and other anomalies and inconsistencies, and how to read handwritten labels in several languages!

This image shows a few lots and how they are arranged in a tray. The species Moulinsia fusca is a tropical land snail. The full name of a species also includes a reference to the publication in which it was first described: Moulinsia fusca (Gray, 1840). The parentheses indicate that fusca was formerly in a different genus but has been reclassified. The subspecies erythrostoma was described by M├Âllendorff, but we don't currently know the date he published it. The yellow label is the species header label for the tray. The pink label indicates that the lot with catalog number 135277 is a Paratype, and is located in the Type Lot Cabinet. This museum has a few thousand types, which are the specimens originally used to describe new species (Holotype), or other specimens collected with the holotype—one shell in a lot chosen as the exemplar—that help describe the variation in the species (Paratype). There are other sorts of Types, such as Topotype or Lectotype, which I have to look up when I forget their meaning.

In each lot box, earlier labels that came with the lot are kept under the new label created by this museum. Museums don't throw anything away! I frequently find information on the original label that didn't make it to the more recent label(s).

As I got more involved with the land snail project, I had to cut back my volunteering to Hagley to twice a month, then once. I love being a historical interpreter, but I love working with the shells even more.

Starting a year ago, the curator and several of her colleagues at other American museums received a grant to support data conversion of selected portions of the collection into Specify, mentioned above, which facilitates getting the data available on the Internet. I got the chance to do the same kind of work, and be paid! That's what I've been doing for the past year. I had finished the geography of the land snails in two years. As a paid contractor, I did not only geography but taxonomic reconciliation and correction/regularization of dates and the names of collectors, donors and other people, first for the freshwater clams and mussels, a smaller project of about 7,500 lots. Having finished those I am currently working with freshwater snails, with about 8,000 lots.

I have encountered many fascinating species, and decided that I'd present certain ones as I come across them, so from time to time I'll do so, and also continue to write about things that happen behind the scenes of a natural history museum.

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