Thursday, December 15, 2016

Valuable Volunteers at the Museum

kw: natural history, museums, volunteers

At least a few days per week, from my desk along the side wall of the mollusk collections room of the Delaware Museum of Natural History, when I look to my left, I see something like this. This day there are three volunteers on duty.

No museum—indeed, no nonprofit organization—can function without volunteers. I think museum volunteers have some of the best "jobs" going (but I am a science geek; what do I know?).

The Collections Manager at DMNH is also the Volunteer Manager. Of the daunting variety of tasks needed to care for a large seashell collection, he must prioritize and assign them, and also perform many himself (a couple of years ago there was a "herself"). At the moment, much work is being done on shells from a couple of new donations, and updating some existing material.

Here the woman sitting nearest me is labeling specimens. That little Coffee Bean Cowrie is just about the smallest shell that can be practically written on with a "00" nib India Ink pen. The first four digits of 121472 are already there, and she graciously paused long enough for a photo. (The number indicates this is some re-work on older material. New material is getting numbers above 240,000.)

The policy is, if a lot has 30 shells or fewer, and the shells are large enough, they are each numbered. Considering that the average size of a lot is seven shells, and that most shells are indeed larger than a fingernail, that comes to a lot of inking! Where they are too small or too numerous to number individually the shells are not put in an open box but into a lidded plastic container or vial.

This man is identifying shells, as is the other. We don't expect volunteers to be experts, but nearly anyone with good eyesight (and a magnifier or microscope if needed, and this fellow has one within arms' reach) and a good reference book can match a shell with a picture.

Online references are improving all the time, including WoRMS, the World Register of Marine Species, which he and the other man have up on their screens.

Most preliminary identification can be done by volunteers, and then the Collections Manager can verify their work. Sometimes, the species cannot be fully discerned at first, and the volunteer reports only the genus. In all cases, to make sure an identification is up to date, the literature is searched to see if a specialist has renamed a species or lumped it into another species. Then the identification (now called a determination once it is verified) is recorded for that lot.

The third volunteer of the day was working on a different donation, shells from Papua New Guinea, collected by a former ambassador. The standard reference to shells from that huge island's seas can be seen next to the specimen tray. Tropical shells are the most fun to work with. They are beautiful, incredibly varied, and species are usually easier to distinguish from one another, compared to the mud snails with which I have spent the past year!

Few museum volunteers work more than a day or two per week, and those are frequently short days of 4-5 hours. But their work adds up. The time spent by these three volunteers amounts to about 3/4 of a full-time person; and there are a few more volunteers who work on other days. Even more, as our lunchtime banter attests, having a few volunteers around makes the work a lot less lonely, compared to a couple of folks sharing a huge room with two million seashells.

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