A blog about scientific and medical visualization and all that’s involved.

Tours of the Museum Collections

Posted by Janet on July 18, 2009

One of the neat things about being an intern at the Smithsonian is the intern activities. Being 30 minutes away from the main building, we usually can’t attend the lunchtime discussions. The Museum Support Center (MSC) where I work, however, houses part of the museum’s collections so we got some nice tours of the fish and anthropology collection last week.

The first question I asked on each tour was “Can I take pictures?” The answer is yes, but only if it doesn’t go on a website. Images that go on a website have a lot of legal issues that needs to be dealt with, and no one wants to take the time to fill out pages of forms for anyone who wants to post these images. It’s understandable, so I’ll try my best to describe what was seen.

Walking into the fish hall is like walking into a giant freezer. Temperature is kept low to slow the ethanol’s rate of evaporation. Fishes are stored in ethanol-filled jars, with identification labels both on the fish and inside the jars. Special paper and ink are used for these labels so they last, in ethanol, for hundreds of years. This collection reminds me of large library, but with over four million specimens of fish instead of books. Oversized fishes are stored on a separate section, and near the entrance is a shelf that houses the “Oh My” collection. The “Oh My” collection, understandably, contains strange fishes that elicit the “Oh my!” response from people. For example, a two headed shark, a fish that looks like a rock, and a fish that is just too strange to describe. Next, we go to a separate tank room to see the fish that’s even too big for the oversized collection.

The tank room is reminiscent of the bathtub aisle at Costco. On these shelves lie individual metal tanks with sealed lids. The lids can be slid away when they become unlocked, revealing one large fish just under the size of a tank bathing in ethanol. We walked into a preparation room and opened up the tank housing the coelacanth, which was thought to be extinct 65 million years ago until its discovery in 1938.

The museum deals with such a large collection, even after the tours it’s still difficult to comprehend just how big the collection is. The only thing I can think of is that stockroom scene from The Matrix where Neo says “Guns. Lots of guns.” and racks of guns start flying at you. That’s actually a pretty close description to the weapons section of the anthropology collection. The majority of the collection is stored in closed space, but several, including weapons and bones of large mammals, are out in the open due to space constraints. The anthropology collection appears even more spectacular than the fish collection, probably because it was housed in a larger open area rather than separated into a number of smaller rooms. Even so, we went up a total of two flights of stairs and walked through several fire doors before coming back out into the open. Within the collection area, filters run constantly to circulate air flow and filter out dust particulates, and the rows of white cabinets open up to reveal sliding drawers.

Each collection is organized according to the nature of the particular field. This particular collection is organized by geographical region and time. Artifacts included clothing, dolls, baskets, weapons, masks, and much more. Pieces with historical significance are often stored along with related artifacts and copies of historical documents. Even modern pieces such as Korean plastic toys from the 70’s have made their way into the collection. Objects deemed highly sacred by certain cultures are specially cared to make sure only those who are allowed to view or handle them can do so. Like the fish collection, the anthropology collection also accomodates oversized objects. Large objects ranging from figure sized statues to ships sit in custom-built metal frames with fireproof blankets over them. Some frames have wheels to facilitate transportation needs.

This concludes the collection tours. There is no way to open every cabinet in this lifetime. Maybe next week there will be other adventures.


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