Bell Museum gets grant to preserve collections

by Dan Haugen

Andrew Simons gently pulled down a large jar from high atop a metal storage shelf in the Ecology Building’s basement

“These are really cool,” he said.

Floating inside the container are three pale, prehistoric-looking paddlefish, or Polyodon spathula, according to the jar’s label.

The specimens are more than 100 years old. They are preserved along with more than a million other fishes, reptiles and amphibians by the Bell Museum of Natural History on the University’s St. Paul campus.

“It’s like a library,” said Simons, head curator of the collection.

And just as libraries confront broken book spines and torn pages, the Bell’s animal collection faces its own preservation issues.

The National Science Foundation has awarded the museum a three-year, $200,000 grant for needed improvements to its invaluable but deteriorating collection of fish, reptile and amphibian specimens.

“The reason they gave us this money is because this collection is in desperate need of help,” Simons said.

Scientists from across the state, and a few from around the country, use the Bell collection in a variety of research projects.

“They’re perfectly good research specimens,” Simons said, still holding the jar of paddlefish in his hands. “They’re a little bleached, but you could take these and examine the tissue for mercury. You might be able to extract DNA from it. You could examine the gut and find out what they were eating. There are all kinds of cool things you could do.”

Researchers hope that with the help of the National Science Foundation funds, the century-old collection can be preserved for another 100 years.

Right now, the specimens are preserved in a rubbing alcohol solution – an economical mix that also makes the animals brittle. Using the grant money, museum staff will transfer the specimens to containers with an ethanol mix, which is also less toxic.

Metal lids on some of the containers are rusting and will be replaced. Some labels are fading and falling apart.

“This collection was orphaned and not taken care of very well for a long time,” Simons said.

Prior to Simons’ hiring five years ago, the fish, reptile and amphibian collection was maintained for several years only by volunteers.

“The people who took care of it did what they could, but there wasn’t a lot of institutional support,” Simons said. “When they hired me, it was a sign from the institution that they were willing to support the collection. That started bringing funds back to the collection.”

Simons said the collection’s annual supply budget is approximately $1,500, making the $200,000 significant.

Besides buying maintenance supplies, the grant will also set up a searchable, online database of all the collection’s specimens.

“It’s going to make our collection more visible,” Simons said. “If we’re more visible, we’ll get better use. It’s like a library. Books are worthless if nobody knows they’re there. It’s the same way with natural history collections.”

The grant does not cover relocating the museum’s public display collection from its current East Bank campus home. Simons said the University still hopes to eventually move the entire collection to the St. Paul campus.

Dan Haugen covers science and research and welcomes comments at [email protected]