National Geographic : 2014 Jan
The Things They Brought Back 63 catalog co-author for a recent Manhattan ex- hibit curated by collector Florence Fearrington. In other words, these ancestors of modern mu- seums (and P. T. Barnum’s freak shows) were odes to idiosyncrasy, not science. Enter Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist with an ardor for order. “ The first step in wisdom is to know the things them- selves,” he wrote. To do so in a “simple, beautiful, and instructive” way, he devised a system of clas- sification for all living things: two-word names in Latin identifying first the genus, then the species. Since 1753 his universal taxonomy “has been to scientists what the Dewey decimal system is to librarians,” says Ted Daeschler, paleontologist and vice president of collections at the academy. Linnaeus and the Enlightenment paved the way for proper scientific collecting, says Peck, as well as for the 19th-century transition from private to public collections. Naturalists began to prepare specimens with care and rigor. But early preservation techniques could do more harm than good: Insects might be pickled in spirits, snakes crammed with straw, shells boiled and shipped in sawdust. They could also be toxic. “It is a very Arsenicy job,” wrote ornithologist John Cassin in an 1848 letter. “I labeled about half the [owl] collection... and was taken with congestion of the lungs and most violent head ache and fever.” Nowadays, Peck says, specimens are no lon- ger burned clean of bugs; they’re frozen. X-rays and micro-CT scans peer inside samples without damaging them. Institutions are kept at a con- stant climate. “ Temperatures 65 to 70 degrees and relative humidity around 40 percent are ideal for natural history collections,” says Smithsonian Institution bird specialist Christopher Milensky. This is “where our culture keeps its three- dimensional knowledge of the natural world,” says Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithson- ian’s National Museum of Natural History and its 126 million specimens. “People call this place America’s Attic. But it’s more like Fort Knox—a place where we keep treasures, not the crap you don’t want to deal with. It’s a vault, a temple.” And a time machine. Using data from bird fossils, Smithsonian ornithologist Helen James is discovering now extinct island species; to date she’s described nearly 40 from Hawaii alone. Karin Bruwelheide, her colleague in forensic anthropology, is investigating the mysterious death of a 19th-century naturalist named Rob- ert Kennicott. Since opening his iron coffin 12 years ago, her team has deduced that he died at 31 of a heart attack, his short life of cricket frog collecting plagued by poor health and bad teeth. Johnson says cutting-edge work like that is becoming increasingly collaborative thanks to the digitization of collections, which allows museums to catalog specimens, scientists to exchange information, and the public to access that information remotely. “Now,” he says, “you can be a Maasai warrior with an iPhone and look at a collection.” Not that it’s a replacement for the real thing. “You need both physical and digital collections,” says Daeschler. “ The latter augments the former. A digital sample is just a voucher. Each specimen is the definition of that organism at that time in that place. You can’t represent it with just words or images.” Or as Peck puts it, “If we didn’t have 18 million specimens here but had 18 million pictures of those specimens, I’m not sure anyone would really care.” Johnson agrees. “Darwin’s big insight is that all living things are related to each other,” he says. “And that story is manifestly told by mu- seum collections. Some of these species are ex- tinct. But we’ve got their DNA right here. We’re the keepers of the planet’s knowledge.” j Jeremy Berlin is an editor at the magazine. Rosamond Purcell’s most recent photographic books are A Glorious Enterprise and Egg and Nest.