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For many people, moths are like the homely stepsiblings of butterflies. They are the dusty invaders of our closets and pantries, pests that must be controlled rather than admired. Not so for Kevin Keegan.
“They’re so critical in many different parts of the food web and various environmental processes,” says Keegan, the collection manager for Lepidoptera in the Section of Invertebrate Zoology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “So, it’s just like, how could I not be interested in this?”
Keegan doesn’t expect anyone—not even his peers in the invertebrate zoology section—to be as nerdy about moths as him. His passion for moths, and the immensely complicated family Noctuidae, in particular, is rare. That’s what makes him such a valuable asset to the museum’s moth and butterfly collection. He is someone willing to take on the Sisyphean task of organizing and managing millions of specimens so that researchers, including him, can access them in their work to unlock scientific questions, large and small.
The 36-year-old Keegan is among a younger generation of millennial-aged collection managers who have recently joined the Museum of Natural History, taking the torch from their longtime predecessors whose careers began before Keegan and his peers were born.
Only a fraction of the specimens that collection managers care for will be viewed by the public, but their work is essential to the larger research-driven mission of the museum. At its most essential, being a collection manager means organizing specimens, handling loan requests, and ensuring that the artifacts, birds, bugs, and beasts—many of them irreplaceable—are stored safely for future generations.
“Really, they’re the custodians of this historic, priceless set of objects,” says Chase Mendenhall, William and Ingrid Rea Assistant Curator of Bird Conservation.
But organizing specimens is not all that they do. Collection managers today confront extraordinarily complicated scientific and ethical questions. They grapple with the legacy of their collections and how the artifacts in their care were acquired, as well as conduct research using DNA analysis and tools not available to previous generations.
Though not required, advanced degrees held by collection managers are increasingly common. Some also produce research that advances their respective fields, with or without a PhD.
Three of the museum’s newest collection managers have their own unique stories to tell about what drew them to this vocation and how they approach managing historic collections in the 21st century.
Serina Brady: Creating Wholistic Specimens
Serina Brady’s love of all things avian began two decades ago when, as an animal-loving fifth grader growing up outside Buffalo, New York, she asked her parents for a parrot. She got chickens instead.
“I wanted a parrot growing up, but parrots are long-lived and my parents didn’t want to commit to a ‘forever toddler,’ so I couldn’t have a parrot in the house,” says Brady, collection manager for the Section of Birds. “So I compromised and I said, ‘Fine, we’ll get chickens.’”
But if she was disappointed, it didn’t last. The flock of chickens grew to 17 and would kindle a fascination with birds throughout her life and career. It remained throughout her years as an undergraduate biology student at Cornell, her time spent earning a master’s degree in biology and another in museum studies at the University of Mexico, and as she traveled the world doing field ecology research for various organizations, universities, and government agencies.
Even now, the sight of a common sparrow tickles her. “They’re just very charismatic,” she says of birds.
When she was hired in June 2022, Brady took over responsibility for the ninth largest bird collection in the United States—roughly 200,000 specimens of bird skins, skeletons, eggs, nests, and pickles.
And yet, she found, there was still so much data that was missing.
In the past decade, researchers have begun talking about the “extended specimen” and the notion of capturing all the data possible about a bird and its environment. That involves having fresh tissue samples, including internal organs, available for DNA analysis, photographs of the habitat it was collected from, photos of the specimen when it was first collected, and then linking all that data to the individual specimen. That data can then be shared with researchers around the world studying biodiversity changes, diseases, and the sustainable management of natural resources, among other things.
Most of the bird specimens in the museum’s vast archive are “skins,” emptied of their organs and preserved primarily for their external appearance. DNA science didn’t exist decades ago, so researchers didn’t know that preserving the innards would be beneficial to future study.
A long-term goal of Brady’s is to build a tissue library—with muscles, intestines, kidneys, etc.—so that researchers will have access to all of the data not just from feathers, bones, and feet, but of the entire bird. The collection continues to grow—specimens are donated every year by researchers, individual birders, and institutions who have found birds dead—though not nearly as many as in the heyday of the early 20th century, when the museum took in thousands of bird skins every year.
For now, however, she’s working to bring the collection into the 21st century by digitizing the printed records, upgrading its database, and modernizing some of its practices for storing specimens.
“It feels very much still stuck in the ’80s. It is a forgotten gem,” she says. “There’s still a lot of research that can be done in the collection, and our collection can be used in a lot of different ways.”
The task is daunting, she admits. Mendenhall is confident that it will thrive under her management.
“She knows the history and the overlapping value of each of these objects,” he says. “Every single specimen is treated with great care.”
And while Brady could be kept fully busy just handling loan requests and preparing new additions to the collection, she hopes to manage her section not only by bringing it up to modern standards, but also by aiding research that advances the field.
“Collection managers are always trying to think about questions that are going to be asked in the future, which is really hard to do,” she says. “So you just try to do a catch-all [of bird tissue collection] and, hopefully, one day in the future, it can be utilized.”
Kristina Gaugler: Ethics and Anthropology
Kristina Gaugler doesn’t remember wanting to be anything other than an archaeologist. “My dad’s a really big history buff,” recalls Gaugler. “He just always talked about what was going on in the world, archaeological stories that were coming out like, ‘Oh, they just discovered this.’”
Those stories sparked her imagination and, as Gaugler grew older, she came to appreciate how history could inform modern life. But she also came to understand the problems that accompany many historical narratives.
“As time went on, I realized, especially in the U.S., the education about Indigenous culture is not great,” she says. “It paints people as being stuck in the past without highlighting their accomplishments of today. You’re just not really getting the full picture.”
As the Museum of Natural History’s anthropology collection manager, Gaugler is now grappling with the complicated questions involved with more than 100,000 ethnographic and historical artifacts in the collection. For more than a year now, she’s been meticulously sorting through every storage shelf inside the Edward O’Neil Research Center, the museum’s large warehouse annex in East Liberty, learning as much as she can about the artifacts that hail from every continent except Antarctica.
Gaugler’s audit of the collection is a gargantuan task that took her predecessor, Deb Harding, years to complete.
“It took me two years to learn where everything was,” Harding recalls. “Some of the stories about [the artifacts] never got written down.”
Harding took over the collection manager role in 1985, the same year Gaugler was born, and spent the ensuing decades documenting, organizing, and managing every item and loan request. Since her retirement, she’s been imparting her knowledge of the collection to Gaugler during weekly sessions in which they go cabinet-by-cabinet, with Gaugler video-recording Harding providing a kind of oral history of each object.
Meanwhile, Gaugler has ongoing projects to repackage artifacts with acid-free materials and digitize the collection’s records.
Looming large over the tedious tasks are broader ethical questions of how to engage with the descendant communities from which the artifacts came.
One recent opportunity involved the Apsáalooke (pronounced ap-SAH-loo-gah) collection. Members of the Apsáalooke Nation recently visited as part of a traveling exhibition, Apsáalooke Women and Warriors, which was curated by an Apsáalooke scholar in partnership with Chicago’s Field Museum. Carnegie Museum of Natural History has around 300 Apsáalooke artifacts, most of which were collected in the early 20th century during one of the most “intense times of colonialization,” Gaugler says. The collection came from nine donors and many artifacts were legally purchased from Apsáalooke artists. But that doesn’t mean they were ethically acquired, she notes.
“Why were these people selling these objects?” Gaugler questions. “Because they were being displaced? Maybe they needed to sell things that they wouldn’t normally have because they were facing poverty. There are a lot of dimensions to the ethics of the collection beyond ‘Was this item stolen?’”
The answers to those questions can determine an artifact’s future, whether it continues to remain with the museum, and how it is stored and presented during exhibitions.
The artifacts in the museum’s collection weren’t part of Apsáalooke Women and Warriors. But when members of the Apsáalooke Nation arrived in Pittsburgh to consult on the exhibition, they visited the annex to inspect some of the objects made by members of their community. They offered some important feedback that compelled Gaugler to rearrange how the artifacts were stored. The artifacts had been organized numerically by accession number, but that resulted in children’s toys being stored next to implements of warfare, like clubs.
“So one of the things they were saying is, ‘We would prefer it if you didn’t store these objects next to these objects,’ ” Gaugler recalls. “That has more to do with the context of the object, as opposed to storing them numerically.”
Gaugler says one of her goals is to store objects in ways that follow Indigenous protocols, including using the correct tribal names rather than whatever term was assigned to them by their colonizers.
“I want to store things in ways that make the descendants feel good about them being here and in a way that is respectful,” she says.
Harding says Gaugler’s academic training and sensitivity to ethical issues will be of immense value as she manages the collection.
“I think she’s going to do very well with this,” Harding says. “I have learned that what I was taught when I was younger was not correct. Kristina just knows it. I try to treat every person as an individual with respect, but there are nuances that I was not aware of.”
Kevin Keegan: Untangling ‘A Taxonomic Nightmare’
Before he even arrived at Carnegie Museums in 2021, Kevin Keegan had a reputation for tackling impossible projects.
Keegan’s doctoral thesis involved untangling the evolutionary history of the third largest family of moths—Noctuidae, or owlet moths—which includes around 12,000 described species. They are the “mothiest of moths”—the ones you see fluttering around porch lights and camping lanterns—and a “taxonomic nightmare,” says Ainsley Seago, the Museum of Natural History’s associate curator of invertebrate zoology. For hundreds of years, the immense diversity of the family has led even the best noctuid taxonomists to misclassify species. Only recently have researchers been able to cut through the confusion, thanks largely to the incorporation of DNA data into their research.
To some, it might sound tedious. Not to Keegan, who says he “could organize stuff forever.”
“One of the really exciting things is coming across a moth and not knowing what it is,” he says. “I mean, it’s like Christmas morning every time I get a new species into our data set and see where it belongs.”
Originally, Keegan wanted to focus on a particular type of owlet moth. But like pulling a thread on a sweater only to watch it unravel, he realized he couldn’t answer his original question without addressing the larger taxonomic problem.
“Instead of screaming and running away, which is what most of us in that position would do, he’s actually embraced it,” Seago says. “It’s really rare to get a freshly minted taxonomist that works on Noctuidae. So he is a precious treasure to us.”
The invertebrate zoology collection contains an estimated 16 million specimens, around half of which are moths and butterflies. It’s an impressive treasure trove, used by researchers the world over to study taxonomic questions, terrestrial food webs, the impact of changing habitats, and other environmental issues. Much of the moth collection was built by the late John Rawlins, Seago’s predecessor who she says had a philosophy to collect first and curate later. Rawlins would go into rare and disappearing habitats in order to find imperiled species that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world. But, unfortunately, he retired before he got around to organizing them. Rawlins passed away the day after Christmas in 2021 at age 71.
And so, Keegan is now working his way through the collection to do that work. Sometimes identifying a specimen is as easy as going to online lepidopterology forums to look for matches. Other times, it might require some DNA analysis.
Keegan also enjoys getting outside of the lab. In March, he joined a team of researchers for a three-week moth-collecting expedition to Uganda.
Not all collection managers are PhD-level researchers, Seago notes, and she feels fortunate to have Keegan overseeing perhaps the most complex and sprawling collection in the museum.
“He’s going above and beyond to continue to do research. He’s not required to do it, but I’m so grateful that he does,” she says. “And the stuff that he learns is going to help improve the management of our collection.”
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