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Suzanne McLaren is the keeper of the bats. That’s 26,345 bats, if you’re counting, which she definitely is. Let other people deride bats as blood-sucking, hair-messing, swooping demons. McLaren, the collection manager for mammals at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, marvels at the webbed wonders that once flew around Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, and now fill 600 drawers inside a nondescript building in the East End of Pittsburgh.
For four decades, McLaren has skinned bats, preserved bats in fluid, and studied bat skulls and skeletons. Even so, holding the skin of a delicate and colorful butterfly bat from Somalia still fills her with childlike wonder. “I think this would be a beautiful bat to see in flight,” she says. “It’s hard not to like a bat.”
The only mammal that can fly, bats comprise just one small part of McLaren’s encyclopedic knowledge of the museum’s 130,000 or so mammals—from mountain lions to mice, platypuses to opossums, skunks to squirrels. McLaren, a 40-year museum veteran who serves as chair of collections,is one of nine collection managers who, with the help of a single conservator, are responsible for the millions of artifacts and scientific specimens housed and preserved by Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
To preserve specimens, they painstakingly pin them in drawers, submerge them in alcohol, and dry and attach others to archival paper. For objects such as pottery and dinosaur bones, they support and store them for safekeeping. At any given time, only about 3 percent of these holdings are on display; collection managers are guardians of the rest. They are one part obsessive organizer, one part scientific researcher, one part fiercely protective parent.
“Collections managers are the unsung heroes of the museum,” says Steve Tonsor, director of science and research at the Museum of Natural History. “They are the most important people in the museum.
“They wear many hats and they do it with extraordinary enthusiasm,” he adds. “So much of what they do is above and beyond.”
These nine scientific staffers represent more than two centuries of expertise. They make sure the public sees the most interesting and relevant parts of the collections in the museum’s display cases. They pack up and loan out specimens to other museums and researchers around the world, who use them to study topics ranging from climate change to mammal evolution to the lifestyles of indigenous people.
And the sheer joy the collections bring them is contagious. “Why should we care about the collections?” Tonsor asks, hypothetically, noting that collection managers live and breathe the answer. “Sue can show you the most extraordinary, beautiful, bizarre, fuzzy, strokable creature. Even if you have never been to Madagascar or Borneo, you get an insight to the sublime nature in which we live.”
The world at your fingertips
Inside the Edward O’Neil Research Center, just a short drive from Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Deborah Harding sits in a small, windowless office. But once Harding steps through its doorway and down aisles of storage cabinets, it’s as though the whole world is at her fingertips—her very-careful fingertips.
“I’m a little Costa Rica-obsessed right now,” says Harding, collection manager for the museum’s section of anthropology. “There are a lot of pots that have little faces on them, and I swear they look like the pigs from Angry Birds.”
She dotes over pottery adorned with birds, frogs, human faces, and her favorite—the coatimundi, a member of the raccoon family. The little creature’s face is sculpted out of the front of one cream-colored pot, his paws cupping it. The pottery was excavated from the Guanacaste Peninsula, a popular tourist spot bordered by Nicaragua in the north and the Nicoya Peninsula in the south. “I just love it,” she says.
“Human beings are endlessly creative and incredibly clever and artistic and sophisticated, and I get to work with this stuff all day long. If I traveled the world, if I had millions of dollars, I would never see all this stuff.”
– Deb Harding, collection manager for anthropology
The treasure is part of the first scientifically-excavated collection of archaeological materials from Costa Rica, collected from 1903 to 1908, and considered to be the best in the world outside Costa Rica. In all, Harding oversees some 2 million ethnographic and archaeological objects produced by native peoples of the Americas and other parts of the world.
Harding received a master’s degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh and has been at the Carnegie Museum since 1985. She never tires of
studying the collection and discovers some new detail every single day. “Human beings are endlessly creative and incredibly clever and artistic and sophisticated, and I get to work with this stuff all day long. If I traveled the world, if I had millions of dollars, I would never see all this stuff.”
Harding protects the artifacts from less-careful human hands and safeguards them from the ravages of time. “Sometimes I’m a mother hen,” she says. “Sometimes I’m a Rottweiler.”
Over the past three years, Harding, curatorial assistant Amy Covell-Murthy, and a small staff of interns and volunteers have taken additional steps to protect the collection from another hazard—environmental decay. Thanks to a $341,848 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the museum has installed compact shelving, which greatly improves storage and the sustainability of the collection, while some much-needed facility system upgrades are also reducing energy consumption.
As part of the storage upgrade, one uber-volunteer who works at the museum twice a week has made cardboard boxes for more than 3,000 objects to protect them. “She’s made boxes for our Japanese netsuke collection,” Harding says, referring to miniature sculptures made of ivory. “She makes wonderful boxes.”
Piece by piece, the small team has moved most of the 1.5 million objects from the old cabinets to new storage—photographing some 3,500 pots along the way and logging the images in a database. It’s a repetitive, time-consuming process that requires extraordinary care. “We should be done by the end of the year,” says Harding.
On a very rare occasion, a collection manager has the misfortune of damaging an object. It’s an occupational hazard that happens to everyone who handles thousands of objects every year for decades. The few times it happened to Harding are seared in her memory like an outfielder’s error that leads to a game-losing run.
“There’s a couple that are in my head and will never go away,” she admits. “You can put something back together, but it will not be the same.”
Harding prides herself on being able to track down most objects in the collection in five minutes or less, a feat only partially due to the digitization of the collection’s records.
But with the massive quantity of treasures in its care—some predating the opening of Carnegie Museums in 1895—Carnegie Museum of Natural History and natural
history museums across the world hold thousands of items still awaiting proper identification and digitization. For example, an estimated three-quarters of newly named mammal species are already part of a natural history collection by the time they are identified as such.
Harding is also a historian of the collection. Consider her research on John A. Beck, an industrialist who owned Allegheny Salt Works in Pittsburgh. A pack rat with exquisite taste, he collected so many artifacts and animal specimens that he built a second house next to his first to store them all. Harding dug up his letters and other archival material detailing how he would place ads in newspapers all over the country, telling people he would buy “relics”—including pipe bowls from Turkey, a rarity in Carnegie Museum’s collection. Then the industrialist hit hard times, filing for bankruptcy. To stave off creditors from seizing his treasures, he loaned his collection to the museum in 1923. After his death, his daughters donated more than 16,000 of the relics to the museum.
One of Harding’s favorite pieces in the museum collection comes from Beck—the war shirt or hair shirt of Red Cloud, the Lakota chief. Long strands of real human hair cascade down the colorful shirt. Lakota women would donate the hair, which was a great honor. Because the Lakota worried that people would see the hair and think it came from a scalping, Harding says, the museum chooses not to exhibit it in the Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians.
“There were only four people in any band, the best men in any band, who were allowed to wear this,” Harding says, noting that a band is a collection of families that live and travel together; a division of a tribe. “They had to be good warriors. They had to be courageous. They had to be of the finest character. So it’s a very special piece. We have documentation from the dealer who sold it to Beck.”
“ Collections managers are the unsung heroes of the museum.”
– Steve Tonsor, director of science and research
Collection managers have extraordinary recall about the origins of many of the specimens and objects in their care. McLaren, who has a master’s degree in biology from Shippensburg University and served as president of the American Society of Mammalogists, is often referred to as the unofficial historian of the museum.
This deep knowledge comes in handy when she and other collection managers are called on to loan specimens and objects to scientific researchers and museums. On any given day, a collection manager can be found locating, packing, and shipping the insects, mollusks, birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and plants that make up the majority of the museum’s nearly 500 annual loans. From January to March of 2017, the scientific staff prepared 172 loans representing a total of more than 12,000 specimens, providing information and context when, say, an invasive species strikes, or there is a need to understand why a species is either rapidly expanding or trending toward extinction.
Staff and volunteers organize specimens by looking at many pieces of information: what species they are, where they came from, how old they are, when they were located, and who collected them. Every specimen has its own unique ID number. For example, George the Gorilla, who resides in the Hall of African Wildlife, is also known as CM 60283. (His skeleton is part of the research collection.)
Loaning a specimen to a researcher also adds to the intrinsic value of the object, McLaren says, since scientific researchers often publish papers and identify new species. “Sometimes a researcher will actually discover a new species and use our specimen as the holotype—the individual that is used to describe a new specimen.”
Loans between museums also help researchers study biodiversity and even unlock clues about our own evolutionary history. But for all the collaboration between museums and researchers, Carnegie Museum collection managers are careful to loan out only portions of any one species or specimen type. That caution dates back to a loan calamity involving the transit of mountain lions during World War II.
McLaren stumbled upon letters sent back and forth between Carnegie Museum and a researcher named E.A. Goldman, from the Smithsonian, in 1942. She pieced together the story of how Carnegie Museum staff had sent the entire mountain lion collection, including skulls (the most scientifically important), to the Smithsonian researcher at the famed D.C. museum. The Pittsburgh curator J.K. Doutt wrote to Goldman, “We haven’t heard from you yet. We would have expected that maybe you would have written to acknowledge receipt.” Goldman replied that he never received the order and would look into the matter.
Turns out, the train derailed traveling from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C, and the cargo car with the mountain lions burst into flames, wiping out the museum’s entire collection.
Pressing plants, preserving history
Sometimes a collection manager’s sleuthing abilities are plucked to help solve real-crime cases. Bonnie Isaac, the collection manager for the section of botany, has been called by the county coroner’s office and state police to identify plants that might provide a clue about a suspect’s whereabouts.
“There can be bits of plants found on bodies at crime scenes and investigators need to identify them,” Isaac explains. “If part of a plant is found on a body, and part of a plant is found on the suspect, they can piece the case together.”
In 2008, Isaac accompanied a state trooper to a suspected shallow grave site in Washington County. He wanted to know whether the vegetation had been disturbed in the area. The question was complicated because the area was on a flood plain and she had to take erosion into account. But there was one part of the flood plain that she identified as more disturbed than the area around it—and that was close to where the cadaver dog had indicated a possible find.
Isaac, who once testified in a criminal case, never hears back on whether her expertise leads to a corpse or a conviction in court. She spends most of her days solving mysteries out in nature: What plant is she looking at? Is it a rare or endangered species? Can she identify the unusual find of a plant enthusiast who seeks her out during a visit to the museum? “If it’s a nice specimen, sometimes we ask if we can keep it,” she says. “We keep track of the regional flora and the way it changes over time. That’s one way we can track when new invasive species come into the area.”
The Pennsylvania native who grew up hunting and hiking in Ohio with her father is the caretaker of some 530,000 plant specimens. One-third are from Pennsylvania, one-third from the rest of North America, and one-third from other parts of the world. After Isaac and other museum staff collect plants and others are donated, if needed, Isaac presses and dries them, then oversees them being attached to archival paper, preserving history. Filed away with them are the plants’ locations, habitats, and any flowers and fruits at the time of their collection. With this information, researchers arestarting to make connections about recent climate change and its influence on the seasonal cycles of plants.
“People don’t realize how important plants are to their lives. We have no food and no air if there are no plants.”
– Bonnie Isaac, collection manager for botany
Isaac, who received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biological sciences from Youngstown State University, loves to do field work with her husband, Joe, also a botanist. In fact, the couple has donated some 19,000 plants to the museum’s herbarium. The pair is so enthusiastic about plants that they collected ferns during their honeymoon while camping in northern Pennsylvania. Thirty years later during an anniversary cruise to Alaska, they managed to find Cryptogramma stelleri during a stop on land. “It’s a tiny little guy that grows between rocks,” says Isaac.
The museum’s Botany Hall showcases the incredible diversity of plant life, emphasizing four different communities of plants found in the United States: the Florida everglades, a Mt. Rainier alpine meadow, an Arizona desert, and a Pennsylvania valley. Each illustrates how temperature and water affect plant life. Isaac knows plants will never be a marquee attraction like dinosaur skeletons. But the plants from the herbarium continue to have their day in the sun, including serving as models for artists making realistic 3D replicas of plants in display cases.
“People don’t realize how important plants are to their lives,” says Isaac. “We have no food and no air if there are no plants.”
Isaac says her job is a calling, and part of the rich and indelible history of the land and how it changes over time. Pointing to a dried specimen named a green dragon, she says, “This specimen is 117 years old. The site where it was collected may or may not still have this plant. We can’t go back to 1900.”
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