Conserving the Collections

The extensive scientific collections of the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science are utilized by scientists and researchers all around the world. As catalog databases of the collections and their inventories are constantly being built and updated, they are also made more accessible. Increased use of these collections needs to be balanced with conservation efforts to ensure they exist for future generations. Unfortunately, some materials used to store specimens have become outdated and require replacement to best preserve the museum’s collections.

Rows of metal cabinets house the mollusk and bird collections at the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science.

Current Conservation Methods

In the mollusks collection, specimens are preserved either as the dry animal-made shell, or as the entire body and soft parts of the animal in alcohol. The bird collection specimens are preserved as study skins (a specialized taxidermy for research), but also have preserved tissue samples in alcohol, spread wings, skeletons, and traditional taxidermy.

Currently, the collection is stored in specimen trays that are made of paste board wrapped in paper. Depending on their age, some trays may or may not be made out of archival quality material. However, new archival boxes can still endure changes in chemistry when they come into contact with wooden drawers that exist in many cabinets. These wooden drawers could release harmful acid vapors and change the chemical composition of the storage materials. When these materials touch specimens they can cause the chemicals to breakdown, recrystallize, and destroy the specimens, according to Alex Kittle, Senior Collections Manager of Mollusks.

Archival boxes are often laid with unbuffered paper to help protect specimens
Mollusks in archival boxes are stored in trays
Yellowing spots on this shell indicate Byne’s disease, a decay of calcium carbonate and acidic vapor.
Toucans and hornbills stored with unbuffered paper
Fuzzy coating on the left egg indicates decay from Byne’s disease
Fuzzy coating on the egg indicates decay from Byne’s Disease
Damage to these butterflies are indicative of pests

Plans for Improvements

Improvements needed to the collections have been addressed. The collections would benefit from plastic boxes made of a stable plastic and more archival specimen trays. There are regular updates to materials that contain specimens, but there can only be so much done each year. Changing the cabinets the specimens are currently housed in could also prevent any concern of pest damage, and make a world of difference in improving long term conservation. Fortunately, all of the study skin collections are already in new cabinets with metal drawers and archival materials.

Conservation of data is another important concern of collections management. In certain bird species with a fatty diet, oil can seep onto identification tags, remove ink, and make them impossible to read. Additionally, beetles and other pests will feed on organic materials like feathers and introduce harmful microorganisms to specimens. Having up-to-date powder-coated steel cabinetry with a total seal to keep pests from the collections is vital for conservation, according to Ashley Kempken, Collections Manager of Birds. The collections team has also implemented a freezer treatment protocol to kill potential pests on collections objects after they have been used by researchers or in exhibits.

Natural acidity and chemicals can also impact the conservation of specimens. Correct storage of specimens requires using the appropriate archival containers, as chemical reactions from storage materials can easily damage collections over time. Researchers can use methods such as a pH pen to spot check acidity in materials that hold specimens.