The dead, the ancient and the sacred reside in Field Museum’s secret cellar
BY KARA SPAK | Staff reporter/Kspak@suntimes.com PHOTOS BY RICH HEIN | Sun-times May 2, 2013 9:58PM
William Simpson, McCarter collections manager of fossil vertebrates, with PF 15195, a complete articulated skeleton of Masillosteus janeae, a fossil gar named by Field Museum paleontologist, Lance Grande. Gars are stealthy freshwater predatory fish. Masillosteus is from the 52 myo Green River Formation in Wyoming. Is is stored in an oversize cabinet in the Fossil Fish Range. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
Updated: June 6, 2013 6:17AM
The history of the universe, from the bones of dinosaurs that walked millions of years before humans to meteorite fragments that flew through space, is carefully sorted, numbered and shelved inside 186,000 square feet of storage under the Field Museum. Here’s a look at some of the Field’s massive research collection.
The Field’s anthropology collection includes artifacts from cultures around the world: ancient Roman bathtubs; decorative house posts from Papua New Guinea; statues of twins from the Yoruba people of Africa, the culture with the world’s highest incidence of twin births, and an anklet constructed of beetle wings, monkey teeth and seeds made by the Shuar of Peru, a group infamous for shrinking heads.
There are a few objects that no one can look at. Cabinets containing sacred artifacts from the Hopi tribe, Native Americans from the Southwest, are covered in muslin, part of an agreement between museum officials and tribal leaders.
“Lots of these objects for you and I might just be objects,” said Christopher Philipp, anthropology collection manager, looking at a kiwi feather cloak made by the Maori of New Zealand. “For Maori, this is their ancestors.”
Philipp said one Maori visitor wept when seeing an ancestral robe. “She was crying because she was connecting to her ancestors. That’s why it’s so important that we care for them in the ways we do today.”
With practiced ease, William Simpson wheels a 6-foot-long dinosaur femur balanced on dollies in the Field’s underground Collections Resource Center.
“I’m basically a librarian,” said Simpson, McCarter collection manager of fossil vertebrates. “But instead of books, it’s fossils I’m taking care of.”
When collecting and storing dinosaurs, size matters.
“One of the challenges of housing fossil vertebrates is the extreme variation of size,” Simpson said. “We’ve got 85-foot dinosaurs and mammal teeth from the time of dinosaurs, some of which can only be seen under a microscope.”
The museum also has hundreds of “field jackets” containing dinosaur bones that are still embedded in rock. Simpson calls a field jacket a “custom-made carrying case” that is built around the fossil and earth at the site where the fossils are excavated. Before the Collections Resource Center was built, the jackets were piled on top of each other. Now, they have been replastered with half a ton of plaster and sorted on shelves.
Removing the field jackets and safely chipping away the rock from the dinosaur bones requires time and money, two commodities perpetually in short supply.
“It takes years and years,” Simpson said, noting that it took 30,000 hours to prepare Sue, the Field’s iconic dinosaur. “This is the real bottleneck in paleontology. If we find something that is absolutely spectacular, it’s going to take a lot of time and money to put that on display.”
While technology has allowed Field scientists to inventory and database the contents of the jackets, exactly what is inside can remain a mystery until they are prepared.
“A lot of these things you don’t know what they are,” Simpson said. “Until you prepare it, who knows what’s in there?”
Birds and mammals
Blood and guts are part of the day-to-day behind the scenes action in the museum’s labs devoted to preparing bird and mammal research specimens.
The animals come into these two distinct collections in a variety of ways. Zoos donate their dearly departed to research at the Field, for instance. Field scientists working on other continents bring bird carcasses back, and a partnership with the Chicago Bird Collision Monitor has brought in local orioles, indigo buntings, cardinals and hummingbirds that died flying into buildings.
On Wednesdays, volunteers perched in an off-exhibit museum laboratory process as many as 200 birds. It’s painstaking, precise work cataloging the birds before removing feathers, cleaning skeletons and then re-creating the birds’ bodies by stuffing the animals with cotton. Some tissue from mammals and birds is pickled and stored.
Techniques for skinning and preserving animals are passed down from mentor to student, said Anna E. Goldman, the Field’s mammal preparator.
“A lot of people think I’m creating mammals for exhibits,” Goldman said, holding a stuffed skunk with cotton bulging through its eye sockets. “I’m not. I’m specifically here to process research for the collection.”
Insects and plants
The separate botany and insect collections hold millions of specimens and have benefitted from private collectors who donate their troves to the museum.
For insects, those include one where the collector only kept beetles that were 5 centimeters or larger and the lepidoptera (butterfly/moth) acquisitions of Nancy and John Mix, Chicagoans who were avid collectors.
“Everything is mounted and preserved,” said Jim Boone, collection manager, insects, holding a tray of pinned butterflies from the Mixes. “It’s impeccable.” Of the approximately 12.5 million insects in the collection, 4.5 million are pinned. The rest are preserved in alcohol.
At 2.8 million specimens, the Field’s botany collection is the 18th largest in the world. It’s still growing, said Christine Niezgoda, botany collection manager who has worked at the Field for nearly 40 years.
“It’s a never-ending process,” she said. “There are too many places that haven’t been explored. There’s little gullies, little spaces, mountaintops.”