Carnegie Museums plans to open its collection of preserved species
Inside a building tucked away in the Carnegie Museum complex in Oakland, 250,000 reptiles and amphibians have found a final home resting in alcohol.
Three stories of racks hold bottles and bigger containers with turtles, toads, lizards and snakes — even alligators. Many are preserved beyond extinction of their species and even beyond destruction of the habitat in which they existed.
Far different from many museum displays, they are as they were in life, allowing study of skin coloration, musculature, teeth, fangs, claws and jaws.
“It is a library of life,” says Stephen J. Tonsor, director of science and research at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland, which has housed the collection since 1907.
The museum’s work at Alcohol House recently won a $499,224 grant from the National Science Foundation that will help to make its work more visible to the public.
Reed Beaman, director of division on biological infrastructure from the foundation, says the award was given because of the significance of the collection.
“We are dealing with habitats that are gone now,” he says. “Many of these specimens are irreplaceable.
“It is a record of life on Earth,” he says.
Tonsor sees a need for such a collection. He says human activity on this planet will eliminate 20 to 70 percent of all species of animals in the next century.
The Alcohol House was built to preserve types of life in 1907, which Tonsor calls the “heyday of establishing museums of natural history.” Five of its species are extinct and 78 are critically endangered.
They come from 170 countries, Tonsor says.
The collection is one of the top five in the nation, he says, joining sites such as the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Although it is well known to scientific professionals, it is little known to the public, something museum officials hope to correct.
Eric Dorfman, director of the museum, says the grant will provide the “opportunity to optimize and share one of the museum’s most historic and fascinating collections. The specimens in the Alcohol House are critical resources that help us understand the importance of conservation and the impact human activity has on environments.”
Tonsor is planning a display in the main area of the museum that will illustrate the Alcohol House and its collection. Programs are being studied that could allow groups to go into the building. A diorama displaying how the work is done also is being planned near the entrance.
But, he admits, major problems exist in opening the site to any degree. The safety of the specimens must be assured, as well as that of the visitors. The building is a storage facility, not a museum space. Aisles between storage shelves are tight. Access to upper floors is on circular staircases.
For those reasons, Tonsor says, the museum area will be a critical part of bringing this work to the public. The museum is working with Iontank, a Garfield design firm, to create the display.
Craig Scheuer, a technician at Iontank, says the company wants to create “an interactive display that will expose the public to specimens from the Alcohol House, as well as the importance of the collection and its use in science.”
He says they are in the initial stages of the work, which probably will take a year or so to put together.
Iontank does this sort of work for museums as well as commercial displays, he says.
Exposing the museum’s work to broader public view is the reason for the grant, the science foundation’s Beaman says.
The money is from a program called Collections in Support of Biological Research, he says. One of its jobs is to create greater appreciation and understanding of such work at the museum.
The foundation, a federal agency that promotes scientific research and education, awards about $10 million a year to such projects, he says.
Beaman calls the foundation “the innovation agency” because it has supported some programs for their intellectual merit but also backed Google in its early days because of its “broader impacts.”
The collection in the Alcohol House is more than simply a museum display, Tonsor says. The specimens, organized by collection manager Steve Rogers, are used in ongoing scientific research on the biodiversity of life at the museum and at other scientific institutions.
He says such samples sometimes are the only examples of creatures from a specific habitat and can lead to clues on the direction evolution took.
Besides collecting specimens for display and study, the Carnegie also is involved in research on existing habitats.
Tonsor says Jose Padial, the William and Ingrid Rea assistant curator of amphibians and reptiles, recently returned from a trip to Vilcabamba, Peru. There, he found some animals that were unknown.
They include a 2-inch frog with tiny pads on its feet that Tonsor believes allow it to hang from a leaf. At the other end is another frog that is basically crammed into its jar and has a throat that looks like it could hold a softball.
“Work at the Carnegie is historical, but it also alive and growing,” Beaman says.
Bob Karlovits is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.