By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx)
Happy Fossil Friday!
Here’s a different type of Friday Fossil Feature: not a fossil directly, but even better! (in the humble opinion of one museum staff member at least…)
Fossils are wonderful, but where are they kept if not on display?
The Collections Room! insert ‘The Room Where it Happens’ song from Hamilton
2 months ago, CCNHM was the proud recipient of 5 BRAND NEW Lane Cabinets! We also got 51 new drawers to go inside these (and previously existing) cabinets, ready to be filled with fossils. This increased storage space in Collections cabinets by 25%, and drawer space by a whopping 41%! While that may not seem like a lot, every little bit of storage space counts when you work in a museum.
What will they do with all this extra space? Well, fill it with fossils, of course. But, before they start adding more fossils, it’s the perfect opportunity to rearrange everything, and place fossils in stratigraphic order. What does this mean, exactly, and how is it being done?
At the beginning, fossils were not arranged by taxon or stratigraphically; they were placed into cabinets as needed, and as more fossils came in, they were added to those cabinets but not following a formal organization scheme: they were simply added as space allowed. Some cabinets were dedicated to particular groups. Museum staff had been wanting to re-organize the cabinets for 5 years – and finally were able to do so with the new arrivals and added storage space!
Placing fossils in stratigraphic order means having them sorted by age – having fossils from the oldest rock layers first, and working our way up to the Pleistocene (ice age) fossils. In a sense, the collections cabinets are a timeline of evolution; having things sorted by age helps to show trends in evolution, and walking along the cabinets is a journey through time. We have used both methods for the rearrangement of our collections – overall, specimens are placed in stratigraphic order, but in that stratigraphic order, they are then placed in taxonomic order, and grouped by locality. That is, all mysticete (baleen whale) fossils from the Ashley Formation are grouped together, and fossils from one locality are grouped with others from the same locality. Odontocete (toothed) whales were treated the same – those from the same formation grouped, and those within that formation were grouped with other fossils from the same locality.
How is this being accomplished? Hard work. Lots of hard work. Not mentally taxing, more physically taxing – first, museum staff went through all of the drawers in cabinets and made note of what time period the fossils within were from, and labeled the drawer with relevant information. Then, a bit of mental work went into it: seeing how many fossils from one time unit we had, and how likely it was for us to get more fossils from that particular time period. Older time periods (the Silurian, for example) were represented by a handful of small specimens, but nothing local (South Carolina doesn’t have any rocks that old!) and as such, were not likely to grow in size. However, most of the time periods represented in South Carolina and our collections are Oligocene in age; the Ashley Formation (Rupelian/early Oligocene) and the Chandler Bridge Formation (Chattian/late Oligocene). Understanding that our fossil collection from these two formations (and with that, time periods) would grow, we knew they would ultimately take up more space. We tallied up how much we had representing each time period, and pulled all of the fossils out of their drawers – that’s where it became physically taxing, as some of these fossils were quite large – they are whales, after all!
Then came the drawer shuffling; the drawers can be placed at different heights to allow for different sized fossils to fit inside – we moved the drawers over into the new cabinets, and slowly moved fossils over, leaving some empty drawers to allow for expansion.
By doing this, we were able to reassess what we had in collections, and make a game-plan for expansion – for example, if we had a large number of taxa represented in the collections that were not relevant to the research happening at CCNHM, less drawer space was allocated for those taxa as we were would not actively collect or seek them out to add to the collections. Having a strong collections policy is vital for the success of any museum – it allows for a guided expansion, and keeps their focus on their mission – for us, educating the lowcountry public on our local fossils!
HUGE THANK YOU to Dr. Scott Persons, Dr. Norm Levine, and Dr. Robert Boessenecker for getting all these cabinets in place for our Collections Manager Sarah to organize and fill with fossils!