Friday Fossil Feature – Museum Collections Improvements!

By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx)

Happy Fossil Friday!

Collections manager Sarah was ecstatic about this (and getting people to do the heavy lifting for her…)

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’s in the box?! A collection manager’s dream present – a band new lane cabinet!

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?

So so pretty, and just waiting to get filled with fossils!

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!

These cabinets are HEAVY – requiring multiple people to lift and shift them over. Here, museum curator Dr. Scott Persons and Mace Brown Museum Research Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer Dr. Robert Boessenecker slide a cabinet into its place.

Curator Dr. Scott Persons assessing the next cabinet needing put in its place.

Geology Department professor Dr. Norm Levine also helped with the cabinet installation!


Dr. Levine and Dr. Persons removing the plastic wrap from the cabinet, while Dr. Boessenecker admires all of the extra room we will be having for fossils.

Team work makes the Dream work!

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.

Putting the final cabinet in its place.

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!

Some cabinets had multiple time periods in it as they had less (or smaller) specimens, like the cabinet that has Paleozoic – Eocene aged fossils inside. The cabinets around it have only one time period – the Oligocene, and the 2 different formations within it that are found in the Charleston area.

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.

Archival foam was laid out and a template cut to drawer size was used to cut out foam inserts. As some of the fossils were too large for specimen boxes, they were placed in the drawer directly – but it’s important that they are not resting on bare metal, and instead on foam cushion.

Stickers! Stickers designate important fossils inside the cabinet and drawer. In our case, a red star means a Holotype (a specimen for which a taxon is named in a publication), a blue star is for a new Genotype (a specimen a new genus is named from) and a green star is for a published specimen. Fossils in our cabinets can have any 1, 2, or 3 of these stars designated to them.

This drawer houses material from Cotylocara – which is a published specimen (green star) and also serves as a holotype (red star) and genotype (blue star). The other drawers in this cabinet are not published yet, or do not represent new holotypes or genotypes.

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!

All of the cabinets were assigned a number (which is referenced in the database, so a fossil is easy to find when looking for it) and are also labeled with what they contain. This cabinet is a mixture of beach and river finds from the area – often these fossils are found ex situ (not embedded in the rock anymore) so a rock formation is not always clear.

Some cabinets were reserved for large collections within our collection – Rita McDaniel donated her entire fossil collection from the Lee Creek Mine. For large bequests such as this, it was important for all the specimens to stay together.

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!

How many collections managers can fit in a Lane cabinet? 1, with room to spare.

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Posted in fossils, Museum
One comment on “Friday Fossil Feature – Museum Collections Improvements!
  1. Bruce C. Lampright says:

    Great News! Now I can donate more specimens for addition to the Lampright Collection.

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