In April 2021, The University of Aberdeen’s Zoology Museum, with support from NatSCA’s Bill Pettit Memorial Award, undertook a year-long project to rehouse and improve the accessibility of the University’s mollusc collection.
The collection comprises approximately 2550, mostly British specimens, collected from the 1840s to the 1970s. The specimens were gifted to the museum by former students, academic staff, and amateur shell collectors, they also include several specimens from as far afield as the Pacific, Africa, China, Madagascar, America, and Canada.
The molluscs form part of the University’s extensive Zoology Collections, which are recognised as being of National Significance. As such, we are constantly striving to improve access to these collections, and the ‘Marvellous Molluscs’ Project aimed to do just that.
Having identified the collections both in storage and on display, a project plan was created that would tackle not only the rehousing, but also the documentation of the specimens on the museum database. The majority of specimens were poorly stored several layers deep in drawers, had outdated taxonomy, and lacked any database records or collections data.
In order to address the storage issues, we sourced several sizes of crystal boxes, which would protect the shells from further damage and stack neatly, should we need to maximise the storage space we had. This also meant that the specimen labels wouldn’t be separated from the specimens, could be kept inside the box, and the exterior of the boxes could be clearly labelled, making them easier to locate in the future.
Without a specialist in-house curator, we were very fortunate to be able to call on the expertise of staff members from the School of Biological Sciences at the University, who offered their time to help identify the trickier specimens and lent their support to the project as it progressed. A special mention must go to Dr Kara Layton, Lecturer in Marine Biology, and Eilidh Player, Laboratory Demonstrator, as well as several Post-Graduate Museum Studies Students, who offered their knowledge and enthusiasm to the cause. It certainly has been a steep learning curve for me, and I can’t thank them enough for their willingness to share and exchange their extensive knowledge!
In the first few months, we began to update the scientific names of the specimens, transcribe old labels and data into the database and identify specimens without labels or accession numbers.
In the meantime, our crystal box supplier unexpectedly ceased manufacturing, and cancelled our previously agreed order…
Luckily some of our specimens had original glass-lidded boxes, so we focused on re-using these where we could. Eventually, almost halfway through the project, the boxes arrived, and we were able to speed up the rehousing of those specimens which we already catalogued.
We faced a few further challenges along the way, the Covid Pandemic being the main one! This meant that we had limited access to the museum stores on campus, and a shortage of lorry drivers meant that delivery times for project materials were extended too.
We did however make some wonderful discoveries along the way, including a specimen of the rare ‘Crusty Nautilus’ Allonautilus scrobiculatus, found in a drawer labelled ‘miscellaneous’ (as is almost always the case when you re-discover something amazing)! It is now on display with several other interesting mollusc specimens in ‘The Gallery’ of the Sir Duncan Rice Library until June this year.
We are now nearing the end of the project and have managed so far to rehouse and update over 600 database records.
Rehousing in appropriately sized boxes has created more space in the storage cabinets, and the labelling of the specimens with their current scientific names has made searching for the molluscs much easier both on the museum database and in the drawers themselves.
As the project has evolved, it has become increasingly clear that the scale of the task at hand is much larger than we initially anticipated.
Although most specimens are labelled with original accession numbers which correspond to hard-copy registers, over 70% of the collection does not have a database record.
Therefore, the rehousing and cataloguing work will need to continue after the initial Project deadline of April 2022. Luckily, we have several keen university students willing to volunteer on the project, and as they say, ‘many hands make light work!’
The wonderful discoveries that have already been made, have further validated just how important this project is for widening access to future research of this rich and diverse collection. We can’t wait to see what we might uncover next!