Fish Collection Begins Its Move to Temporary Storage main content.

Fish Collection Begins Its Move to Temporary Storage

by AMNH on

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The fish are on the move—all 2.8 million of them.

The Museum’s ichthyology collection—one of the largest and most important research collections in North America—is being transferred to a temporary storage space on campus, a move that marks the first time in more than 50 years that these specimens will be moved en masse.

Partial view of skeletal specimen with hand-written tag that reads: leopard shark jaw, 1924.
Skeletal specimens such as this leopard shark jaw from 1924 have been transferred to temporary storage in a retrofitted Museum space.
D. Finnin/© AMNH

There are more than 34 million specimens and artifacts in the Museum’s overall collection, which form the primary scientific evidence for researchers—including about 200 Museum scientists and 1,200 visiting researchers from around the world each year—as well as an irreplaceable record of life on Earth. Each specimen offers a snapshot of a specific species and of its environment, some of which have changed dramatically or even disappeared in the past century. Many specimens are the products of far-flung expeditions, representing extraordinary efforts in collections, preservation, analysis, and study. 

The new Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation will include a multi-story Collections Core to house millions of specimens and to reveal for visitors how foundational collections are to scientific research and to the Museum’s mission. The ichthyology collection, among others, will ultimately be placed in the Collections Core.

In the meantime, temporary collections storage has been carved out of existing Museum spaces, which have been retrofitted to ensure that ichthyology specimens are not only safely stored but remain accessible to Museum scientists, graduate students, and visiting scholars who work with them regularly.

“The most important thing for an active research collection is that it continues to be usable,” says Scott Schaefer, the Museum’s dean of science for collections, exhibitions, and the public understanding of science, who is also a curator in the Department of Ichthyology. “We’ve designed the space to accommodate visiting scientists to come here and work for short-term or mid-term periods.”

So far, about 1 percent of the Museum’s entire ichthyology collection—about 20,000 dry skeletal specimens—has been relocated.

A shark jaw rests on the table, propped up by custom made foam blocks. Conservator stands behind it.
Specimens require special packaging, including custom foam blocks, to ensure safe transport and storage.
D. Finnin/© AMNH

Collections staff have been working closely with conservators to package and transfer the specimens, some of which are nearly 100 years old. The process requires creating custom packaging for some specimens, allocating extra room so that the collection can continue its annual growth, and sticking to a precise order to ensure continued accessibility and usability of an active research collection.

“It’s like moving books in a library—if you don’t put them in the proper order in the final destination, you have lost the ability to find that book among the thousands,” says Schaefer.

Two conservators slide a tray with a shark jaw into a metal case for transport across the Museum.
The dry skeletal collection, which includes about 20,000 specimens, has been relocated to its new space.
D. Finnin/© AMNH

Up next is the much larger “wet collection”—roughly 2.8 million specimens that are stored in tanks of various sizes, some of which weigh up to 2,000 pounds. These include such rare and large specimens as the coelacanth.

A row of new shelving and cases, under fluorescent lights, stands ready for a collections transfer.
Existing spaces on campus have been retrofitted to safely house the ichthyology specimens, with space for Museum scientists and visiting researchers to regularly access collections.
D. Finnin/© AMNH