With a few exceptions, the University’s archaeological and biological collections have been hidden in storage for decades. Over the last few years, students and professors have restored many of the fossils and samples, used them for research, and worked to display them across campus—students might recognize the dinosaur footprints on the walls of the Fishbowl or the glyptodon cast on display next to the Science Library.
When it opened in 1831, the University received its first fossil and mineral specimens from North College. They continued to accumulate specimens throughout the nineteenth century, and in 1871, Judd Hall was built as a natural history museum. The collections’ early curators included George Brown Goode as well as S. Ward Loper.
Scientists’ interest in the museum declined during the early twentieth century as molecular biology research eclipsed ecological observation and collection, and the curation position was left vacant when Loper died in 1910. In 1957, the University’s growing demand for laboratory space led to the closure of the museum in Judd Hall. The specimens were donated, discarded, or relocated to storage arrangements, which were expected to be temporary but lasted for 13 years. Some items were stored in the tunnels under Foss Hill, which left them vulnerable to moisture, theft, and breakage.
In 1970, Professor of Geology Joe Webb Peoples gathered some of the stored items and founded the Wesleyan Museum of Natural History, now called the Joe Webb Peoples Museum, on the fourth floor of Exley Science Center. This museum displays mostly fossils and minerals, which belong to the Joe Webb Peoples Archaeological Collection, and is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The University’s other natural history specimens belong to the George Brown Goode Biological Collection, which is located in Shanklin Laboratory and includes osteological (bone) specimens, mounted butterflies, taxidermy birds, and marine specimens in jars. Students are working to start tour programs for both collections.
In 2017, Smith Curator of Paleontology of the Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History and Emeritus Research Professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences Ellen Thomas began working with students to restore, catalog, and display specimens that were in storage. In addition to small fossils, they looked for certain large casts that had been displayed decades ago at the Judd Hall museum, including a giant ground sloth that Thomas ultimately learned had been destroyed.
“I talked with several people who, when they were students in the seventies, had actually helped with unpacking the stuff,” Thomas said. “They said that there were bits and pieces left from the ground sloth, but they were all broken, and they threw them all away. So I could report sadly to the provost that it all ended with the giant ground sloth.”
Thomas was able to find a cast of a fossilized glyptodon—a giant extinct animal related to armadillos—in the tunnels under Foss Hill. She worked with Yu Kai Tan BA ’20 MA ’21 and Andy Tan ’21 to restore the cast, purchase the head and three feet that were missing, and set it up as a display. These students also helped to restore the skull of a deinotherium—a massive prehistoric relative of elephants—which is currently on display outside the Woodhead Lounge in Exley Science Center.
All items from the collections that were in the tunnels have now been relocated to Shanklin Laboratory and Exley Science Center. Fletcher Levy ’23, a leader of the Unique Collections Club, said proper storage conditions are important.
“[The specimens] are now being rehoused…because they spent a lot of time in probably a dank tunnel, and not really being taken care of,” Levy said. “Now, we want to make sure we treat them with as much respect as possible, so they don’t end up disintegrating.”
According to Professor of Biology Ann Burke, the marine specimens are in particular need of restoration.
“The labels are often missing or very illegible, and they might just be a [species] name, [not saying] where the thing came from or when it was collected,” Burke said. “So, that part of the collection is probably in the worst shape in a curatorial sense. But we still hope to resurrect the specimens that we can because they’re still intrinsically interesting and beautiful objects.”
Vivian Gu ’23 is preparing to install an exhibit at Shanklin Laboratory to display birds that Charles H. Neff, a curator at the Wesleyan Museum of Natural History, killed and preserved with taxidermy in 1874 and 1875. Currently, Gu is working to match the physical birds to the hunting record in Neff’s field notebook and the preservation notes in his memorandum book. These records sometimes reveal a specimen’s identity and history.
“The records are a little bit spotty, but I think there’s a good historical argument that some of the birds we have in our collections right now, we can trace to, one, his memorandum book, and then two, also his field notebook,” Gu said. “[We can say] that’s the literal bird that he saw.”
Gu added that one of Neff’s goals in collecting specimens was to help others learn to identify birds, but the collection’s significance today is more than purely scientific.
“[We’re showing] not just ‘this is what this bird looks like,’ because you could just google that, [but also] the history of the museum and the history of how natural science was done,” Gu said.
In addition to restorations and creating displays, students are cataloging the specimens in a new, publicly searchable database called Specify 7. It will include the physical details of each specimen, as well as its species and place of origin when possible. Students are also using 3D scanning technology to create digital models of samples, which have made it easier for scientists to use collections for research without traveling to the University.
Recent research projects on the collections have included a master’s thesis on freshwater mussels, which Yu Kai Tan completed in collaboration with Andy Tan. The project used 3D scanning technology to measure the shells’ features and compared current mussel populations with data from the 1800s, illuminating ecological changes caused by human activity.
Thomas also described a project where Melissa McKee BA ’17 MA ’18 and Sajirat “Bright” Palakarn ’20 helped to identify an unknown fossil that was 460 million years old and was collected by Loper in the 1890s. The students discovered that the specimen’s mineral composition was characteristic of a vertebrate, which was a key step toward its ultimate identification as a lamprey relative (jawless fish).
“[The fossil] was kind of shapeless,” Thomas said. “There was a big debate on what it was. People said it was a fish, people said it was a sponge, people said it was a coral, people said it was an ammonite [a spiral-shelled mollusk]…. Some students here used a scanning electron microscope, and they found out that the mineral it consisted [of] is calcium phosphate and not calcium carbonate, which means that it’s got to be a fish relative.”
Levy noted that the research opportunities and the size of the University’s natural history collections are uncommonly expansive for a small liberal arts college. Levy encouraged interested students to contact him or the collection’s curators about joining the Unique Collections Club, where they can get involved with projects and learn about taxonomy, anatomy, specimen photography, and other skills.
“If you’re interested in natural history or, in general, collections, archaeology, any kind of work that can be done with these kinds of historic objects, please reach out,” Levy said. “There is a place on this campus that has been created and is still growing and burgeoning, and…has been one of the most satisfying opportunities I’ve had at Wesleyan.”
Anne Kiely can be reached at email@example.com