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Washington State University
CAS Connect October 2013

Imagination at 80 below

Tucked away in a small back room on the ground floor of Abelson Hall are two bulky, gray freezers. A quiet hum accompanies the green electronic display glowing steadily at minus 80 degrees Celsius—a temperature colder than a winter night at the South Pole and extreme enough that a cup of boiling water placed inside would quickly turn to vapor.

Kelly Cassidy (’91 PhD, botany), curator for the Charles R. Conner Museum of Natural History, swings open one of the wide doors and wisps of water vapor cascade down five frosty panels.  Behind each panel are neat rows of white boxes, hand-labeled with names like horned lark, black-capped chickadee, American Robin, and black-billed magpie.

Cassidy, her hands purposely gloved for protection from the intense cold, slides out a trayCassidy, her hands purposely gloved for protection from the intense cold, slides out a tray and opens one of the boxes to reveal rows and rows of tiny vials with bright orange caps. Inside each vial are tissue samples from the museum’s horned lark specimens, patiently waiting for the next revolution in biochemical or molecular analysis.

“The thing about museums is we have to try to store items without knowing what technology in the future will need,” said Cassidy.

The minus-80 degree freezers are just one important new feature of the extensive mammal and bird research collection at WSU, and just one of several improvements made possible by a three-year, $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In 2010, before work funded by the grant began, the Conner Museum was out of storage space. Existing specimens were packed tightly on wooden trays in aging corrugated steel cases. A backlog of several thousand specimens, some more than 30 years old, waited in a walk-in storage freezer for someone with enough time and expertise to prepare them. New specimens were being accepted only after careful consideration.  The WSU research collection is valuable for both its age and its range, so deaccession of specimens was not a viable long-term option.

“Being full is something that all museums ultimately face,” said Larry Hufford, interim director of the Conner Museum.

Natural history collections are also expensive to maintain and do not typically bring in external funding; many universities are quitting the museum business altogether and either giving away or not maintaining their collections. For example, in 2003 WSU absorbed a collection of birds and mammals from the University of Idaho that took up the much of the Conner’s available space.

hand-written labels attached to the legs of collected birds

With funding from the grant in place, Hufford and Cassidy first reallocated the storage space to make room for 60 new reinforced steel cases with coated steel trays and hinged doors. With a total of 250 cases now on hand, the museum would have room to grow and the existing collection could be spread out and assessed.

Next, it was time to address the backlog in the freezer. Two graduate assistants were hired to prepare animal specimen skins and skeletons. In addition, samples of muscle, heart, and liver tissue were collected from each one, tagged, and carefully stored in the new ultra-cold freezers. Then, just as Cassidy and her assistants were clearing the mammal backlog, the museum received new specimens from Okanogan County via the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“I was glad to get the Okanogan specimens, since we don’t get many from that county, but now the walk-in freezer hardly looks any emptier than when we started,” said Cassidy.

Finally, the NSF grant made it possible to finish entering existing specimen data in two national online registries: MaNIS for mammals and OrNIS for birds.

For every research specimen, the museum retains information about its provenance: where it came from, who collected it, when it was collected, and perhaps other conditions at the time. The data may also include who used that specimen over time. This information is now available to researchers worldwide, instantly and free of charge.

Beyond the research collection, the Conner Museum also maintains a sizable teaching collection: specimens that are loaned out to WSU professors for hands-on classroom experience.

Fine arts faculty might request items for drawing models or have students visit the public galleries; anthropology regularly borrows a set of primate skulls and study skins. Students in natural resource science and biology courses use the Conner collection to study adaptations and intra-species variations. Ornithology students have the opportunity to closely inspect and handle a wide range of regional birds, and the mammology class has a unique opportunity to personally compare three ursus specimens side-by-side: a polar bear, a grizzly bear, and a brown bear.

Hufford, who is also a professor of biology and director of the School of Biological Sciences, has worked with interior design classes on design practices for public displays and with the History Club to explore the history of museums in general.

“A museum is limited only by imagination,” he said. “We encourage people from across campus and the community to think about how they would like to use the museum and we will work to facilitate it.”

Learn more

Read about the Conner Museum in Washington State Magazine and watch the video to learn about stable isotope testing.

Visit the Conner Museum online

Take a look behind the scenes at the Conner Museum

What is the Conner Museum?

A natural history museum and research collection; mounted displays in the south end of Abelson Hall are free and open to the public, 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. daily (except major holidays).

The bulk of the museum’s much larger research collection is kept in specially designed storage cases and freezers elsewhere in the building, while less-requested materials are kept in long-term storage in Commons Hall.

What is in the research collection?

  • 31,000+ mammals (prepared skins, skeletons, teeth, and tissue samples)
  • 17,000+ birds (prepared skins, wings, heads, skeletons, and tissue samples)
  • Plus 6,000+ amphibians and reptiles, and 2,000+ fish

 Worldwide scope

Although the Conner Museum is a substantial resource for natural history of the Inland Pacific Northwest, the collection includes some interesting subsets:

  • 10 Trumpeter Swans
    Donated by the Dept. of Natural Resources after autopsies at the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine.
  • One of the largest collections of birds from the Marianas Islands in the south Pacific
    Collected by former graduate students on a survey for the Fish and Wildlife Service; half of the collection went to the Smithsonian and half to WSU.
  • One Bactrian (two-humped) camel
    From a private collector via the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine.
  • An extensive collection of elephant teeth
    Provided along with other African mammal specimens collected by a group of WSU professors during a research trip in the 1950s.
  • One polar bearskin rug
    Donated by a Pullman resident, collected by her grandfather in 1963. More about the bearskin
  • Earliest specimens
    Eastern meadowlark, Swainson’s thrush and several other birds from Illinois, collected circa 1886 and part of a collection displayed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.