A Week of Shadowing–Brought to you by Sara

Museums are magical, wonderful places filled with dead things, and a seemingly endless array of shelves and cabinets. It’s amazing.

My first experience with The Ohio State University (OSU) was a campus tour in the midst of junior year’s frantic, college-search during summer. But when that haze settled and senior year rolled around with the spring time shadowing, I knew exactly where I wanted to go: OSU Museum of Biodiversity (MBD). Natural museums and specimen preparation had always piqued my interest. There was a place where I could go through archives and archives of animals and potentially skin a dead bird? Count me in.

I didn’t live in the area, though my relatives did, so getting to the museum took some arrangement. (I live in Alabama, so readjusting to this foreign phenomenon of “snow” took time). But when I did manage to straighten everything out, I was incredibly excited. I walked into the Tetrapod Collection to be greeted by a labyrinth of shelves and dead things.

Picture of Tetrapod shelving units full of their mounted bird specimens

The labyrinth of shelves and dead things

As enthusiastic as I was and am about museums, I certainly didn’t know everything they did or how they stayed organized. Stephanie and Emily (MBD’s Tetrapod Collection Staff) were quick to remedy that for me. There was running around and sorting aplenty: I learned about shelf life, databases, how to sort specimens, sew tags, create loans, and pick out the most appealing animals for classes (i.e. the taxidermy that isn’t glaring at you).

Picture of mounted mink specimens barring their teeth.

Not sure if you are judging me or not…

Many classrooms, organizations, and artists borrow items—ranging from images to boxed-up owls—from museums, and with good reason. Museums are interactive, interdependent systems that rely on each other and the community to remain operational. They are constantly growing and changing catalogs with an infinite supply of valuable information. The more people that recognize museums importance, the better. While museum work has its fair share of tedium between fun, I’m now confident that I want to work in one. The hard work needed to run a museum is worth it.

A drawer full of skinned shorebirds.

A drawer full of skinned shorebirds.

I also learned that when skinning a bird, cornmeal is the answer to everything. In fact, it’s so eager to share its knowledge and worth that will get everywhere. There will be cornmeal in your dreams twenty years from now. Accept it. Aside from the omnipresent cornmeal, I learned how to put a round skin together from top to bottom, and went through the entire process of inverting and re-stuffing a bird. My subject was a House Sparrow. Although he lost weight during the ordeal, after all the brain-scooping, measuring, humerus trimming, and stuffing, he was back to his fluffy plump self.

Picture of a House Sparrow

The beginning of the process

A picture of a House Sparrow with it's sternum exposed, and it's body covered in cornmeal.

The beginning of the process

A picture of the house sparrow carcass almost completely detached from the specimen's skin

Removing the carcass

A picture of an empty House Sparrow skin.

A fully inverted skin!

A fully skinned, House sparrow specimen that has been re-stuffed making it a round skin.

All finished, time to pin the bird so it can dry.

A bird wrapped in cheese cloth, pinned to a styrofoam board to dry.

The pinned specimen, which will dry and be put in the collection.

While the Tetrapod Collection was amazing, it wasn’t the only part of the biodiversity building I visited. Thanks to Dr. Angelika Nelson (Curator of the Tetrapod and Borror Lab collections), I also got to see the Borror Lab of Bioacoustics, and go on a birdwatching trek. I watched the lab digitize animal calls and transfer them from cassettes to the internet, where they would be available for anyone to access. Birds are giving mammals a run for their money as my favorite animals after my visit to the MBD. Besides just listening to birds, I saw many of Ohio’s local avian residents with my own eyes through a pair of binoculars. The Red-winged Blackbirds are out in full this season, noisily perching atop any shrub they can find and displaying. The wetlands, as a whole, are teeming with life.

A round skin of a Red-winged Blackbird male.

Red-winged Blackbird, a species that is alive and well in the wetlands.

Sadly, my week-long shadowing experience at OSU is drawing to an end. Though I stayed in the Tetrapod and Borror Biacoustic collections, the Triplehorn Insect, Acarology, Ichthyology, and Mollusk collections are all wonderful as well. I owe lots of thanks to Dr. Angelika Nelson, Stephanie Malinich, and everyone at the museum for making this possible and showing me around. It’s dismaying that I won’t get to visit the museum again for a long time. But this visit was amazing in every regard, and reminded me why I love museums.

I’m probably still going to find cornmeal in my pockets after I’ve left…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *