Harvard's Indispensable Specimens The back rooms at a Harvard University museum are filled with millions of items that will never be displayed. But curators just can't bring themselves to throw anything away.
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Harvard's Indispensable Specimens

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Harvard's Indispensable Specimens

Harvard's Indispensable Specimens

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One of the country's oldest museums is Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Its main building is more than 150 years old, but the collections date back to the late 1700s. Displays drawn from the collection range from the skeleton of an extinct dodo bird to more than 300 different hummingbirds. But the back rooms are filled with millions of items that will never be displayed. Reporter Harriet Baskas ventured into those back rooms for this installment of the Hidden Treasures radio project.


Every now and then Judy Chupasko, curatorial associate in the Harvard Museum mammology department arms herself with a flashlight and climbs up the short, steep flight of metal stairs above the fifth floor into the attic for some big game hunting.

Ms. JUDY CHUPASKO (Curatorial Associate, Harvard Museum): We have our elephant skeletons and skulls here. We have hippos' and rhino skulls and bones here. And we have a lot of record-size animals, huge spreads on them.

BASKAS: Chupasko says displaying these record-setting specimens would be a challenge because the freight elevator used to haul them up here was removed a long time ago. One floor below, James Hanken, the museum's director, opens a storage cabinet.

(Soundbite of cabinet being opened)

BASKAS: Inside, there's a taxidermied wild turkey--not just any turkey, the turkey.

Mr. JAMES HANKEN (Director, Harvard Museum): This is the loser, but we don't regard it as a loser, of course.

BASKAS: Hanken says this turkey is rumored to be the one considered by the Founding Fathers when they were choosing a national emblem. Of course, they went with the bald eagle, but Hanken says even if the museum had the taxidermied winner, it would also be stored away because this place is about science and nature, not history. Still, he says, there's little chance the turkey or anything else will ever get tossed out.

Mr. HANKEN: It's hard to predict which of your specimens will be useful in the future or not.

BASKAS: That's why, he says, the museum keeps everything, more than 21 million specimens, including the beautiful but scientifically unremarkable birdwing butterflies from Papua New Guinea. They're here because they're all that's left of an expedition led by a scientist who was eaten by cannibals. And among the world's largest collection of ants, there's one special ant.

Mr. STEFAN COVER (Curatorial Assistant, Harvard Museum): And this is the ant in question.

BASKAS: Curatorial assistant Stefan Cover calls this the Stalin ant because it was collected in 1945 by a Harvard professor attending a banquet that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin hosted for visiting US scientists.

Mr. COVER: Professor Shapley, like a good entomologist, saw an ant run across the table, immediately pulled a vial out of some pocket and filled it up with vodka from his glass on the table right under Stalin's nose. And apparently this caused some amusement. It's a completely unremarkable species, but how could I throw it out?

BASKAS: Cover says he can't, in part, because the ant is a tiny reminder of the human story behind the science.

Mr. COVER: You know, we think of scientists in a sterile laboratory running around in white coats with flasks and things like that. In actual fact, science is an incredibly human endeavor, so every specimen here has a story, whether we know it or not.

BASKAS: And you never know when a story will present itself. In a pile of slides ignored for more than a century, Ardis Johnston, curatorial associate for the invertebrates department, discovered a coral skeleton collected by Charles Darwin. But Johnston says another discovery was even more exciting.

Ms. ARDIS JOHNSTON (Curatorial Associate, Invertebrates Department, Harvard Museum): Someone who was working for me about 10 or 15 years ago was reorganizing the worm collections, and he came running in. He said, `The funniest thing.' He said, `The tapeworms are organized on the shelves by Boston street address.' He just thought it was the funniest thing. And, of course, we all did.

BASKAS: When the laughing stopped, Johnston and her staff realized that the addresses on the jars were in some of the city's toniest neighborhoods. The collection offered a somewhat unsettling insight into the social conditions of high-society Boston in the late 1800s.

Ms. JOHNSTON: For instance, this one is from Miss Lottie Fowler, Hayward Road, June 14th, 1880. Length: 45 feet.

BASKAS: It was a date and address attached to another specimen jar that caught the eye of Rowland Shelley from the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. While studying a batch of centipedes borrowed from Harvard's vast collection, he noticed one vial marked `Appomattox Courthouse, April 9th, 1865.'

Mr. ROWLAND SHELLEY (North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences): That turns out to be the date that Lee surrendered to Grant.

BASKAS: The collector's name wasn't listed, but Shelley figured out that when the Confederate general surrendered to his Union counterpart, a naturalist named Theodore Lyman was among the Union soldiers on duty.

Mr. SHELLEY: Lee got there first, and Grant was late. So I can envision Theodore Lyman thinking, `Well, where the heck is Grant? I'm just going to go outside and see if I can find anything,' and just kicking over some logs or something and finding this.

BASKAS: The centipede is a common centipede, but Shelley believes its link with history should set it apart.

Mr. SHELLEY: I think it should be in a special place, in a different place than just hidden away in the middle of this collection, where nobody's going to see it and nobody's going to know about it.

BASKAS: For now, he's just happy it's safe and sound at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, where it'll never be thrown away and where it serves as a silent reminder that behind almost every momentous human event, there are plants and animals going about their own business. For NPR News, I'm Harriet Baskas.

NORRIS: To see photos of the Boston tapeworms and some other specimens at the Harvard Museum, go to our Web site, npr.org.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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