Collections September 2018: Message in a Bottle, Souvenir Stories

As we wind down from the height of summer, travelers and locals alike are headed home with stories of seasonal adventures. Many of us snag souvenirs, from curiously shaped rocks to refrigerator magnets, to carry our fond memories forward. While you can always find a great collection of treasures at the Museum gift shop (an assortment of rubber sharks, anyone? Fossil sea cow hat?), this month we’ll take a closer look at a souvenir found within the Collections: a small glass bottle of crude oil.

This bottle is part of the Laura Hecox Collection, and it is about four inches tall with a wired shut glass stopper. Its contents are the deep brown and black that indicates heavy crude oil. The embossed lettering along the sides of the bottle reads “1904 Bakersfield” and “Kern County Oil”. 1904 was the year that Laura gifted a large portion of her collection to the City of Santa Cruz, so we consider this bottle to be one of those pieces that she was not losing, “taking everyone else into partnership with her enjoyment of it,” as she was quoted by a newspaper of that day.

That same year was also significant in the history of Kern County Oil. The first oil wells were drilled in Kern County in 1877, and subsequent years saw the establishment of many productive oil fields and the incorporation of various companies to capitalize on this resource. It was later, in 1904, that the Kern River oilfield produced 17.2 million barrels of oil, making it the largest oil field in California at that time. While the Kern River oilfield is still producing, our souvenir bottle memorializes this boom in California’s oil industry.

Such souvenirs were not unique — a dip into museum catalogs and collecting blogs shows these sorts of trinkets were widely traded, from Pennsylvania in the 1930s to Norway in the 1980s. The Drake Well Museum and Park in Titusville, Pennsylvania, where the first American oil well was drilled, sells crude oil souvenir bottles to this day. In some cases these souvenirs move beyond the function of history marking or memory making.

The oil in these bottles can have scientific value. Researchers can analyze them to gain a more robust geochemical and historical understanding of their associated wells, for example. Crude oil souvenir bottles can even have philanthropic value. In the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana-based activists organized to sell a limited edition series of bottled spill oil at $1,000 a piece, with proceeds going to support workers whose fishing jobs were devastated.

While a major value of our Kern County oil sample is its ability to speak to the past, it also provides an interesting comparison to the present. Here at the other end of California’s oil history, in which we recognize the climatic consequences of the fossil fuel industry, how do we relate to oil? As we strive to leverage the Collections to connect people to nature and science, it is important to showcase artifacts and specimens that document the changing relationships between people and the natural world.

Collections August 2018: Touchable Taxidermy

A bat. A gopher. An ermine. This month we welcome these new additions to a special part of the Museum’s holdings: Our Education Collection. When we talk about our Collections, we often talk about the distinction between different kinds of objects, like our geology specimens or anthropological artifacts. Another significant line we draw is less about the nature of an item and more about the purpose such an item serves in the life of the Museum. In our primary Collections we include materials that are actively preserved and protected, whether they present a unique avenue of research or are simply too fragile to be handled without damage. Regardless of their condition, an important criteria for these “museum quality” items is that they are accompanied by sufficient data  (e.g. field notes/locality, age, history of object, collector id, etc.) to form the basis for scientific research.

In contrast, the Education Collection consists of those specimens and artifacts that can engage more directly with the general public. Though we may have limited information about these individual specimens and artifacts, they can still support experiential learning through our programs, pop-ups and workshops. They include stones you can heft, furs you can feel, and jaws you can manipulate, all to gain a more hands-on and tactile observation of the natural world. When we are given the opportunity to accept a specimen donation, we gather as much information as we can about it to help us determine whether it belongs in the general Collections or in our Education Collection. If we expect items to be handled on a regular basis, we also consider whether they are safe to touch. Traces of arsenic from dated taxidermy processes sometimes linger in mounts and dioramas, for example.  

When we were offered the specimens featured in this month’s Close-Up, we knew they were great candidates for our Education Collections because they already had a history of being handled. Gifted by a local teacher for the visually impaired, the donation included several small mammals, a bird skeleton and nest, and a red fox. In this context they have been used as an opportunity for blind and visually impaired students to gain a greater understanding of animals through touch. While these specimens were collected in various locations across the West Coast, we can trace their origin as instructional materials to the Palo Alto Unified School District.

The use of taxidermy in visually impaired education and programming has a long-standing presence in natural history museums. As early as 1913, the Sunderland Museum in the United Kingdom offered programs and classes for blind and visually impaired children and adults to touch animal specimens as well as historical and anthropological artifacts. Pictures of these programs are publicly available through the Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums’ Seeing through Touch photo collection. Similarly, in the digital collections of the American Museum of Natural History, a collection of photographs taken between 1914 and 1927 documents public school class visits for blind and visually impaired students. In these photos of what were mostly called “sight conservation classes,” you can see students clustered around a hippopotamus or handling globes of the Earth and Moon.  

Today, teachers still use taxidermy to educate visually impaired students. Several decades-old specimens populate the library at the California School for the Blind, for example, where children can still explore them. These specimens range from a racoon to a coyote to a small pig, though a constant favorite is the bear. While they currently serve as an informal opportunity for students to gain experiential knowledge of animal traits, in previous years they have been used in formal classroom settings.  

Stop by the Museum this month to get a feel for this Close-Up and the unique history these specimens represent.

Collections July 2018: Laura Hecox’s Catalog Books

This July we are taking a closer look at one of Laura Hecox’s catalog books. We have several books associated with our foundational collection, and this particular one is a small leather bound volume entitled “Shell-Book Freshwater Shells 1-244”. Although it belonged to our founder, this book came to the Museum accompanied by the cabinet featured in our Naturalist exhibit, which was built by Adna Hecox for his daughter. Due to Laura’s family connections, these items spent many years at the California School for the Deaf Historical Museum before making their way back to Santa Cruz in the early 1990s.

We’ve been thinking a lot about the documents in our Laura Hecox collection due to our recent project, the Naturalist’s Scrapbook. In this project, which you can find from the Collections page of the Museum’s website, participants can help us explore digitized news clippings from Laura’s late 19th century scrapbook clippings. Not only do these catalog books and scrapbooks possess historical and scientific value, they are also precious because they are the some of the few documents we have that were made by Laura. We can also use them to think about two different but complementary ways of being a naturalist.

Looking first at Shell Book 1-244, we have a plain and straightforward document with entries describing items in Laura’s collection. We have several such books, for shells, fossil shells, and a “Curiosity book” for curio artifacts of historical and anthropological nature. It is possible that more existed, but we see from the ones we have that Laura was following good cataloging form and highlighting meaningful scientific distinctions in separating her collection by type. In this vein, shell specimens are found in shell books, whereas artifacts made from shells are found in the curio book. Another thing we notice about these catalog entries is that they are succinct: entries include the specimen name, a citation for the identification, the location it was found, and the name and locality of the person who provided the specimen. One such example is specimen:

“65 Bythinella Binneyi
Santa Cruz, Cal.
Presented by Mrs. R. H.
Rigg of Santa Cruz, Cal.”

This entry directly follows the text, which was written entirely in cursive. Following standard formatting for scientific names, we would italicize the name and make the species epithet lowercase, like this: “Bythinella binneyi”. Some items are missing information, and sometimes an item will have a name added in pencil above an ink record, suggesting a continual updating of the catalog.  

Parallel with Shell Book 1 – 244, we are also displaying a copy of a clipping from Laura’s scrapbook, which came to our attention through the Naturalist’s Scrapbook project.  Scrapbooking is a more abstract information-gathering practice than shell collecting, and Laura’s scrapbooks reflect her varied interests, with a strong focus in natural history. Entitled “California Shells. An Interesting Report on Conchology,” the featured article opens by acknowledging that the shells of California have “not as yet been fully described”, and then goes on to detail several specimens, with particular focus on their pretty colorations. It then introduces the collection of a San Franciscan, one Rev. Dr. Joseph Rowell, who had an extensive shell collection and spent several years on collecting missions up and down the Pacific coast in the employ of the Smithsonian. Rowell is quoted in the article, describing his collections, his scientific endeavors, and his opinions on the functions of shell features.  

For a woman like Laura, herself known as an avid conchologist, one wonders what information she was collecting with this article. Perhaps she was acquainted with Rowell, given that her collection was popularly known and her lighthouse was in his expedition area. Perhaps his observations on various shells confirmed or contradicted her own. The clipping also alerts the reader to the latest list of California shells published by the Smithsonian, noting that

“. . . this list is probably the latest contribution to our knowledge of California shells. It would, however, scarcely interest the amateur, as most of the additions to shell-lore consist in alternations in scientific nomenclature, or notes of the localities for species rarely found. Still this same list is of value to the general public, as it includes descriptions of two new California species  . . .”

Perhaps this article alerted her to the publishing of a new list of shells – given her interest in updating her catalogues for nomenclature, she many have found this to be just the thing. Or perhaps it put new species on her collecting or trading radar – for many of her shells were presented by folks from beyond California to New York and England. Whether Laura considered herself an amateur or a member of the general public, whether she was collecting shells or clipping news, her work reflects two of the many different ways that you can be a naturalist and observe and gather information about the natural world.

Collections June 2018: An Ohlone Basket

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, we are fortunate to be able to provide local residents and visitors access to one the few existing historical Ohlone baskets. Many of the remaining historical Ohlone baskets are in museums as far away as Europe and even Russia. Here, so close to its origin, it can better be seen within its historical and cultural context.

Our records describe this basket as a “relic of Mission Santa Cruz.” Location of origin helps us understand the history of baskets in cases like this, where we do not have any information about the weaver. Looking at historical baskets, basketry scholars also rely on the presence of technical features that distinguish the baskets from those of other California tribes to identify baskets made by Ohlone peoples, as well as the date the basket was collected and any history of being handed down in local families. The necessity of relying on these clues is partly due to the legacy of colonization. Cultural interruption like that of the Spanish mission system disrupted Native lifeways and traditions through the use of forced manual labor, severe punishments, and the spread of deadly disease.

In about 1885, fifty years or so after the Mission system was officially ended, this basket was collected by James Frazier Lewis. A Santa Cruz resident, Lewis was the son of Patty Reed Lewis, a survivor of the infamous Donner Party. This Ohlone basket was gifted by Robert Knapp, an heir to the Lewis estate, in 1945 to the Museum, where it has been on display or on loan at various points throughout its history.

The basket itself is a gift or funeral basket, made from both traditional, local materials and non-native materials, using traditional techniques. It is coiled to the left, and utilizes willow and bracken root fern. Like many baskets of the region, this basket has been adorned with beadwork. Traditionally the beads would be made from olivella shell disks. However, it was not uncommon to see European glass beads on these baskets, as is the case with this month’s Close-Up. These beads were typical of trade in the 1860s. These beads were sewn on with a single stitch of split willow. With the exception of a few red ones, the beads are white, which gives them a more traditional appearance. According to Christopher Moser in his Native American Basketry of Central California, this basket was originally decorated with Mallard Duck feathers and red Woodpecker scalps between the rim and first row of beadwork.

Because of its history, the basket offers researchers an opportunity to better understand early California, including the ways that the Missions impacted traditional domestic practices and the made-for-sale basketry trade. It also provides us a chance to better understand the role of indigenous women and their work in native life, both prior, during and post-Mission era. And while many may think that basketry is a relic of the past, it is also still very much a living, vibrant practice carried out by today’s Native communities throughout the state and the country. This basket serves as a wonderful connection between the present and past, and is an invaluable reminder of the culture and history contained within it.

Guest Author Maggie Hames was a 2018 SCMNH Collections Intern with a focus on digitization California basketry. Her original post has been updated by Collections Manager Kathleen Aston.

May 2018: Paleobotany

Fossil fern

Spring is coming along nicely at the Museum. We’re super excited about our blooming garden and growing programs related to native plants. For May’s Collection Close-Up, we have arranged a tour of our fossil plant garden. Rather than heading outside, this garden tour will take us into the paleobotany shelves of our paleontology cabinets.

Paleobotany, or fossil plants, is an interdisciplinary field relying on both botanical and geological expertise to investigate questions related to the evolution and natural history of plants. By studying fossil plant material, paleobotanists learn about the ancient organism and also delve into questions such as whether the specimen has close living relatives, how the fossil’s anatomy compares to that of modern plants, what the specimen can tell us about the relationship of different layers of rock and what the specimen can tell us about the the environmental conditions in which it lived.

Not all plant material is resilient enough to be preserved; often it decays or is consumed before it can be buried (and be on its way to fossilization). As a result, plant fossils typically consist of parts of the plant — most commonly, individual leaves or stem pieces. They are also often  preserved as imprints of the original specimen in the rock which holds them instead of preserved material itself. There is still surprisingly a lot of information you can gleam from incomplete fossil plants — from size and shape of the fossil to specific structures, such as veins, thorns and even individual cells under the right magnification.

Here are some of the beautiful specimens from our fossil garden and the stories they tell:

Foissilized Cordia leaf
Cordia leaf

Cordia leaf (Monterey Formation, Miocene epoch). Leaf fossils are the most common macroscopic remains of plants. With its clear leaf shape and veins, this specimen can be identified as a member of the Cordia genus.

Fossilized stem

Stem (Monterey Formation, Miocene epoch). This impression of a stem was found by a Soquel High student in the 1970s. If you look at it closely, you can see the impressions of the plant’s thorns, which are identified in this image by white arrows.

Fossilized Annularia leaf
Annularia leaf

Annularia leaf (Francis Creek Shale, Pennsylvanian epoch). This distinctive whorl of leaflets along a stem belongs to a member of the extinct Calamites family, a tree-like relative of modern horsetail plants. This specimen is one of several in our collection (like the one below) from the Francis Creek Shale, a famous fossil locality known for its unusual preservation of soft-tissued organisms within rounded nodules of rock.

Fossilized fern leaf
Fern leaf

Fern leaf (Francis Creek Shale, Pennsylvanian epoch). This beautiful impression of a fern is another great example from the Francis Creek Shale. Both fossil ferns and sphenopsids (like Annularia above) are commonly found within the rock formation, as are a wide variety of uniquely preserved land and marine fauna.

For a closer look at these fossils, as well as other exhibits and gardens, stop by the Museum through June to look our Collections Close-Up.

April 2018: Ward’s Natural Science Establishment

A natural history museum collection is as much a collection of methods as it is a collection of objects. We learn a lot by looking at these forms of collection, and we benefit from the many local individuals who have contributed their personal materials, their eye for detail, and their passion for the natural world to our museum. Oftentimes our artifacts and specimens connect us to the broader stages of science and history, whether it be our founder Laura Hecox’s correspondence with a Midwestern scientist or the Smithsonian borrowing materials from our ethnographic collections. In our entomology collections, we find specimens that not only represent entomological diversity but also connect us to the history of a natural sciences institution that has played a major role in science education for years: Ward’s Natural Science Establishment.

Ward’s Natural Science Establishment was founded in 1862 by 28 year-old Henry Augustus Ward. Ward was a lifelong student and enthusiast of the natural world, having begun his first collection, a set of geology specimens, at the age of 3. As a young man he took off from the States to travel the globe, gathering specimens all the while. He would even sell fossils he collected to further finance his education in geology. This entrepreneurial spirit served him well, and led to the collection commissions that provided the foundation for Ward’s Natural Science Establishment. Notable collection endeavors include Ward’s stunning fossil, mineral and meteorite display at the 1893 World’s Fair, which was purchased by Marshall Field and donated to what would become the Field Museum in Chicago. During their heydey as a museum’s collections supplier, which lasted through the early 1940s, Ward’s employed many scientists to collect, identify, and prepare their specimens.

While Ward’s was historically known as a premier purveyor of fossils and minerals, their collections products extended into all branches of natural history, including the entomological displays that are this month’s Collections Close-up. Purchased from Ward’s in the 1930s, we’re looking at two displays: “North American Butterfly Chrysalids” includes a chrysalis each of Black Swallowtail, Silver-spotted Skipper, Mourning Cloak, Cabbage, Red Admiral, and Monarch Butterflies. These specimens represent the third stage of the butterfly life cycle, at which point the fully grown caterpillar sheds its exoskeleton to reveal the chrysalis, or pupa, which then hardens to provide a protective shell within which its body will undergo metamorphosis into a butterfly. This stage can last for a few days or up to a year depending on the species.

Our other feature is the display “Protective Nests and Cases made by Insects,” featuring the Orizaba Silkmoth cocoon, Mud Dauber nest, Bagworm bag, Caddisfly case, Mantis egg case, and Acacia Ant with hollowed out thorn. These specimens show greater variance, in that some are cases insects produce whereas others are natural elements insects utilize, and they also show the change in naming, both common and scientific, that can occur as our understandings of insects change: the “orizaba silkworm cocoon, Attacus orizaba” is now referred to as the Orizaba Silkmoth, Rothschildia orizaba.

Alongside their product catalogs, Ward’s also produced bulletins and guides, such as “How to make an insect collection.” Containing a range of information on capturing, breeding, and preparing specimens, the book reflects the company’s overall interest in educating people to do good science: “A job worth doing at all is worth doing well, and a scientific collection of insects cannot be obtained unless certain fundamental methods are followed.” You can find this guide through the Biodiversity Heritage Library repository of digitized biodiversity texts.

Over the years Ward’s Natural Science Establishment has transitioned from primarily serving the collections needs of the museum industry to Ward’s Science, serving the classroom needs of schools and colleges and offering everything from classic educational specimens to AP science activities. Nonetheless, Henry Ward’s passion for engaging natural materials in public displays lives on in museum collections far and wide, from fossils in the Field Museum to chrysalids here in the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.

March 2018: Echinoderms

Starting in March, the Museum is premiering a new blog by Collections Specialist Kathleen Aston called Collections Close-Up, which will feature items from our Collections that are rarely, if ever, on display. In addition to featuring the items in our newsletter and on social media, the Museum will display the items in our galleries in a special exhibit that will change each month.

For March, we are taking a closer look at the Museum’s echinoderm or “spiny skinned” animal collections. Phylum Echinodermata consists of more than 6,500 living species that can be divided into five classes, including sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea lilies/feather stars, and brittle stars. They tend to exhibit a characteristic five-sided, radial symmetry, with arms radiating out from a central body disk. Echinoderms have a unique water vascular system which carries liquid throughout their bodies in a series of tubes, and achieves movement through hydraulically driven tube feet. Additionally, echinoderms have mutable connective tissue, which allows their bodies to quickly transition between rigid and pliant states, meaning they can maintain a variety of postures with no muscular effort.

Now, sea stars like the ones you can find in our touch pool belong to the Class Asteroidea, meaning star-like. Here we are taking a closer look at Class Ophiuroidea, whose name comes from the ancient Greek word for serpent. Members of this class are commonly called brittle stars for the fact that their arms, which regenerate, easily break when caught.  Brittle stars are the most abundant echinoderms, and outnumber sea stars both in number of species and number of individuals. They are often found in thick carpets along the ocean floor, where they tend to feed on small organic particles. In comparison, sea stars tend to feed on relatively larger prey such as clams or snails. Though similar looking, brittle stars structurally differ from sea stars in several ways. Perhaps the easiest distinguishing feature is that while the arms and body of sea stars tend to merge gradually into one another, the long and snake-like arms of brittle stars are distinctly off-set from the disk of the body.

One representative of class Ophiuroidea in our collections is this individual Amphiodia occidentalis (above left), which was collected in Pacific Grove in 1939. First described in the 1860s, this species of long-armed brittle star clearly shows the snaky and sinuous arms attaching to a distinct body disk. As this species has been observed on the Central Coast to avoid areas with wastewater, it can be used as a bioindicator for water quality.

But Class Ophiuroidea has more to offer: basket stars. In basket stars, like this Gorgonocephalus eucnemis (above right),  the creature’s five arms are branched into smaller and smaller subdivisions that give the impression of a tangled basket or nest. Once prey is trapped in these branches, it is immobilized by a secretion of mucus and slowly coiled by the branches to the basket star’s mouth. Basket stars are cold-water creatures, and are found in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans as well as the deep-sea worldwide.

In museum collections, echinoderms are generally preserved as dry specimens when they are going to be studied for skeletal examination. Wet specimens, or preservation in alcohol-based fluids, are preferred for the study of soft tissue, but are also more generally versatile. Modern methods of collecting and preserving echinoderms encourage video documentation prior to preservation, to better capture information regarding behaviors like locomotion and feeding.