At The Field Museum, visitors can see thousands of scientific specimens, from SUE the T. rex to tiny beetles. But those objects make up less than one percent of the more than thirty million objects in the Museum’s collections, most of which are tucked away behind the scenes and used in scientific research. This March, the Museum will open a new exhibition, Specimens: Unlocking the Secrets of Life, to highlight the hidden world of the Museum’s collections, delving into what the Field collects and why those specimens matter.
“Lots of people don’t realize that we have collections behind the scenes—let alone collections numbering over thirty million objects—and that the Museum is an active research institution where scientists work and make discoveries based upon these collections,” says Jaap Hoogstraten, Director of Exhibitions. “Specimens will help share those stories.”
Visitors to the exhibition can see some of the most amazing objects in The Field’s collections, including a giant clamshell (that they can touch), a nearly six-foot-long sawfish snout (or “rostrum,” to use the technical term), and a drawer full of now-extinct butterflies with silvery-blue wings. They can also try their hand at sorting seashells into different species and walk into a reconstructed map-lined office of a long-time Museum curator. (He glued dots on the maps to indicate the locations of water beetles.)
An interactive touchscreen encourages visitors to explore ancient insects—millions of years old—trapped in amber. (Remember Jurassic Park? Instead of extracting DNA to resurrect long-dead dinosaurs, scientists take micro-CT scans of the insects to learn more about their biology.)
Most importantly, says Hoogstraten, visitors can learn the stories of how The Field Museum’s collections have helped shape scientific research in key and unexpected ways.
“When our scientists collect a specimen, they don’t know all of the ways it’ll be used in the future,” explains Marie Georg, the exhibition’s lead developer. “We have gulls in our collection that were used to determine that mercury levels in the oceans have been rising over time. We have minerals that researchers analyze and compare to the chemical makeup of meteorites so we can learn more about the origins of our planet. When these specimens were collected—last year, in the 1950s, or the 1890s—scientists could have scarcely imagined that they’d be used in these ways.”
“Museum collections are a way to preserve the past so that we can learn from it in the future,” says Hoogstraten “If you have a specimen of a water beetle from Mexico collected in 1897, that’s a little window into the past. You can never go back to 1897 Mexico, so having a specimen from that time and place is the only way for scientists to learn about it. That’s why our collections are invaluable.”
Specimens will run from March 10, 2017, through January 7, 2018. It will be included in Discovery and All-Access passes.