These days, “digitization” is a frequently heard word around the museum. Through the years, there have been some interesting projects that bring natural history specimens to more people through pictures (see for example the on-line archive of the Berlin negatives of type plant specimens). We are doing a project in the Bird Division we call “The Egg Book.” It is a project that is being done with Ivy Press as part of a series of books they have completed in collaboration with the University of Chicago Press which includes The Book of Leaves and The Book of Fungi. Our book is progressing on a rapid schedule. It will showcase the eggs of 600 species of birds, most of which will come from our collection, but not all as I talk about below.
The photos are being taken by John Weinstein, the museum’s photographer who has done a variety of great photographic work that Gems and Gemstones: Timeless beauty of the natural world and other museum projects. Like always, I could go on and on about the various stories we could tell from these eggs (for instance, see this older blog post). The text for the book provides a wide variety of natural history and scientific information along with information about the eggs and nests for each species. It is being written by Mark Hauber, an expert in avian reproduction from Hunter College in New York. Michael Hanson, a former Loyola University undergrad and talented artist has been doing maps, and Barbara Becker is the coordinator for the project. Barb works as an independent consultant now, but she used to work in the museum’s exhibit department. She keeps us all in line as we coordinate writing and reading text, making maps, and lining up photos of the species for the engraver. She and I have been working in the collection every few weeks to pull out the next group of egg sets to bring over to John to photograph. The end result will be a really great display of our egg collection.
But as good as our egg collection is, the truth is that it was missing some species and groups of birds that we wanted to include. So in late November of last year, I made arrangements for John and I to travel out to the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, California. The Western Foundation has the best collection of eggs in the world. Director Linnea Hall and Collections Manager René Corado welcomed us and let John set up his equipment for two days of photographing the eggs of species we were missing like Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) and Great Bowerbird (Chlamydera nuchalis, John's photo of the egg of this species is at the top of the blog post). These are species whose eggs will be represented in few collections anywhere, but thanks to Linnea, René and the WFVZ, they will be pictured in our book. Our time at the Western Foundation just reminded me of why different collections are so important. For one thing, each collection really is unique.
The collection room of the Foundation is full of taxidermy and nests; one could spend hours just wandering around (I confess that while John was working, I had the luxury to do a little of this). They have an outstanding natural history library and a wonderful skin collection with important holdings of traditional bird specimens from North and Middle America, Africa and Asia. But the egg collection which was originally created through the efforts of the founder Ed Harrison is just so special that it was a great honor to be able to get to know it even for the short time we had. They have over 225,000 sets of eggs! What a scientific resource.
So we’ll publicize the Book of Eggs when it comes out. It will represent a lot great work by a variety of people and digitizes part of another beautiful and scientifically valuable natural history collection housed at our museum.