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Ichthyology Collection

Integration of UM Collection

Integration of University of Miami Collection

With the acquisition of the University of Miami (UMML) collection of fishes, the staff of the Florida Museum of Natural History's Division of Ichthyology (UF) has embraced not only a significant responsibility, but also a formidable task load. The steps being taken to curate and assimilate the UMML collection and once again render accessible this valuable body of research materials are extensive, time consuming, and all together rewarding.


The first issue confronting the UF staff has been one of logistics. At this time the entire UMML collection cannot fit into existing Ichthyology space within the Florida Museum of Natural History, but more space will be made available in the near future. Considering the large size of the UMML collection and the somewhat sobering lack of available space currently allocated to Ichthyology, an affordable storage facility was secured to house the boxed collection upon its arrival in Gainesville. This warehouse, located in the town of Alachua, nearly 20 miles north of the Museum, provides a 4,086 square foot room for the temporary storage of the Miami collection.

Collection Manager Rob Robins

All catalogued specimens, boxed and arranged by family during packing in Miami, are labeled accordingly and tracked by a master inventory log. These large boxes are stacked two high and consume the majority of the warehouse space. Large storage jars (2-, 3-, and 5-gallons) and specimen tanks are stored here as well.
Given this foundation for the task of integrating the UMML collection with that of the existing UF collection, the process of bringing the collection to the museum has been approached under a system of calculated priority.

As a prelude to any specimens actually being introduced to the UF collection, the contents of all UMML catalog books had to be entered into the UF customized electronic database, an aspect of the project that was begun and largely completed in 1995. In order to avoid any numerical conflict, while maintaining the integrity of the former UMML catalog numbers, the sum of 200,000 was added to every cataloged UMML lot. Thus, UMML 1 became UF 200,001 and any conflict with UF 1 was avoided. A simple subtraction of 200,000 will identify any UMML material cited in publication prior to the move to UF. With the database reflecting the addition of the UMML records, curation of the actual specimen lots was begun.

Jars of Fish
From the outset, gaining a complete accounting of the important UMML type specimens has been a foremost concern. Consequently, every effort was made in pre-shipment visits to UMML and during the packing of the collection in Miami in December 1995 to isolate all type specimens. At UF, once these types were inventoried and curated, the focus was shifted to those specimens housed in small glass screw-top vials. Segregated from the jarred materials during packing, these vials represented the material most susceptible to desiccation due to their ill-designed seals. To date, approximately 9,825 specimen lots formerly housed in glass screw top vials have been inventoried, curated, and assimilated into the UF collection. Curation included removing specimens from existing vials and placing then in new plastic vials with slip-on caps, changing the alcohol, adding new UF labels, and placing the vials in aggregate vial-lot jars. Our current task, stage three of the project, involves curating small jar lots in a group by group fashion. The final phase of the process will involve curation of the largest specimens, which are housed in tanks and large jars. Although few in number compared to the collection as a whole, this material represents a substantial challenge in terms of bulk and requisite resources.

The details involved in effecting the physical improvements listed above are considerable. The catalogued UMML material numbers in excess of 33,500 specimen lots. Currently, the Ichthyology Division employs 5 full time workers and 17 part time undergraduate volunteers and staff. Nearly the entire staff is dedicated to the UMML project in some capacity. Such cosmopolitan involvement can be directly attributed to the fact that this project offers students and staff alike an unparalleled exposure to countless examples of the vast diversity of fishes. The very nature of the UMML collection has encouraged a great deal of interest and motivation to all of those involved.

Collection Move Collection Move Collection Move

Collection Collection Move Collection Manager Rob Robins
Boxed specimen lots are retrieved from the Alachua storage facility and brought to the Museum by pickup truck. Upon arrival, the boxes are unloaded and carted to the courtyard outside the Ichthyology division. Museum collections policy dictates that all packing materials, including the boxes, be fumigated before they can be brought into the museum in order to prevent the introduction of pest organisms. Consequently, all specimen lots are removed from the boxes in the courtyard and carted to a staging area just outside the fish range for work-up. Boxes, paper, and the like are taken to a fumigation chamber so that they may be utilized at other stages in the project. Once situated in the staging area, individual trays of specimen lots are brought to database computer workstations for inventory. At this time, specimen lots are noted as found and any relevant comments regarding their condition, history, and present disposition are recorded. If needed, collection data is augmented. Once a tray of jars has been serviced in this fashion, new UF labels bearing the modified catalogued number are produced.

Curation and Collection Work
Curation and Collection Work
Curation and Collection Work
Curation and Collection Work
Subsequently, direct work on the specimen lots begins. When a student or staff member retrieves a tray of inventoried materials, a number of curatorial actions are made to those specimen lots. All isopropanol is replaced with fresh 50% isopropanol, as it is often the case that the alcohol has become compromised in quality or strength over time. Each specimen lot receives the aforementioned new UF label. All former labels and collector or determiner inserts are retained and placed directly behind the new UF label. All bakelite (hard black plastic) caps are replaced with new polypropylene caps with polyethylene liners that provide much greater resistance to evaporation than the archaic bakelite closures. Crayon markers are used for inscribing the new UF catalogue number on each new cap. This final touch facilitates locating individual jars when viewing numerous jars on shelves within the collection. Identified but uncatalogued lots that appear in the boxes of catalogued materials are dealt with in much the same fashion as outlined above, save for the insertion of a UF catalogue label. Time constraints prohibit cataloguing these lots at this time. Discarded caps, the occasional unusable glassware, and the many gallons of replaced alcohol are all dealt with appropriately. Such materials are recycled, discarded, or in the case for much of the alcohol, removed by UF's environmental health and safety department for incineration. Once curated in this fashion, the specimen lots are ready for integration with the existing UF collection.

Creating space for these curated UMML materials is a full time job. In order to achieve this end, potential tradeoffs have had to be identified, considered carefully, and eventually put into practice. In this vein, all large UF specimens maintained in large jars stored on the bottom shelves of the compacted collection have been displaced to climate-controlled former exhibit areas of the Museum. This exchange, although far from ideal, has made available approximately 2700 square feet of shelf space throughout the collection for shelving catalogued UMML small jars and vial lots. Other temporary displacements similar to the one described above have also been carried out in order to meet the overall goal of a united, well-maintained, and functional collection, including transfer of all UF backlog lots to the off-site storage facility.

Curation and Collection Work Curation and Collection Work Curation and Collection Work Curation and Collection Work
With a design for creating needed space in hand, it would seem logical to assume that the process of integration could begin in earnest. But before the large-scale physical integration of the collections could begin, a modification to the arrangement of the collection as a whole was agreed upon. Traditionally, the UF collection was ordered according to Jordan's 1923 Classification of Fishes. Since virtually every jar in the existing UF collection was expected to be moved as part of the UMML integration process, all principals involved in the project agreed that the timing was right for revising the existing numerical arrangement of the collection to reflect a more modern and consistent phylogeny. Consequently, all UMML material is being integrated in a phylogenetic sequence reflective of Eschmeyer's 1990 classification of fishes, joining relocated UF lots in this new numerical system. Physically moving every jar in the collection also has allowed us to discover and deal with any UF lots needing curatorial attention. The combined catalogued collection numbers approximately 143,000 specimen lots and only tank specimens have escaped the scope of this process to date. In addition, about 70,000 identified but uncatalogued UF and UMML lots are or will be shelved alongside catalogued material, resulting in about 213,000 lots available for study.

From conception to completion, the process of transferring, curating, and integrating the UMML collection of fishes is expected to encompass a period of nearly 5 years. As consuming as this work has been, there are still other facets of the UMML collection not mentioned above that remain unfinished. Future UMML-related projects of this ilk include not only topics pertaining to the UMML catalogued material, such as reconciling open UMML loans and documenting UMML-cited materials, but also the cataloguing of the uncatalogued portions of the UMML collection. This segment of the collection is estimated to be larger in number than the catalogued collection and includes such valuable material as the Tongue of the Ocean survey collections. We have designated the curation of the uncatalogued portion of the UMML as our next area of focus.

As challenging as this project may seem given the details outlined above, the outlook of those involved has remained thoroughly positive and enthusiastic throughout the process. The work embodied by this project affords divisional staff a tremendous educational opportunity and valuable museum experience. As decidedly important as this project has been for the Museum and for the ichthyological community, the value of the experience for the individuals involved cannot be overestimated.

-compiled by:

Rob Robins & George Burgess (1998)