The Intersection of Archives and Natural History

Archives + Audiences: Michelle S. Koo on the Museum of Vertebrate and Zoology Collections at University of California Berkeley.

This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work. In this post, COPA Early Career Member and Archivist, Kristianna Chanda interviews Michelle Koo, manager of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology Archives at University of California Berkeley. Koo’s fields include Biodiversity Informatics and Evolutionary Biogeography. Her research integrates biocollections and fieldwork and she is also involved in the Grinnell Resurvey Project, an effort to track 80-year-old sites in California to examine species distribution and study the impact of climate change. Although she is technically not an archivist, she has worked with archivists and offers her insight into the world of archives and natural history.

KC: Please tell us about your organization.

New Guinea bird specimens.

MK: MVZ Archives is one collection in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, which is a Natural History Museum at UC Berkeley. The museum was founded in 1907 by a donation from C & H Sugar heiress Annie Alexander. Alexander was an amazing person who grew up doing whatever she wanted, including going on safaris with her father and learning about natural history, unusual for a woman in the 19th C. She became a well-known paleontologist and decided that California needed a natural history museum to rival the great museums of the east coast. The MVZ was therefore her answer to Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology or the American Museum of Natural History, but it was a research museum. The MVZ does not have public exhibits per se, it is a research-only collection.

KC: What kinds of collections do you preserve?

MK: The MVZ Archives goes back to the founding of the museum. The museum’s first director, ornithologist Joseph Grinnell, insisted on a specific, highly structured approach to field journals. He exhorted his students and employees to note everything: birds observed, scat, habitat, habitat usage, species’ interactions, thereby giving context to specimens researchers collected. They also created extensively annotated maps and photographed the landscape and specimens. That documentation formed the basis for our archival collections.

We like to quote Grinnell often and one of his most famous quotes is (I’m paraphrasing this of course) “These scientific collections won’t gain their main value until a century or more has passed. We are collecting for the students of the future.” With that in mind, he wanted to document the rapidly changing landscape of California. He would be horrified by the rate of change today but at the time, he was also alarmed, so he systematically created what we today call “biodiversity surveys” of some of the most remote parts of California. Resurveys began around 2000 and continue to this day. These resurveys are some of the best evidence we have of how the last century of climate change impacts specific species, so Grinnell was almost prophetic in understanding that today, we continue to collect data for the students who will conduct resurveys 100 years from now.

At this point I wish to emphasize what I believe will ultimately prove to be the greatest value of our museum. This value will not, however, be realized until the lapse of many years, possibly a century, assuming that our material is safely preserved. And this is that the student of the future will have access to the original record of faunal conditions in California and the west, wherever we now work. Joseph Grinnell

KC: Because of the collections’ relevance to the current climate change crisis, have you seen it gain popularity?

MK: If you measure popularity by use, then our usage has never waned, but the type of use has changed dramatically as science and technology have advanced. In the past, researchers might measure specimens or note feather colors. Today, they are likely to take tissue samples for genetic or genomic studies.

However, we are more popular in terms of public awareness. In 2012 we received a Mellon Foundation CLIR Grant, which helped us organize our archives, create finding aids, and share them via the Online Archive of California finding aid portal. In the first year, that increased our archival visitors by more than 150%.

Additionally, we’ve participated in a collaborative grant to digitize field notes and make them searchable online. That has been invaluable for distance reference and distance research. I hope our next step will be grant support for online exhibits that will link field notes, historic images, annotated maps, and specimens into a rich virtual experience demonstrating the web of connections among all our holdings.

KC: Given the pandemic and budget cuts do you find yourself needing to advocate for your collections?

MK: Absolutely. I am not an archivist, but I oversee the archives right now because the archivist position was a casualty of pre-Covid budget cuts, and the pandemic has made everything worse. Budget constraints are one of many things archives and natural history museums have in common. We also share a common view of our collections, collection management issues, and concerns for managing expectations and access for researchers and the public. Both fields can learn much from each other.

One area where we diverge, however, is level of processing. Archivists think of the box-level or folder-level, whereas museum curators want granular detail about each individual specimen. Part of my job is to translate between archivist speak and scientific researcher speak and try to find compromise. It is a challenge being an archivist in a natural history museum, but it is fun.

KC: Do you find the different ways archivists and scientific researchers interpret the information interesting?

MK: Absolutely. For example, researchers will often work with specimens and then turn to the archives for context: “Where did this person collect this? Was it bought from a local collector or did they trap it? On what date? At what time? What part of the field? Are there first-hand accounts of the habitat? How can the archival record help me better understand the ecological context?”

In addition to an ecological context, archives can also provide a social context. “Who is doing the collecting? Who were they working under? Who were their students? What was their institution, university, department? Did they have their own theories or hypotheses, or were they working under someone known for particular theories or hypotheses? How can the archival record help me better understand the social context of this specimen or these field notes?”

The fun part is when you assemble the full picture of the natural history: the ecological context, the sociological context, and the human story of the scientists. There are a lot of interesting things there.

KC: What is an aspect of your job that sticks out to you?

MK: I enjoy learning about the history of the archives and, and I mentioned, how it can offer a more comprehensive view of both the social and natural history.

Let me give you an example. I recently asked a student to organize photographs. She and I are both herpetologists and she knew I have a special affinity for amphibians, so while looking through the photos she suddenly said “oh wow, have you seen this photo before? “No, I haven’t.” It was an underwater photograph of a giant salamander, Dicamptodon tenebrosus, eating a garter snake. It was amazing because California garter snakes are known to prey on salamander larvae, so usually it is the other way around. While there are historic anecdotes of giant salamanders eating aquatic snakes, there was no evidence of it … until now, and the evidence was in our own archives.

On top of that, it turned out that our archives also preserved the photographer’s field notes. In them, he recorded this specific incident in the photograph, giving an almost moment-by-moment description of everything he observed.

But wait! There’s more! He also collected both the salamander and the snake and they are in our collections! So, we have the photograph, his field notes with his moment-by-moment account, and the specimens that he photographed and described!

None of this would have been possible without the archives. This is what I loved about this. Maybe it’s not always groundbreaking but it is a great way to show how an archives can bring together different aspects of an event.

One thought on “The Intersection of Archives and Natural History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s