Conserving More Than 1,000 Rare Marine Specimens

Major Restoration Project, Funded by Gardiner Foundation Grant, to be Completed This Summer

During global ocean voyages in the 1920s and 1930s, William K. Vanderbilt II collected thousands of specimens of vertebrate and invertebrate sea life for the museum he was building on Long Island. Now considered the world’s most extensive privately assembled collection of marine specimens from the pre-atomic era, his collection had long been in urgent need of conservation, until recently.

In 2015, the Robert D.L. Gardiner Foundation gave the Vanderbilt Museum a grant of $135,000 to fund its Marine Collections Conservation Project. Curators so far have treated nearly 1,100 wet (fluid-preserved) specimens on the second floor of the Marine Museum – what Mr. Vanderbilt called his “Hall of Fishes” – with a few hundred still awaiting attention.

Amanda Jensen of the Vanderbilt curatorial staff conducts conservation work on a marine specimen Vanderbilt Museum photo
Amanda Jensen of the Vanderbilt curatorial staff conducts conservation work on a marine specimen
Vanderbilt Museum photo

Stephanie Gress, director of curatorial affairs, said, “Fluid preservation problems are extensive and range from evaporation and discoloration to fungal and bacterial infections.

“Conservation efforts have been done in increments over the past 50 years,” Gress said. “But thanks to the Gardiner Foundation, this is the first time that we are able to inspect every marine specimen closely and give the entire collection thorough conservation treatment. We have not undertaken a project of this magnitude since Mr. Vanderbilt and William Belanske created the Marine Museum.”

Most often a jar is opened to clean the specimen, and refill or exchange the ethanol and distilled-water solution, Gress said. Then it is resealed with silicone, tape and beeswax.

“Our goal is to preserve and protect all specimens, even those in dire circumstances,” she said. “We have to prevent further deterioration, so the need for continuing conservation is urgent.”

After all specimens are restored, the curators will complete the final stage of the project in the second-floor gallery: taxonomic organization of the wet specimens; informational signage for visitors; and restoration of the conchological (mollusk shells) display cases in the gallery center.

Creative reuse of the original calligraphy from the 1930s specimen labels is an intriguing project detail. “We took samples of each hand-calligraphed letter to create the alphabet for a typeface for the new labels we’ve made,” Gress said.

“With the original calligraphy as a model, curatorial assistant Kirsten Amundsen fashioned a nearly identical typeface by using existing, computerized calligraphy pen strokes in accurate proportions.”

Glass Eye Snapper, Cocos Island, Costa Rica, March 1928 Vanderbilt Museum photo
Glass Eye Snapper, Cocos Island, Costa Rica, March 1928
Vanderbilt Museum photo

Lance Reinheimer, executive director of the Vanderbilt, said the Gardiner grant was matched by capital improvement funds from Suffolk County. Before the conservation project began, the Vanderbilt completed a full electrical-system upgrade in the Marine Museum, he said.

Related work includes cleaning, repairing and painting the exterior walls along with restoration of the roof. The Marine Museum specimen display cases have been painted and the glass shelving reinstalled. The final step will be the repair of the exterior staircase to the second floor and refinishing the ironwork. Gallery ceilings will be re-plastered and painted, and the marble floors cleaned and refinished.

“After we restore and conserve the scientific specimens on display in the Marine Museum, we’ll need to look after the marine collection and conduct routine maintenance in the future, but hopefully never on the scale of this project,” Gress said. “This much-needed conservation will sustain the collection for years to come.”

The Vanderbilt collection comprises 13,190 historic aquatic specimens housed in the two-story Marine Museum; in the Habitat, a natural-history diorama hall; and in an invertebrate gallery. The collection, in addition to the fluid-preserved marine life, includes vertebrate and invertebrate specimens, dried or preserved through taxidermy.

The Marine Museum constituted the beginning of today’s Vanderbilt Museum complex. Constructed in 1922, it began as a one-story structure open to the public each Wednesday during the years Mr. Vanderbilt lived on the estate. As the collection grew, Mr. Vanderbilt added a second floor in the 1930s and the fluid-preserved specimens were moved upstairs, leaving the first floor for the taxidermy marine collection.

The Robert D. L. Gardiner Foundation, established in 1987 in Hampton Bays, N.Y., supports the study of Long Island history, with an emphasis on Suffolk County. The foundation was inspired by Robert David Lion Gardiner’s personal passion for New York history.

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