Newsday Features Marine Museum Restoration

(This Newsday feature story was published on July 10, 2016.)

Vanderbilt Museum’s Marine Collection Gets Makeover

By Merle English, Special to Newsday


  • Specimens brought back by William Kissam Vanderbilt II in 1920s, ’30s
  • Grant allows museum to restore aging taxidermy, bottled creatures

Wearing protective gloves, goggles and masks, a group of interns with backgrounds in science, anthropology and other disciplines is at work restoring and preserving a near century-old marine collection at one of Long Island’s pre-eminent museums.

Newsday photo by Thomas A. Ferrara Vanderbilt marine specimens
Newsday photo by Thomas A. Ferrara
Vanderbilt marine specimens: A gold-banded porgy and a long-tailed Priacanthus, caught near New Caledonia in the South Pacific in 1931

William Kissam Vanderbilt II, one of the heirs to the Vanderbilt family fortune, collected more than 2,000 specimens during sea and ocean expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s. Vanderbilt — whose industrialist great-grandfather, Cornelius, is the namesake of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and built the first railroad depot at what is now Grand Central Terminal — displayed his specimens in his marine museum, a two-story building he named The Hall of Fishes that is one of the attractions at the Vanderbilt Museum complex in Centerport.

The museum houses more than 30,000 specimens that include Vanderbilt’s marine collection. The Stoll Wing features wild-animal dioramas; the Memorial Wing houses birds, invertebrates and artifacts from indigenous communities around the globe, and was built in memory of his son, William K. Vanderbilt III, who died in a car accident in 1933. In the mansion, animal life from various continents is highlighted in the Habitat Room, which houses a 32-foot-long whale shark, the world’s largest taxidermied fish.

Amanda Jensen and Brandon Williams restore Vanderbilt marine specimens
The Hall of Fishes includes specimens of fish, crabs, starfish and marine invertebrates previously undocumented in scientific journals, and it’s said to be one of the largest privately held collections of marine specimens in the world. Some specimens are suspended in fluid and some are dry and mounted.

Newsday photo by Thomas A. Ferrara Amanda Jensen and Brandon Williams restore Vanderbilt marine specimens
Newsday photo by Thomas A. Ferrara
Amanda Jensen and Brandon Williams restore Vanderbilt marine specimens

“It’s a tremendous amount of work, but it’s progressing well,” Stephanie Gress, the Vanderbilt Museum’s director of curatorial affairs, said of the restoration.

As part of the museum’s 2015 Marine Collections Conservation Project, “this unique assemblage of the fish and fauna of the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas and the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans” will be restored and conserved, Gress said. A $135,000 grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation has made the upgrade possible.

“Despite ongoing attention given to the specimens, the passing of almost 100 years has taken its toll,” Gress said in her presentation to the grant committee. “The combined factors of age and environmental conditions in the display areas have allowed a considerable amount of evaporation and damage to occur.

“Although they are maintained regularly, natural history specimens are particularly difficult to support; the need for conservation measures is urgent. There is a great concern that if they are not employed immediately, further deterioration and perhaps loss of specimens may result.”

Newsday photo by Thomas A. Ferrara Brandon Williams replaces the preservative fluid for a "wet" marine specimen
Newsday photo by Thomas A. Ferrara
Brandon Williams replaces the preservative fluid in a marine specimen container

Vanderbilt’s vision was to keep the collection in its best shape for the education and enjoyment of the people of Long Island and beyond, Gress said. She said when the grant was made in January 2015, Jennifer Attonito, one of the foundation’s trustees, remarked: “The Vanderbilt Museum is a Long Island gem and a major anchor of local history. We are proud to help preserve this valuable collection to benefit museum visitors and help raise awareness of Long Island’s heritage.”

Eagle’s Nest

Upon his father’s death in 1920, Vanderbilt inherited $20 million. He was in his 20s when he started acquiring land on Little Neck Road in Centerport and created Eagle’s Nest, the 43-acre estate on rolling grounds overlooking Northport Harbor and Long Island Sound that houses the museum as well as a planetarium. Gress said Eagle’s Nest was Vanderbilt’s “favorite place on Earth.”

Reflecting Vanderbilt’s many passions, the property incorporates a seaplane hangar, a boathouse, a marina and a palatial Spanish-style mansion where he spent his summers. Vanderbilt, who died in 1944, bequeathed the entire estate — including numerous artifacts from all over the world — to the Suffolk County park system, which opened it to the public in 1950 as a museum.

The Hall of Fishes, standing on the highest point of the idyllic surroundings, was constructed as a one-story building in 1922. By 1930 a second floor was added. It was the first exhibit opened to the public, and by Vanderbilt himself. Its variety of creatures includes a 16 1⁄2-foot manta ray and fish that are almost invisible to the eye.

The two-year project to refresh the specimens is halfway through. Work is currently focused on the marine animals suspended in alcohol and distilled water in glass containers on the second floor, which is temporarily closed to the public.

“We have evaporation, discoloration of the fluid and the specimen,” Gress said. “They develop fungus, microbial growth, and some tend to disintegrate. Some are more delicate than others, especially if they are tiny. Occasionally we can’t salvage a specimen; not too often, but it happens, and we can’t replicate anything that’s gone. That’s why it’s a closed collection.”

Each container is cleaned and the fluid replaced if necessary. The specimen is returned to it, and the container is sealed with silicon, tape and beeswax. New labels are being created and artwork and murals in the exhibit cases restored to display quality.

On the first floor, dry-mounted specimens include an array of colorful tropical fish. Other mounted specimens, such as perch, flounder and herring familiar to cooks, await the specialty renovating skills of a taxidermist.

“Some have damaged fins; in a lot of cases, artificial eyes have fallen out, skins need repainting,” Gress said.

This floor is open to the public. Reopening of the second floor is scheduled for late 2017. Gress said the project is on schedule.

Although it’s painstaking, the workers enjoy the task, Gress said. “They’re excited about the opportunity to work on something that was collected by someone so famous and something so rare,” she said. “They’re doing a beautiful job.”

One of them is Amanda Jensen, 24, of Northport, who studied vertebrate zoology at the State University of New York in Oswego and said the restoration is the first time she has worked with wet marine specimens.

“Working on such a unique and diverse collection is an amazing experience that gives us the opportunity to learn and apply new skills,” she said. “One of the most challenging and enlightening aspects of working with the wet marine specimens is learning to identify the different bacterial and fungal infections and their corresponding treatments.”

Exceptional whale shark

A second phase of the project will involve the refurbishing of 700 marine invertebrates, including sea cucumbers, sea urchins and an expansive collection of hard-shelled creatures, including one that when alive can deliver a fatal, poisonous sting. These are housed in the Marine Invertebrate Gallery inside the mansion.

The centerpiece of the Habitat Room is the whale shark suspended from the ceiling. Vanderbilt did not catch it, but acquired it from fishermen who netted it off Fire Island in August 1935. Gress said Vanderbilt “normally didn’t put in anything he didn’t catch,” but wanted it in his collection.

Maintaining the marine collection costs thousands of dollars and countless hours, Gress said. Vanderbilt and members of his family left an endowment to perpetuate the entire estate, the interest from which helps meet the costs, and Gress seeks grants for projects.

Vanderbilt, who was born Oct. 26, 1878, was one of three children of William K. Vanderbilt I and Alva Vanderbilt. He went to private schools and was also educated by tutors. He studied at Harvard College and was a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve.

Besides being an ardent adventurer, accomplished sailor, yachtsman and diver, Vanderbilt was also an auto racing enthusiast, businessman and philanthropist. He created the Vanderbilt Cup auto race, the first of which was held on Long Island in 1904, and was a member of the Explorers Club in New York City.

Known to his friends and family as Willie K, Vanderbilt circumnavigated the world twice on his specimen-hunting trips in large oceangoing yachts, one a converted former French warship. He brought with him a photographer, and at times a cinematographer, to document his travels. Scientists from the American Museum of Natural History cataloged his finds. Some were new discoveries, such as a crab species called Elegant Coral Crab that he found in the Society Islands in the South Pacific. It is currently kept at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan for study.

“Mr. Vanderbilt was fascinated with life under the ocean,” Gress said. “The Galapagos was his favorite place to visit.” In a 1933 self-published book, West Made East With the Loss of a Day, he recalled a delightful experience he had there:

“No day seems to pass without offering something of beauty. In one of the sunny spells we witnessed a thrilling thing when two sailfish, about ten feet long, jumped their full length out of the water and hurled themselves through the air at express speed. First one brilliant silvery body leaped clear of the sea, a shower of diamonds sparkled for an instant, and it was gone. Then the second sailfish embarked on a flight throughout the air and quickly vanished.”

Gress said Vanderbilt had a keen sense of humor. The hilly grounds of Eagle’s Nest were his golf course. “He used to tee off from the roof of the marine museum,” she said.

Vanderbilt was married twice and had three children from his first marriage to Virginia Fair. In 1944, he died of a heart ailment at the age of 65 in his home on Fifth Avenue. His legacy lives on, particularly in the marine collection, which generates interest worldwide, Gress said.

“We have people from all over the world call wanting information about a specific specimen,” she said. “He was very proud of his collections from his voyages, and his desire to educate the public through them continues to be critical elements of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s mission.”

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