Vanderbilt Begins Restoration of Marine Life Collection

(This article was published November 20, 2015, in the Times Beacon Record newspapers on the North Shore of Long Island.)

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport is home to the largest privately assembled collection of sea specimens from the pre-atomic era.

Now, thanks to a $135,000 grant from The Robert D. L. Gardiner Foundation, the museum is beginning to perform crucial conservation measures on many of those rare specimens. The foundation gave the Vanderbilt Museum the two-year grant in January.

Vanderbilt Museum photo Steve Clampitt and Amanda Jensen inventory marine specimens
Vanderbilt Museum photo
Steve Clampitt and Amanda Jensen inventory marine specimens

In July, the curatorial staff began working on some of the more than 1,000 wet (preserved in fluid) specimens exhibited on the second floor of the Marine Museum. An additional 600 are on display in the mansion’s Memorial Wing.

Among the marine life William K. Vanderbilt II found on oceanic collecting expeditions during the early 20th century were 67 new discoveries.  Stephanie Gress, the museum’s director of curatorial services, said the finds – not previously identified – are called “type specimens.” Most of the 40 ocean fish and 27 marine invertebrates have been on loan to the American Museum of Natural History since the 1990s.

Gress said the Gardiner grant is invaluable to the future of the marine collection, as many of the specimens have not been touched since the last major conservation-restoration project in the 1990s. The project is “very time- and labor-intensive,” she said.

“Cracked seals on the specimen jars and containers let in air, which evaporates some of the preservative fluid,” she said. “That exposes fish and other creatures to possible deterioration. Air leaks also make it easy for infections and mold to develop on the specimens.”

Vanderbilt Museum photo Adult glasseye snappers, collected on Cocos Island, Costa Rica, in 1928
Vanderbilt Museum photo
Adult glasseye snappers, collected on Cocos Island, Costa Rica, in 1928

Gress and her colleagues prepared a manual with step-by-step procedures and careful protocols for working with the specimens. Conservation includes opening the containers, cleaning them, gently treating infected specimens, replacing the fluid (alcohol and water), resealing the containers with fabric tape and melted beeswax and affixing new labels.

Vanderbilt had the museum’s seamless specimen jars and containers custom-made in Germany nearly a century ago, and they are irreplaceable, she said.

An intriguing project detail is the creative reuse of the original calligraphy from the 1930s specimen labels. “We took samples of each hand-calligraphed letter to create the alphabet for a typeface for the new labels we’re making,” 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,” she added.

The marine collection was the first aspect of what became Vanderbilt’s larger natural history museum. He built the single-story building he called The Hall of Fishes in 1922 and opened it on a limited basis to the public. By the late 1920s, after more oceanic expeditions, his marine collection outgrew its original space. He added a second floor by 1930.

Vanderbilt Museum photos Brandon Williams removes the silicone seal from a marine specimen container
Vanderbilt Museum photo
Brandon Williams removes the silicone seal
from a marine specimen container

The two largest marine specimens are a 32-foot whale shark – the world’s largest example of fish taxidermy – and a manta ray with a 16.5-foot wingspan. The shark, caught in 1935 and restored in 2008 with a federal Save America’s Treasures grant, is the centerpiece of the habitat animal-dioramas gallery. The ray, which Vanderbilt called the Sea Devil, was caught in 1916 and recast in the late 1990s. It is exhibited prominently on the first floor of the Marine Museum.

“The Vanderbilt [Museum] is the only Long Island destination with a world-class planetarium and natural history collections that rival those at major urban museums,” said Lance Reinheimer, executive director. “In addition to thousands of rare marine specimens, the Vanderbilt collections range from an Egyptian mummy and 18 wild-animal dioramas to ethnographic artifacts from Africa and the South Pacific, fine and decorative arts and centuries-old furnishings.”

Nearly a century after Vanderbilt found those 67 new type specimens, his museum still receives inquiries about some of them. “A marine biology doctoral student contacted me recently about a particular invertebrate, whose common name is the Elegant Coral Crab,” Gress said. “I told him he’d have to call the American Museum of Natural History,” where Vanderbilt’s type specimens are housed.

“Mr. Vanderbilt is credited with the discovery and identification of the first of each of those species,” Gress said. The type specimens were published in editions of the Bulletin of the Vanderbilt Marine Museum, prepared between 1928 and 1938 by scientists Lee Boone and Nicholas Borodin. “Mr. Vanderbilt and his associates had the fun task of naming the new specimens,” she said. “Some were named for his wife, himself or his scientific team.”

Vanderbilt added marine specimens to the second-floor gallery chronologically, she said. When the restoration is complete, the specimens will be put back into the tall display cases in taxonomic order, in which like specimens are exhibited together. In the Invertebrate Room of the museum’s Memorial Wing, wet specimens are arranged by complexity of the organism.

The Vanderbilt marine collection of 13,190 specimens, housed in the Marine Museum, Habitat and Memorial Wing, includes wet and dry specimens and dry marine invertebrates (shells and corals).

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