The Freshwater Biological Association holds internationally important collections of preserved specimens, which include insects, plants and ‘wet samples’ of water, phytoplankton, zooplankton, and algae. Having recently taken on the role of Information Scientist, and coming from an archives background, I wanted to learn how to best curate these scientifically valuable collections and improve access for researchers.
Last month, I linked up with Natural History Museum curators to find out how they cared for their collections. The curators were incredibly generous with their time, giving me behind the scenes tours of the Museum’s amazing collections, demonstrating specialised curatorial techniques, and advising on recent literature on the care of biological specimens.
I first met Ollie Crimmen, Fish Curator, to discuss the many thousands of fish scales the FBA holds. Fish scales are traditionally used for comparative morphology, but can provide DNA for modern molecular studies even if the fish scales are relatively old. Fish scales can be kept in tiny envelopes or stuck between two slides – Ollie’s preferred method and probably the best for long-term storage. Both these methods can be found in our collections. One set of our fish scales is particularly old: it consists of 12 boxes each containing about 200 scales collected between 1912 and 1922, kept in small envelopes. Twentieth-century paper can be quite acidic and detrimental to such a collection and so ideally they should be transferred into archival, acid-free paper envelopes. Ollie made practical suggestions on how to achieve this.
Next, I met with Miranda Lowe, Higher Invertebrates Collection Manager. Miranda talked me through the basic principles of maintaining a wet collection, and showed me the Museum’s which included some of the 27,000 planktonic samples. As at the FBA, many of them are still kept in formalin (formaldehyde), and so must be handled with care and clearly labelled as a health hazard.
Amongst the FBA’s most treasured collections are four crates, each containing 50 water samples from Lake Titicaca in their original bottles. These were made on the Percy Sladen Lake Titicaca Expedition of 1937. I was excited to learn that the NHM also holds samples from the same expedition, most notably a huge collection of amphipods slides and spirit specimens, which researchers are still working with. Similarly, FBA Honorary Research Fellow, Allan Pentecost, is currently sampling some of our Titicaca water samples. As Miranda stressed, collections of old samples are always worth keeping for many reasons: all samples have a cost, as money was invested in the research that produced them; some emanate from geographical areas that are now inaccessible or protected; and samples which appear unusable today might become usable in the future as scientific techniques improve.
Lastly, I met Professor David John, Scientific Associate, and Jo Wilbraham, Senior Curator of Algae, to show them an enigmatic set of material I had come across in our collections. This consists of small cubes of paraffin wax kept in 1920s matchboxes. The boxes have rather suffered from humidity in the past, but the wax blocks still contain algae prepared for cutting histology sections. David and Jo were initially puzzled by the sample of smooth stonewort, Nitella flexilis, as the reproductive organs in the wax blocks are of limited use for identification. They both agreed that these samples probably were now of little scientific use, but might have a historical value, particularly as they were part of the Cambridge expedition to the East African Lakes in the 1930s. British ecologist and FBA’s first full-time Director, Edgar Barton Worthington (1905–2001), was part of this expedition and the samples may be linked to his research.
My visit to the Natural History Museum was very fruitful in practical terms, enhancing my skills and experience, showing me the best way to preserve historic samples for future generations, and connecting with specialists who are willing and able to share best practice. But, perhaps more importantly, it confirmed the significance and scientific value of the old samples in the FBA collections, at a time when scientists are conducting repeat studies to understand our changing world.
Isabelle Charmantier, Information Scientist, Freshwater Biological Association
 See for example C. O. Coleman and E. R. Gonzales, ‘New hyalellids (Crustacea, Amphipoda, Hyalellidae) from Lake Titicaca’, Organisms, Diversity & Evolution, 6, Electr. Suppl. 10 (2006), 1 – 28.