A Hidden Treasure: MVZ’s Public Service Collection

Written by Christina Kohler, second year double major in Environmental Economics & Policy and Molecular Environmental Biology.

I first experienced the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology on Cal Day before I had decided to come to UC Berkeley. The day was a blur. However, I do clearly remember visiting the Museum and seeing all of the exhibits and animals that were on display. I also remember thinking that this would be the best place for me to develop my passion for research and the environment. The atmosphere at the Museum that day really inspired me to come to Cal. Fortunately, I was able to be a part of that environment again this past semester, working to organize and catalogue the Public Service Collection in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology Archives.  Dr. Robert C. Stebbins, Museum Curator and Professor of Zoology at UC Berkeley, brought the collection together over the span of several years. The series consists of a variety of conservation issues that the Museum has been involved with, including Off-road Vehicles in the California Desert, Long-toed Salamander Protection, The Bodie Protection Act, and many more.

Christina Kohler hiking in XXX

Christina Kohler hiking in Muir Woods.

I had the honor of reading through all of the material in each series so that I could organize and catalogue the entire collection. I not only learned about the specifics on processing a collection of documents, newspapers, and photographs, but also about the details behind several prominent conservation issues. Working with this collection solidified my decision to work in the field of conservation biology. It also helped me to realize that educating people about the issue is the most important step in making a difference. With many of the issues, individuals initiated the protection of their communities by taking action – creating committees, publicizing the issue, and writing letters to government officials. This collection has inspired me even more to dedicate my future educating people regarding the present situation in order to help restore an overall healthier environment. Working in the MVZ to reveal this collection has been very exhilarating. I plan to continue next semester with the same collection, digitizing the material so that researchers everywhere will know that the Museum has these materials. Many thanks to URAP, Christina Fidler, and everyone at the Museum who made my experience what it was!  

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Preserving the Lantern Slide Collection of the MVZ

Written by Alessandra J. Moyer, third year Integrative Biology major.

This semester, I’ve been working on a project to preserve a unique photographic resource that most people don’t even know exists: the lantern slide collection in the MVZ archives. Long before PowerPoint lulled its first audiences to sleep, early image projectors called “magic lanterns” allowed entertainers and educators to incorporate illustrations and, later, photographs into their presentations.  Developed in the 17th century or earlier, the magic lantern used a mirror to shine light through a glass slide (called a lantern slide) onto which an image had been painted.  A lens at the front of the lantern focused the image on a screen or wall. The lantern slides owned by the MVZ are from a much later period, when photographic emulsions had replaced hand-painted slides and electric lights were used instead of candles, oil lamps, and limelight.  The subjects all fall under the broader category of vertebrate zoology, and include game birds, mammal bones, and reptiles.

Thus far, I have focused on the “Common Birds” collection.  My task consists of cutting and folding thick archival paper into envelopes that will house each slide individually. Before this project was started, all the slides were packed tightly together in dusty old boxes. Although most of the slides are still in good condition, they are vulnerable to deterioration. The goal of the rehousing project is to ensure that they remain intact.  As I label the envelopes and enclose the slides in their new acid-free, archival-grade armor, I have a chance to look at each one.  Some of them show dead, prepared specimens—ventral this, dorsal that—these I glance at only briefly.  But others I pause to hold up to the light.  Some of these photographs capture something more than bare bones biology. In fact, one must suppose that each of these images held a great deal of significance to whoever was responsible for immortalizing them on glass.  These were not two-a-penny Instagrams; thought and care must have gone into the selection of certain special negatives to become lantern slides.  These would have been the images that lecturers were most excited to share with their students, the ones that could not be replaced with a thousand words.  I believe that to look at these images is to have a little window into biology education at Berkeley half a century or more ago.  When I make a new paper home for each slide, I feel like I’m not just saving a useful image; I also feel like I’m preserving a brittle, fragile message-in-a-bottle sent many years ago from an undergraduate zoology class somewhere in the Valley Life Sciences Building.

Extraordinary nesting sites of Allen Hummingbird, Undated, by Joseph Mailliard, glass lantern slide, Lantern Slide #60.

Extraordinary nesting sites of Allen Hummingbird, Undated, by Joseph Mailliard. Glass lantern slide, Lantern Slide #60.

A couple of my favorite bird slides are shown here.  The caption on the first (right) reads, “Extraordinary nesting sites of Allen Hummingbird.”  The photograph was taken by Joseph Mailliard at his family’s ranch in Marin County.  It was printed in The Condor in 1913, and in the accompanying article Mailliard comments that, “The pulley on the left of the picture was used to haul up the successful results of the numerous deer hunts that took place on our ranch, the nest having been built upon it before the opening of the deer hunting season in that year (1911).”  He hastens to add that the baby birds were long fledged before the pulley was again used for its intended purpose.  The article can be found here:“Some Curious Nesting Places of the Allen Hummingbird.”

Cactus Wren’s nest, Undated, by W.M. Pierce. Glass lantern slide, Lantern Slide #50.

Cactus Wren’s nest, Undated, by W.M. Pierce. Glass lantern slide, Lantern Slide #50.

The second slide (left) is a photograph taken by W.M. Pierce, a photographer who frequently contributed to The Condor, and whose correspondence with the MVZ spans the years 1913-1930.  The subject is “Cactus Wren’s nest.”  If you’re curious about this nest and the bird who made it, I recommend Edmund Carroll Jaeger’s 1922 book Denizens of the Desert; a book of southwestern mammals, birds, and reptiles, where you will also find several more lovely photos by Pierce.  (It’s available for free online at the Hathi Trust Digital Library.) Skip over to page 69, where Jaeger, who certainly has a taste for the dramatic, begins his account of the Cactus Wren.  These birds find some protection against predators by building their nests among the spines of cacti, but apparently are not themselves troubled by the prickly needles.  Jaeger wonders about this, saying, “How it happens that they can dodge the spears and daggers in which all their foes are likely to be caught, I cannot say, for never were skins or bodies more tender than theirs. Does each have a guiding spirit or have they all been dipped in the river Styx?”*  I can only hope that the professor who used this slide as a lecture aid made sure to mention these hypotheses.

*It seems a bit much coming from a man who, in his preface (page viii), complains, “Writers on natural-history subjects have, in their desire to create interest and to bring their story to a fitting climax, frequently conveyed impressions concerning the behavior of animals which were false or misleading.”

Works Cited:

Mailliard, Joseph. “Some Curious Nesting Places of the Allen Hummingbird on the Rancho San Geronimo.” The Condor 15.6 (1913) : 205-207. SORA. Web.  28 Apr. 2014.

Jaeger, Edmund C. Denizens of the desert; A book of southwestern mammals, birds, and reptiles. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1922. Hathi Trust. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.

Related Links:

A short history of lantern slides from the Library of Congress’ online archive “American Memory”: Lantern Sides: History and Manufacture

Facts about lantern slides and, more importantly, a fun coloring activity, from the UBC Botanical Garden’s online exhibit “Botany John: The Legacy of a Canadian Botanist”: Lantern Slides Factsheet and Tint some of John Davidson’s lantern slides

A couple neat blog posts from the Preservation Department at Iowa State University Library: Lost & Found: Ada Hayden Lantern Slides and Landscape Architecture Lantern Slides Digital Collection

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An Illustrious Life: The Collections of Wildlife Artist Allan C. Brooks (1869-1946)

Written by Joi Misenti, third year Integrative Biology major.

The study of science demands diligence and discipline. This truth stands resolute even in the realm of creative expression. Wildlife artists, though artists at heart, pledge themselves to an oath of accuracy, scientific veracity, and representationalism. Through my research work on the collections of Allan Brooks, I gleaned the devotion with which the core values of proper scientific work were upheld. I found those rigorous qualities incorporated into his paintings in striking, resplendent, and beautifully textured ways. He captured the wispy movements of foxes, the delicate plumage layers in bird feathers, the curiosity that gleams in otter eyes, and importantly, the backdrop against which all this faunal secrecy took place. It was this true portrayal of landscape alongside accurate subject matter that exemplified Brooks’ principled approach and set him apart from colleagues of his time.

Allan Brooks, Okanagan Landing, British Columbia, October 7, 1921, by H.S. Swarth. MVZ Image 3742.

Allan Brooks, Okanagan Landing, British Columbia, October 7, 1921, by H.S. Swarth. MVZ Image 3742.

Allan Brooks not only experienced an illustrious career, but he led an incredibly colorful life. English by heritage, Brooks was born in northern India in 1869 before being sent to England for schooling at the age of 4. However, he only remained in England for 8 years before the family uprooted to Canada, where Brooks discovered the country he would call his home. By this time, Brooks was well underway to nurturing his passion for ornithology, specimen collection, skin preparation, and sketching. He had already begun to make ripples as a wildlife illustrator when World War I splashed to the forefront. Brooks promptly enlisted in 1914 and distinguished himself as an exemplary sniper, earning a medal for his service. Upon returning to Canada unhurt, save for a new disenchantment with hunting, Brooks resumed his work and engrossed himself in his projects. It was during this time, the 1920s, that Brooks rose to prominence as a premier wildlife artist in demand. He came into association and friendship with the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology’s very own Joseph Grinnell, the museum’s first director, as well as Harry Swarth, the museum’s curator of birds.

Perusing through the letters that Brooks exchanged with Grinnell, Swarth, and other contemporaries, I was illuminated by the manner of correspondence characteristic of the time period. Extensive, painstakingly written letters exchanged with detailed accounts, transactions, and lists, in addition to pleasantries. Moreover, these letters were sent dutifully and often. I realized these documents stood as a testament to scientific collaboration, experts in various fields consulting one another, providing resources and information, down to debating scientific names. I was endlessly amused by how the idiosyncrasies of the correspondent inevitably surfaced through the page. Grinnell would implore Brooks to pen a biography, an offer which Brooks would–true to his modest nature–turn down, citing that he couldn’t be trusted to complete such a promise. Occasionally, Brooks and Grinnell poked jabs at a mutual nemesis, chortling amongst themselves in a manner not unlike those of snickering schoolchildren.

Joi's Allan Brooks display, prominently placed in the MVZ's front office.

Joi’s Allan Brooks display, prominently situated in the MVZ’s front office.

Indeed, I was entranced by these historical treasures. Immersed in the letters, I shared in on these inside jokes, sensed the urgency underneath some of the requests, and felt the wonderment expressed at the sight of some elusive animals. Through the paintings, I became awed by the meticulousness and skill Brooks wielded over his craft–the countless hours of observation, the preliminary sketches, the transcription of even the slightest detail. This wonderful experience has been incredibly multifaceted and far-reaching, even culminating in an Allan Brooks display on Cal Day that justifiably gives a talented artist deserved recognition. Ultimately, I hope others will stumble across the art of Allan Brooks and find themselves equally suspended with disbelief at his masterful encapsulation.

Joi Misenti published the Finding Aid to the Allan Brooks papers on the Online Archive of California as part of her project with the MVZ Archives.

Related Links:                                                                   http://www.abnc.ca/index.php/gallery  http://www.vernonmuseum.ca/cr_allan_brooks.html

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Humanizing an Academic

Written by Ajay Yalamanchi, second year Integrative Biology major.

My URAP position this semester involved digitizing the field notes of Dr. Charles S. Thaeler, Jr. I spent the first two weeks simply scanning the material, and I’m not going to lie, it was pretty boring. Doing nothing but scanning multiple pages and hitting certain keystrokes over and over again for four hours was not very intellectually stimulating. However, the procedure of scanning the pages and hitting certain keystrokes repetitively was eventually ingrained into my muscle memory, which allowed me to set my hands on autopilot. Combined with listening to music, which helped relieve the boredom, it did not feel like I was working at all, but rather, relaxing, which was great because it provided an outlet for school-related stress. The calm and quiet atmosphere of the MVZ also added to the feeling of a stress-free environment.

Ajay Yalamanchi working on the Charles S. Thaeler, Jr. papers

Ajay Yalamanchi working on the Charles S. Thaeler, Jr. papers

The digitizing phase of my URAP, as mentioned before, lasted only the first two weeks of my internship. Afterward, I finally got down to intellectually stimulating work when I was tasked with mapping the higher geography of the places that Thaeler visited on his research tours around California. Working with his notebook collection and reading through his journal entries revealed quite a bit about Thaeler the academic. I learned that his research focused on pocket gopher species in California, and reading through his notes revealed his progression as an academic. For example, the earlier entries in the collection were not as detailed as the entries later on. The earlier entries also had food and drink stains on them whereas the later entries were kept in pristine condition. It was remarkable to see the physical evidence of Thaeler’s growth from a relatively novice (and maybe careless) note-taker to an academic who prided himself on his research. Seeing this growth progression helped to humanize Thaeler for me because accomplished academics always seem, at least to me, to have always been there, in their current positions as accomplished academics. It is rare to see the physical evidence of the journey they took to reach their current position. Thaeler’s journey from a graduate student to a professor of biology at New Mexico State University was a long one, and as a premed student, I could somewhat relate.

One of the perks of my internship was being able to get to know Thaeler not only as an academic, but also as a person. Working with his correspondence revealed much more about Thaeler the man. It was amazing to see the flip-side of the academic, an amiable man who was easygoing and who cared deeply about his family and friends. This also further helped to humanize and make Thaeler more relatable. Although I don’t know Thaeler personally, working with his collection provided that sense. Overall, I was impressed by the depth of Thaeler’s research, and felt that my investment in his collection was truly rewarding!

Ajay Yalamanchi talking about the Charles S. Thaeler, Jr. papers

Ajay Yalamanchi talking about the Charles S. Thaeler, Jr. papers

Ajay Yalamanchi published the Finding Aid to the Charles S. Thaeler’s papers on the Online Archive of California as part of his project with the MVZ Archives.

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To MVZ

Reprint collections are an oft-spoken topic in Archives. They present the problem of being redundant and yet they give some information about their owners. By their nature, they are not unique, hence the name “reprint”. At the MVZ Archives, we keep reprints that contain annotations or some other personal artifact of the owner. My personal favorite type of artifact is the rare inscription. They are often very personal and you can’t help but imagine the recipient opening up the volume and reading the unexpected sentiment hand written on the first page of a book. Inscriptions can be emotional

Inscription by Robert C. Stebbins in Animal coloration: activities on the evolution of concealment, 2008.

Inscription by Robert C. Stebbins in Animal coloration: activities on the evolution of concealment, dated 2008.

beginnings to usually dense scientific readings. We’ve shared some of our favorites.

Joseph Grinnell's inscription to Annie Alexander for "An Account of the Mammals and Birds of the Lower Colorado Valley"

Joseph Grinnell’s inscription to Annie Alexander for An Account of the Mammals and Birds of the Lower Colorado Valley, dated April 6, 1914.

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Emergency Procedures

In our previous post, we mentioned that Miller’s memo was found in a folder of emergency procedures. We didn’t appreciate immediately how fascinating those procedures were. They were put together in 1942 and they describe the types of gas attacks Americans were expecting and preparing for during the Second World War. Sometimes these administrative documents serve as an unexpected snapshot in time.

Air raid plan

Air raid plan

I think the takeaway is to “remember that in an emergency one fair plan carried out is better than two excellent ones not carried out!”

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MVZ Lunch beginnings

The MVZ brown bag lunch is a must for MVZ students and personnel. It is a graduate level seminar and it is mostly focused on current or recent vertebrate research. In addition to being a seminar, it is a chance for the museum to get together on a weekly basis. Numerous alum have said that it was their favorite activity while working in the MVZ.

MVZ_lunch_beginningsI have been asked by a few MVZers if I know the origins of the lunch but I’ve had to rely on the myths and folklore of others (all very reputable sources!). At long last, we have found an answer. Filed with historic emergency procedures, is a memo from then museum director, Dr. Alden Miller, dated January 29, 1943. Miller circulated the memo to all museum staff including Susan Chattin, the museum secretary, and Mary Tappe, the museum stenographer. It is brief but it is unquestionably the origin of this MVZ tradition.

MVZ personnel, October 6, 1943

MVZ personnel, October 6, 1943


You can read more about the MVZ lunch on the MVZ website.

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