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A BU Museum You’ve Never Heard Of

At Metcalf Science Center, efforts to bring an 1800s biology collection to life

Tucked away in an obscure corner of the Metcalf Science Center is a quiet room where old cabinets smelling faintly of mothballs line narrow aisles. The cabinets are filled with thousands of bird, mammal, insect, and plant specimens collected in the 1800s. Stuffed raptors stand in an open box on a countertop, the hawks and owls seeming to glare at a visitor.

Welcome to what is unofficially known as BU’s Biology Natural History Museum.

Museum de facto curator Dale Pasino, the College of Arts & Sciences biology department anatomy lab coordinator, opens a cabinet and slides out a drawer with dozens of cicadas, each pinned in rows and labeled in a meticulous hand. “An insect that was alive during the Civil War—that’s pretty neat,” he says.

In fact, most of the specimens in the room were originally gathered in the 19th century by amateur scientists, members of the Boston Society of Natural History, a forerunner of today’s Museum of Science, Boston. By the early- to mid-20th century (details are lost to history), financial problems and the museum’s new emphasis on public education led members to donate much of their early collections to Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the rest to BU.

The collection, sometimes referred to as the Biology Teaching and Research Museum, has been preserved and maintained over the years and is in remarkably good shape, considering that the room has no specialized climate control or dedicated staff. Apparently, those mothballs actually work.

Pasino took over his custodial/curatorial duties after arriving at BU and becoming entranced by the collection. He says it’s impossible to know exactly how many specimens the museum holds because there is no complete inventory, and many records are missing, apparently separated from the specimens before—or possibly after—they arrived at BU.

Those records might help explain anomalies in the New England–centric collection, like how a koala bear wound up as one of the specimens.

For years, the museum remained largely forgotten, with no one person in charge. Now Pasino and Kathryn Spilios, director of instructional labs and a CAS senior lecturer in biology, have begun to oversee efforts to preserve the collection and make it more widely accessible to members of the BU community.

Kelsie Henderson examining wolf skull

Kelsie Henderson (CAS’17) examines a wolf skull in the anatomy lab in the Metcalf Science Center.

Work-study students have been hired to help care for the specimens. The long-term goal is to create a thorough, searchable database of the collection. Pasino says headway has already been made in cataloguing and labeling the collection’s bees, wasps, and ants. One student is currently organizing the museum’s collection of bats. And efforts are under way to label all the New England plants in the collection for researchers at Yale, who have a grant to produce a digital collection of the region’s flora. Pasino suspects a full inventory of the collection will also uncover specimens of insects and plants that no longer exist.

“Dale has been working tirelessly to get the museum back in some form of organization,” says Spilios.

Along with his work-study students, Pasino is trying to more fully integrate the collection into the biology department’s curriculum. Instructors are using specimens for species-identification lessons in a couple of classes. There are even a few requests from non-biology faculty to borrow specific specimens for classroom use. Occasionally someone from another university comes by or communicates via email on a specific research mission, perhaps seeking a small sample of genetic material.

“There are, surprisingly, people in our own department who aren’t aware that this museum is here,” Pasino says. “It’s a great resource that people don’t know about.” Currently, the museum is available by appointment.

Once in a while, there’s a truly unusual request. “I had a psychiatrist get in touch with me,” Pasino says. “She wanted to borrow some insects. She had a patient who was afraid of bugs. So I worked with her all last spring to get her insects of varying sizes to try to get her patient [desensitized].”

Pasino and Spilios are now trying to raise the museum’s visibility by mounting displays at the Metcalf Science Center and the Biology Research Building, including one featuring those aforementioned bats. Pasino has other ideas, too, such as introducing local high schools to the collection.

“I would love to be able to give tours, just to say check this out,” he says. “It’s a project for the rest of my life here at BU, which I’m hoping is many, many more years.”

For more information about the Biology Natural History Museum or to book an appointment to view the collection, email Dale Pasino at dpasino@bu.edu.

loading slideshow...

  • hummingbird display on left, great blue heron on right

    A display of hummingbirds and a mounted great blue heron.

  • muskrat

    A muskrat is among the many specimens.

  • showcase of butterflies

    A display showcasing various butterflies.

  • great horned owl on left, sheep's skull on right

    A great horned owl and a sheep’s skull.

  • display of moths and bees

    A mounted display of various moths and bees.

  • harbor seal display

    A seal is among the museum’s collection of mammals.

  • algae specimen

    Algae in a volume of specimens collected in the 1880s.

In the slide show above, view some of the specimens that can be found in the Biology Natural History Museum in the Metcalf Science Center.

Joel Brown, writer, BU Today at Boston University
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

2 Comments on A BU Museum You’ve Never Heard Of

  • Mendy Ling on 01.18.2017 at 11:57 am

    Amazing! Wish I would’ve known about this sooner. Definitely coming to check it out before graduation

  • Karl Gerds on 05.12.2017 at 12:24 pm

    My wife and I toured this place in an Alumni event. It is amazing!!!

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