Berlin, Day Two: Vermes Sammlung (Worms)

So, day two at the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde.  After the first day spent walking around the museum, as well as walking around the city in the evening, I was very tired.  Luckily the prospect of seeing another department was galvanising and I couldn’t wait to get stuck in again.

For my second day I was in the care of the ‘Vermes’ team.  This is a now-outdated term for worms, and in this case also includes cnidarians (corals), echinoderms and crustaceans (purely in the sense that they belong to one department).  I briefly met Birger Neuhaus who explained briefly what the collection consisted of.  He then handed me over to one of the collection assistants who spent the day showing me the collections and explaining about any problems the collection faced as well as how to combat them. Her name was Antje and she was lovely.

Before that, though, I met somebody who was busy with sheets and sheets of labels (see the image below).  As is often the case in museums, ‘someone’ in past had made a decision to do something a certain way and collection staff are now faced with compensating for that choice.  These old labels had been removed by a previous staff member and then glued onto sheets of paper to keep them safe (no labels should ever be thrown away or discarded).

The assistant was spraying the labels and the sheets onto which they had been stuck with a special preservative to fix their state and prevent acidification.  There were boxes upon boxes of these sheets, and because this person had chosen to do this, it now means an extra job someone has to do today.  There was no explanation given for why this was done.  There may have been a good reason (maybe the labels were at risk of falling off the bottles) but without any clues/reasoning left behind, it’s anyone’s guess.

Antje then led me to the collections for my exhaustive tour.  She spoke a little bit of English but was much more comfortable speaking German.  I took the plunge and said that was OK.  I spent time in Germany as a young child (for over five years) where I attended a German school and became fluent in the language.  I’m a bit rusty, though, and conversing in a foreign language about something as specialist as natural history collections and their upkeep was exhausting.  I’m glad I did it, though; had I been unable to speak German I am sure my experience would have been nowhere as insightful or special as it was.  I think the staff were grateful that they could speak to a visitor in German and it allowed them to go into more detail (which of course benefitted me).

Antje showed me all the work that had been, was being and still had to be done with the collection.  The museum had undergone a massive rebuild last year and most departments are still in the process of moving the material to new locations.  The main piece of work was the East wing of the building: it had been completely razed during the Second World War.  Last year, it was finally rebuilt and now houses the very large spirit collections.  There have been many moves between and within departments regarding the dry specimens as well.  Antje talked me through these moves, explaining that the cases have to be deconstructed, moved and then rebuilt in another area.  The specimens are removed first and, ideally, cleaned/conserved and put in new storage boxes with new labels, so that they go to their new homes all ready.  This has happened for some but nowhere near all of the specimens (and it continues today). Here’s an example:

As I mentioned, the majority have not had the chance to be so carefully sorted out:

It has received a new label at least, but needs a lot of work still.  Considering this is one of many thousands, that should bring home how much there is still to do.  Therefore, the objects are just moved from the old location to the new, without being conserved for now, purely because there’s not enough time to everything.

As mentioned previously, no labels are thrown away.  All records of the objects need to be conserved so that no information (or, as little as possible) is lost over the years, and so that there is a paper trail for each object in the collection.  One never knows when something on an old label will become useful.  There were entire cabinets full of old record cards and labels:

As we went round the collection Antje showed some of the coral specimens.  They were often kept in plastic bags so that they didn’t become dusty (or in the case of those that are as yet uncleaned, dustier).  The bags also made sure that all the labels were with the relevant objects as well as ensuring that should any parts break off, the bag will hold them all together with the main specimen and its tag.  Antje explained that her department don’t suffer from insect pests particularly (although they do go through the motions of laying insect traps, just in case).  The main threat to their collection is the dust and grime, which they combat by using plastic bags and solid boxes.

Birger interrupted the tour to ask us to package some goods up and send them off.  Antje had to collect three microscope eyepieces and wrap them up very carefully, and get all the correspondence in order.  It was interesting to watch because she talked me through why she did things in a certain way and how different something like that is to sending a specimen off.  The various forms and legal requirements are pretty complicated.  More on this in a later post.

While Antje had to sort something else out she left me alone with the slide collection; so I had a good look through.

I was then shown around the rest of the cases which contained a variety of animal groups as well as storage methods.

After lunch, Antje took me to see a colleague who was working on some of the wet specimens.  There are a variety of bottle/glass types that are used and each department has a preference.  The ones I went to look at were very old: they had been sealed using a special adhesive that was very difficult to remove.  The woman who was working on them showed me how she used a scalpel to pick the lids off and then replace that with a tape system. See below:

Antje then took me round the rest of the collection, pointing out anything of interest.  There are a lot of coral specimens that still need to be cleaned and in the meantime are kept in plastic bags if too big for the boxes.  We had a look at the crustaceans which were stored in much the same way.

We had a quick look through to the zoology library.  Each department has its own library but there is a central zoology library which contains a mixture of publications.  Some are very old and crumbly and precious, whereas others are up-to-date journals and books on the cutting edge of the science.  The library itself was pretty:

After the library, Antje introduced me to a girl called Elena who had been working on the wet collection.  Elena took me in to see the wet specimens and described how she has had to swap the old jars for the new ones and that important (usually type) specimens get special ones again.  She discussed the pros and cons of the systems and equipment in place.  It was very good, but different departments have different policies when it comes to the alcohol collection.  Some have you wear special shoes, and leave phones and cameras behind: this is to reduce the risk of electric shocks and sparks being generated in the store and causing 60,000 bottles full of alcohol to explode violently.  Therefore, I have no photos of that part of the day.  Other departments are more relaxed about these rules so I shall discuss the wet specimens in more detail there, with photos.

At the end of this long day, my brain was fried.  Everything discussed in this post (and far more) was told to me in German.  It was a great opportunity and I am glad I was able to converse with Antje in her native language and gain a particularly special insight into her collection area. It was tiring but it was also something I had to get used to: the rest of my visit was conducted entirely in German.  Next up: palaeontology!

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2 thoughts on “Berlin, Day Two: Vermes Sammlung (Worms)

  1. It sounds so intense! what’s the purpose of keeping reams of labels, if they aren’t attached to specimens? Can they still be traced back to their original owner?

    • The labels are (usually/ideally) linked to the specimens via entry/inventory numbers. There are some occasions when a box of labels is found without any clue as to what they refer to. Whoever was responsible for that (over the past 250 years) may have had a reason, or not; either way, they cannot be disposed of.

      One never knows when a specimen will come to light, or aspects of its history reveal a clue or a link to that box of labels. Or when some literature will be found (a travel journal, an old catalogue) that mentions those labels in some way. Then one can go back and use those sources to reconcile that information with the specimens.

      Like in the previous post: the labels on some birds had no location information, but all it took was a random journal to be found which mentioned those specimens regarding some other aspect of their labels, and contained more comprehensive information which could then be added to the labels.

      The method in museums is exactly that: never throw any old label away, keep everything together (where possible) with the specimen, because no matter how many new systems one develops, there may be an old catalogue book with all the old numbers as well as more information in it, which can only be useful if the 150 year old, now-unused inventory number of that object is still known.

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