A behind-the-scenes look at Field Museum specimens highlights key research and the scientific process.
From scores of insects to thousands of uncategorized bone fragments, the Field Museum’s massive collection includes more than 30 million items. Only a fraction of these objects, known to researchers as scientific specimens, are displayed in museum exhibits but every one of them helps explain the story of life on Earth. “Specimens: Unlocking the Secrets of Life” is the Field Museum’s newest exhibition, but the story it tells is as old as the museum itself.
That story begins by explaining what specimens are, why they’ve been essential to scientific research and just how much of the museum’s space is used to store these artifacts. A large, three-panel projection explaining the specifics about specimens stretches across the first room of the exhibit, which also houses the bones of a giant Asian elephant and glass jars filled with everything from bear brains to fruit bats.
From here, “Specimens” takes guests through two additional rooms filled with a fantastic variety of specimen collections accompanied by explanations of how each furthered scientific research in a particular field. Visitors will learn how Argonne National Laboratory’s advanced photon source allowed scientists to study the internal anatomy of some of the museum’s 7,500 specimens of insects trapped in amber, and how a collection of 600 bat and squirrel specimens from the Democratic Republic of the Congo helped the Centers for Disease Control study the rare and potentially fatal monkeypox disease.
The exhibit’s main draw is the wide range of diverse specimen samples, but its greatest feat is turning this mix of insects, birds, bones and fossils into a compelling narrative about the painstaking work done by scientific researchers. For example, the story of Field Museum super volunteer Jack Wittry, who spent countless hours collecting and studying more than 18,500 fossils from the Mazon Creek fossil site in southern Illinois, illustrates a critical first step in most research projects: gathering and labeling thousands of specimen samples. Additionally, several interactive kiosks bring this aspect of the exhibit full circle by inviting guests to contribute to ongoing research.
Ultimately, “Specimens” is full of rare items and interesting stories, but it lacks the grandeur of some of the Field Museum’s more ambitious exhibitions. Its relatively short and compact design gives the impression that the objects on display are merely the odds and ends of a greater exhibit located elsewhere. Still, “Specimens” is able to rise above these shortcomings and make guests feel part of some of the museum's biggest discoveries, bringing you behind the scenes and face-to-face with critical steps in the scientific process. The only downside is that, for the uninitiated, these steps can be quite tedious and difficult to appreciate.