History of Collections
by Steve W. Gotte
Beginning in the early 1850s the herpetology collections were stored in the Castle along with all the other early Smithsonian collections. The herpetology collections were moved several times within the Castle, then moved to the United States National Museum (now the Arts & Industries Building) in 1881, then moved to the Natural History Building (NHB, then the new U.S. National Museum) after its construction in 1910. The collections were moved within NHB at least once; the most recent move occurred in the mid-1960s, when the specimens were transferred from what is now the exhibits preparation area to the recently completed west wing. When that move occurred, the jar collection was reorganized from an arrangement by jar size to our current taxonomic/alphabetical system.
Due to severe space constraints, wet (alcoholic) turtles, crocodilians, salamanders, and caecilians went to the Museum Support Center (MSC) in Suitland, Maryland, in the early 1980s, and dry specimens of the same groups went there in 1990. The majority of the remaining collections were moved to the MSC in 2009 and 2011. Currently only the dry lizard collection is housed at NHB.
The Division of Amphibians and Reptiles currently has about 580,000 catalog records. Our oldest specimen probably dates from 1817; however, soon after the Smithsonian began its collections, the French national museum in Paris donated a number of specimens that have no collection dates associated with them that may have been collected even earlier. Ledger cataloging started in 1856 but did not become a regular activity until 1858. Computer cataloging replaced handwritten ledgers about 1970. Many of the early specimens were from Wilkes' U. S. Exploring Expedition around the world, the early western exploring expeditions, and military, railroad, and boundary surveys. Many of these surveys were conducted before the Smithsonian was established; the majority of those specimens were housed at the National Institute in the Patent Office Building (now the National Portrait Gallery) until their transfer to the Smithsonian in 1858.
Early on, groups of like-specimens were cataloged as "lots," whereas now each newly-catalogued specimen receives a unique catalog number (with exeption of tadpoles). Because our knowledge of relationships changes, so does the classification of amphibians and reptiles. Thus, we must periodically curate the different taxonomic groups; that is, specimens are reidentified and the taxonomy updated, and data are captured from the original handwritten ledgers, specimen labels, field notes, and literature and stored in an electronic data base. As part of curation, we recatalog the lot-cataloged specimens so that each individual specimen has a unique catalog number, and the specimens are rejarred or otherwise conserved.
The collection of amphibians and reptiles is one of the fastest growing collection in the museum's Department of Zoology. In recent years the Division has cataloged ca. 5,000 new specimens annually.
The Division is a very important repository for type specimens, particularly for early descriptions of North, Central, and South American taxa. New types are deposited here each year as researchers both within the museum and from other institutions describe new species. Currently, we have over 13,600 type records on our data base; over 2,500 of these are primary (name bearing) types. Because many of the early types were cataloged as "lots," the total number of types under the care of the Division may be over 15,000.
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