The Smithsonian

Yesterday, with the excuse of needing fish specimens for my Freshwater Fish of the Talamanca project, I had the opportunity to venture into the Smithsonian’s museum support center in Suitland, MD, where they stash many of the specimens and artifacts that they do not have space for at the museum in Washington, D.C.

I was greeted at the door by a great guy named Jerry Finan, with whom I share a last name, despite never having met him before.  The Smithsonian had been generous to give me a nice little office for the day, complete with microscope, implements for handling specimens, and some rolling chairs.  Jerry was happy to show around the collections, where we gathered the 14 or so specimens that I needed on a rolling metal cart.  I was hoping that the collections would look like the warehouse in the opening scene of the most recent Indiana Jones movie, with giant crates stacked floor to ceiling.  Perhaps that’s what the anthropology archives look like, but the vertebrate zoology department looks more like a cross between the Department of Mysteries and a library.  Upon entering the storage pod (yes, they’re called pods, according to the map in the lobby), you find yourself standing in a long, dim, hallway, surrounded by various clicks, drips, and buzzing.  The hallway has 6 or 7 doors, each one leading to an enormous room filled with shelves containing jars of every fish species that I have ever heard of, and apparently over half a million gallons of ethanol.

As if that wasn’t exciting enough, Jerry took me down to the area where the large specimens are kept.  I had never thought about how sharks, stingrays, and other big animals are preserved and stored, but apparently it is in rectangular metal tanks ranging from the size of a washing machine to the size of a very tall bathtub.  This is were we searched for Centropomus unidecimalis, a rather large specimen of sportfish.  Jerry donned shoulder-length black gloves, and rooted around in the ethanol-filled tank until he found the specimen that I needed, marked with a tag.  He was incredibly patient in answering all of my questions (“what are those pipes for?”* “do you have a giant squid?”**, etc.)  He asked me if there was anything else that I wanted to see, so I asked to see their coelacanth.  He opened up one of the bathtub-sized tanks, and there it was, the same size as me! He also showed me a tank containing rays, some mysterious fleshy bits, and some shark parts (apparently with animals too large to put in a tank, they cut them up, then put them in a tank).

As if the day wasn’t exciting enough, that afternoon I took the metro into D.C. to see fellow illustrator Zel Stoltzfus, currently under contract at the Smithsonian Museum!  A perfect end to a perfect day.


*he didn’t know

**yes, they have one on display in the museum, which I saw later that day with Zel!


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