Curation is more paperwork and storage cabinets than glamour, but it defines what a museum is. In fact, only about 1 percent of a museum's holdings are ever put on display; the majority stay in museum drawers. The museum's job is to preserve the fossils in perpetuity, ensuring they are available for study by future generations.

Most of the fossils at the DMNS have been acquired through the Museum's own collection efforts, but the Museum can acquire fossils in other ways, such as a donation, purchase, or transfer from or exchange with another institution. The storage and care of any kind of fossil is a long-term commitment that ultimately requires space and entails significant expense. What's more, once a fossil is formally added to the Museum's collections, disposing of (or "deaccessioning") the fossil is no simple process. Therefore, whether to accept or reject fossils is strictly up to the curator, in this case Department of Earth and Space Sciences head Dr. Russ Graham.

If it won't interfere with future study, each fossil arriving from the fossil lab is dabbed with acrylic paint, and labeled with its locality and catalog numbers. For long-term storage, the Museum uses metal cabinets. Using this storage space as efficiently as possible makes more room for future finds, so the cabinets rest on movable rollers, called compactors, that maximize space by opening only one or two aisles at a time.

Beyond safely storing the fossils, the Museum must keep a central record of the collection contents. The Museum's catalog consists of literally thousands of individual catalog sheets. The left-most column is a sequential number that becomes the fossil's catalog number. Other information recorded for each fossil is taxonomic information, including its division, class, order, and the lowest identifiable taxon. Also recorded for the fossil is the locality where it was collected, its geologic age, and who collected it. Written entries in the catalog are later entered into the Museum's electronic database.

In case you're wondering, the catalog number for the Cretaceous turtle collected near Marmarth, North Dakota, is DMNS 14731.


© 2000 DMNS. All rights reserved.