The collection of Evert Julius Bonsdorff, professor of anatomy, contained as many as approximately 2,000 skeletons and skins. The current scope of the collection has been hitherto unknown, as has the process through which many of the individual specimens from the collection made their way to the Natural History Museum in the 1960s.
Researcher Henry Pihlström has started work with his two assistants to go through the collection stored in the basement of the Natural History Museum.
So far, they have delved into the basements to find the oldest specimens which originate from abroad, and are thus the most exotic. These are the ones which are most in need of a re-identification.
– The collections feature several specimens which simply could not be identified a hundred years ago, or they were identified according to classifications currently considered erroneous, Pihlström explains.
He emphasises that the researchers in the 18th and 19th centuries were competent, top researchers of their time. We merely have an extra century’s worth of scientific information at our disposal.
Newest information to the rescue
Science does not stand still, and taxonomies – i.e., the ways organisms are organised into families and named – change. For this reason, all scientific collections should be periodically reviewed if possible.
For example, many animals formerly considered to be representatives of one species have later been divided into several species. Previously all the world’s minke whales were thought to share a species, but currently the northern minke whale is considered distinct from its southern cousin, the common minke whale. In addition, a dwarf form has been identified. And this is just one example of how a group of species can be classified.
It became apparent in the very early stages of Pihlström’s project that the baleen whale skull in the Natural History Museum’s Story of the Bones exhibition is likely from a dwarf minke whale.
Time machine to the past
The collections can take the observer to the furthest reaches of the world without having to leave the Helsinki museum’s basement. They also provide the opportunity to time travel in a similar way, and offer otherwise inaccessible perspectives to historical developments.
Henry Pihlström gingerly lifts the skull of a spotted hyena out of a plastic bag and points to the label. During its life, the hyena toured Finland with a carnival, spent its retirement years in the Korkeasaari Zoo and ultimately became a specimen in the collections of the Natural History Museum. The sample has been dated 20 April 1938.
Unexpectedly, the story of the hyena also offers a glimpse into the history of Finnish legislation and the prevailing opinions on animal rights. Today, no wild animal could be treated as this one was during the inter-war period.
– Identifying animal bones may sound like exciting detective work – and in a way, it is, Pihlström hastens to add. – But ultimately it is very ordinary work caring for the collections. This same kind of work is constantly being done in all museums around the world on specimens from all species.
However, extremely old specimens have a special value – they may prove to be invaluable in the study of the spread or genetics of animals. In many cases, the only information we have on the distant past can be found in the recesses of museum collections.
The Bonsdorff bones
Evert Julius Bonsdorff (1810–1898), professor of anatomy of University of Helsinki, amassed an internationally significant collection featuring the skeletons and skins of vertebrates.
He himself did not travel extensively for the specimens, managing to acquire them as purchases or trades from a variety of sources.
The collection was passed down to the Bonsdorff family and later to the Natural History Museum. The bones from the Bonsdorff collection continue to form the backbone of the Museum’s osteological collections.
Between 1960 and 1962, the collection was moved to its current home in the museum building on Pohjoinen Rautatiekatu. At the time, a fourth floor was constructed by building a suspended ceiling to the main hall to display the bone collection. The suspended ceiling was removed during the renovation that took place 2005–2008, and the bone exhibition was moved to the floor level.