If you’ve ever been to one of the members-only nights at the Field Museum of Natural History, where they open up the archives to showcase vast collections of flora and fauna that aren’t generally open to the public, you understand that the exhibits that attract visitors to the Field are just the tip of the iceberg. But you may not understand how these 30 million items (yes, that’s the correct number) actually assist in the work of scientists and researchers. “Specimens: Unlocking the Secrets of Life” shows us exactly how that’s done.

The latest exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History opened earlier this month, and will remain at the Field through January 7, 2018. It’s a rare look at the huge amounts of skins, taxidermied bodies, and other artifacts that have helped us document the world around us over time. The Field’s collection happens to be one of the biggest in the world.

“Most people don’t even realize that there are things that not on display – and if they do realize there are things that aren’t on display, they have a misinterpretation of how those are the ‘lesser’ things,” explains Exhibition Developer Marie Georg, who helped decide how to tell the stories that make up “Specimens.” “In many instances, they’re the real deal. They’re the more important specimens, especially when it comes a lot of the natural world.”

These specimens include a tiny minnow that is now extinct, making the little fish the only scientific record of this creature that exists. It includes preparation types that visitors may not be used to seeing in museum displays, such as pressed plants or pinned insects, that are designed to help scientists understand our changing world.

To create the exhibit, Georg and other designers looked for superlatives – the biggest and smallest, for example. The beautiful and intriguing. The ones that told the most compelling stories. The ones that can teach us about what natural historians and scientists do. For example, one part of the exhibit discusses holotypes, which are “firsts” – the specimens used to initially describe a species, when we discovered them. The Field Museum’s collections house 20,000 holotypes.

The organizers looked for specimens that solved a mystery – have bird sizes changed due to the warming of the Earth? How did moss help FBI investigators crack a case? What can we discover about geese who brought down a plane in a crash, and how will that help us? One of the things guests will learn from “Specimens” is that scientists need to have big collections to be able to compare species over time. Another is that new technologies are constantly being developed that can help us go back and look at previous collections to find out new things. The idea is, Georg says, to be able to share concepts and concerns that are fundamental to scientists, but which casual museum-goers may never have known existed.

“Specimens” does this well with a boatload of information, along with an inside look at museums and the people that are involved with them. Interactive stations help visitors learn physical differences in specimens that scientists use to classify species, and there’s even an opportunity for citizen science. This is a cerebral exhibit, but there are touchables and visually interesting elements for all ages.

The exhibit also shows that natural history, despite all the dead things it showcases, is a very optimistic field. “There’s a lot of hope in collecting, that someday it will be useful. You do have to rely on the people who came before you to have done their jobs, in order for you to do yours now. For researchers to answer these questions now, they need collections from the generations before them,” George said.

“Specimens: Unlocking the Secrets of Life” is at the Field Museum of Natural History through 2017. For admission information and more about what’s available at the Field right now, visit the website at www.fieldmuseum.org.

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