Smithsonian Museum

Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History August 11, 2011

Washington, D.C.

Problem: How to safely store and organize one of the world's largest collections of specimens, many of them in heavy specimen jars

Solution: Cabinets with drawers and internal partitions

Benefits: Better security, reliability, and organization

Products Used: Cabinets with drawer partitions

At the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History, one of the biggest storage challenges is posed by the smallest of creatures. The Department of Entomology's National Insect Collection includes 30-35 million individual specimens, making it the largest such collection in the Western Hemisphere and one of the top three worldwide. Each of the tiny specimens must be preserved in a way that keeps it safe from damage, yet easy for researchers to find it when needed. Different specimens have different storage requirements, and the Smithsonian determined that Stanley® Vidmar® cabinets create the perfect home for the arachnid collection.

The main problem the cabinets solved is one that most people wouldn't suspect with tiny bugs: weight. The arachnid collection includes soft-bodied creatures such as spiders and scorpions. According to David G. Furth, Ph.D., collections manager, these specimens have to be kept in glass jars filled with an 80% ethanol solution, or else they would shrivel up and be of no use scientifically. The collections also include tiny insects and insect parts mounted on glass microscope slides. Both the jars and the slides are quite heavy. For instance one drawer might have to hold 25-30 half-liter jars that weigh about 2.5 pounds each, for a total weight of as much as 75 pounds per drawer—nearly as heavy as two bags of concrete. That’s no problem for Vidmar drawers, which can hold up to 400 lbs. each even when fully extended.

The cabinets’ strength also brought other benefits. According to Furth, new government regulations require that potentially volatile liquids like ethanol be housed in a room no bigger than 500 square feet, among other requirements. Because some of the cabinets with the specimen jars are in rooms over twice that size, Furth thought he might be faced with a disruptive moving project. But the Vidmar cabinets made that unnecessary. Furth requested an exception based on the fact that the jars are inside such strong cabinets, and got it.

Before the purchase of the cabinets, jars were stored loosely in cabinets with no dividers, making it hard to find a jar quickly when needed. But each Vidmar drawer includes partitions that make it easier to organize and keep track of the specimens. A rubber matting in the floor of the drawer keeps jars from sliding around when a drawer is opened.

The need for secure specimen storage is likely to grow as scientists discover and catalog new species. (Estimates of the number of undiscovered and yet described insect species range from 10-30 million.) So when other museums seek advice on how to store their collections, they turn to the Smithsonian. “I give tours all the time to people from all over the world who are building museums or moving collections and looking for new ways of doing things,” says Furth. “I always show them the Vidmar cabinets.”