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BYUH Natural History Museum's collection of specimens is larger than what is on display

A skeleton on display in the NHM. It is a small animal with four legs and large teeth.
A skeleton on display in the NHM.

The Natural History Museum (NHM) owns a plethora of preserved animal specimens, and not all of them can be put on display, said Menorah Lock, a senior marine biology major from Hong Kong who works as a curator supervisor. There simply isn’t enough room. Instead, she said specimens are stored in the backroom.

The specimens largely consist of stuffed, taxidermied models or “mounts.” These are preserved pelts called “study skins” consisting of skeletons that are articulated, or held together, with wire. There are also individual animal parts, such as feathers.

The white rhino horn

Like many specimens, the white rhino horn was donated to BYUH by the Honolulu Zoo, explained Lock. However, the NHM avoids publicly displaying animals that can be found at the Zoo or the Bishop Museum because they want visitors to see animals they would not see at those locations.

“I don’t think another museum [in Hawaii] would have mounts of a polar bear or other Alaskan animals,” she explained.

The specimens in the back room not being displayed are known as a “research collection,” she said. Lock added the NHM used to display skeletons, but they now focuses on mounts, although the research collection is available to students who are studying animals.

One student, Lock said, used skeletons in the NHM’s research collection to gather data on the difference in wing size between male and female birds.

Sparking an excitement for learning

“We really serve a purpose in the community,” Lock said of both the research value to students and the educational value of parents bringing their children to learn about animals.

“A lot of students don’t know about this place,” she said, and encouraged students to visit or follow their Instagram @byuh_nhmuseum. “We have a lot of bones of the Hawaiian nene [goose],” she added, “If you want to research that, we have that.”

One recent visitor to the NHM was Laurie Flores, a BYUH alumna and fourth grade teacher at Hauula Elementary School who has been bringing her class to visit. With 27 students in her class, she has been bringing them six at a time to the NHM after school every day.

“It was wonderful,” she said, “[the kids were] so excited, … they’re in awe. They go home after and all they can do is talk, talk, talk.”

While three students had been to the NHM with their parents before COVID-19, Flores said the rest had never been to a natural history museum at all. “It’s wonderful to see their excitement for learning.”

Preparation of the specimens

Editor’s note: the descriptions of preparing the dead animals may be disturbing to some readers.

Many of the NHM’s specimens, particularly the birds, were prepared by Phillip Bruner, associate professor in the Faculty of Sciences. “The preparation depends on the end goal,” he said.

“A skeleton specimen involves removal of all the soft tissue by drying, degreasing and numbering all bones separately. … They may be articulated for display. Taxidermy, on the other hand, is far more complicated as the end goal is to produce a lifelike specimen.”

He stated birds can be more difficult to preserve than mammals because they have thinner skin and both taxidermy mounts and study skins require the animal’s skin to remain intact. Thus, he said most of the research collection is skeletons.

Lock described the process of skeletonizing a donated animal: “In order to clean them, we use beetles called the ‘museum beetle.’” This is a class of beetles known as dermestidae, or dermestid beetles. They eat the flesh off of a dead animal while leaving the skeleton perfectly intact.

After the dermestid beetles have eaten all the flesh, the bones are preserved in hydrogen peroxide and ammonium hydroxide, explained Lock. Afterwards, they may be articulated with wire but sometimes they are simply put in a box.

The process smells terrible, Lock noted, but is worth it. The museum’s current project is articulating a chimpanzee who passed away at the Honolulu Zoo.