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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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fish

Upon entering the Sant Ocean Hall, you will be surrounded by amazing examples of marine life. So much more than fish and dolphins, the ocean is home to thousands upon thousands of species – some very familiar and others rarely seen by human eyes. To awe you with this vast diversity, the Ocean Hall team selected hundreds of ocean-life specimens to display in the Hall. They are all at home in the ocean, but in the museum world, different kinds of ocean life require different kinds of displays. And some presented the team with particular challenges. Read on to find out how!

Ocean life comes in all shapes and sizes – and each kind has its own unique display needs.

 

Dry and ready

Museum curators and exhibit designers must carefully select how best to display each specimen. Since bones and shells are fairly durable, mollusk shells and fossils can be displayed almost as-is. Vertebrate animals covered by fur or feathers, like marine mammals and marine birds, can be prepared by taxidermy – a process of preparing, stuffing and mounting the skin of an animal.

For specimens that are too large, too small, or too difficult to display in an attractive way at all, models, often from fiberglass, are created. Some models are made by creating a mold of an actual specimen; others are created by working from photographs. Although not real, painted models allow visitors to see animals in their closer-to-real natural colors than is possible with most other preservation methods. The largest model in the ocean hall will be Phoenix, a North Atlantic Right Whale. It would be impossible to display a whale that big in a fluid preservative or as a taxidermy mount, but as a model, it offers visitors a stunning view of a fascinating, and endangered, giant of the ocean. Suspended in the center of the Hall, Phoenix will stand guard over the ocean hall and serve as its star.

All wet and nowhere to go

an aisle in NMNH's fish collections
At the National Museum of Natural History’s storage facilities, millions of specimens are kept in alcohol. Alcohol has been used to preserve wet specimens for over 100 years. Image: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

A large portion of ocean-life specimens, however, are wet specimens. These are soft-bodied animals that are traditionally preserved in jars of alcohol. But new U.S. fire regulations severely limit the amount of alcohol allowed in exhibits. How did the team find a solution to this challenge?

Searching for a “solution”

Ocean Hall curators Dr. Michael Vecchione and Dr. Carole Baldwin began investigating alternatives. They looked at formalin, but it’s too caustic (capable of burning or corroding), carcinogenic (capable of causing cancer), and flammable. They looked at different kinds of alcohol, but all were deemed too flammable. Then the curators learned about new fluids developed by 3M Company for cleaning and heat transfer applications in the electronics industry. These fluids, called 3M™ Novec™ Engineered Fluids, are non-flammable, non-explosive, non-toxic, and have very low global warming potential. That would meet fire code requirements, but what about the safety of the specimens, some of which are very fragile and/or historic?

specimens floating in 3M fluid
These test specimens have floated in 3M Novec fluid for the past two years. Image: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

An innovation to the rescue

To test how specimens would react in the 3M™ Novec™ Engineered Fluid, Dr. Vecchione and Dr. Baldwin chose several specimens collected from a recent research cruise. They placed these specimens in formalin and then into 3M Novec fluid. They also ran experiments with specimens that had previously been in alcohol.

The curators were surprised by their findings. The 3M Novec fluid did not penetrate organisms the way alcohol or formalin does. Instead, 3M Novec fluid formed an envelope around the organism. What did this mean? For alcohol-treated specimens, this meant that the specimen would eventually rot in the 3M Novec fluid. Not an acceptable solution when you’re in charge of preserving thousands of rare ocean animals. But those specimens that were treated with the fixative formalin did not show any deterioration.

A new challenge… floating specimens

The decision was made by museum administration to use the 3M Novec fluid in the Hall. But then a new problem surfaced: specimens in alcohol sink, but those in 3M Novec fluid float. If floating specimens were exposed to air that might be present at the top of the jar, the specimen would begin to rot. Therefore, designers had to develop ways to anchor some tricky specimens – like those with long tentacles – to prevent any part from breaking the surface.

Seeing clearly now

The great news is that the 3M Novec fluid is remarkably clear. You’re going to get the best view of ocean animals possible in a museum. Better yet, the 3M Novec fluid appears to preserve the natural color of specimens amazingly well, better than alcohol. Because the exhibit can contain as much of this fluid as it needs to, it allows ocean hall visitors to see a truly awe-inspiring array of specimens – a gift from 3M to all ocean lovers!

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