Of all the questions I receive as Curator of Education at the Midwest Museum of Natural History, you may be surprised to know that the most common is: Why can’t we touch the animals? Numerous times I have seen children and adults alike reaching out in curiosity to experience what elephant skin feels like, to determine whether or not the impala has silky smooth fur, and even to see if the gray wolf fur feels like their own dog’s. Simply put, each time a preserved animal at the Museum is touched, valuable years come off of its life in our collection. Why is this? Human hands produce micro-liters of oil every day, and while that might not seem like much, to a museum specimen like the gray wolf, it is enough to cause serious damage.
Once contact is made with the fur of a specimen on exhibit, the oil from the skin has now been rubbed all over that fur and it begins soaking into each individual hair in which it comes into contact. This damage is irreversible. That oil will continue to settle into the individual strands of fur and skin underneath, and as it does so, it will slowly break down the fur until it loses pigmentation (color), or worse, causes the hide underneath to dry and crack, leading to irreparable damage. Do your own experiment—touch a clean window or glass surface—do you see the oily smudges left behind? Imagine those same smudges all over the animals—and we can’t just clean them like windows.
The Museum cleans its collection annually using special equipment. When the Curator of Collections performs this cleaning, she suits up in a dust cover, mask, gloves, and protective boots before stepping into the exhibit to perform cleaning or restoration of specimens. These protective measures are less for her protection and more for our specimen’s protection.
So the next time you come to visit the Museum, please help us preserve our world-class collection by remembering to look, but not touch.
Lauren Orton, Curator of Education at the Midwest Museum of Natural History
Ms. Orton currently holds a M.S. in Biological Science and is working toward her Ph.D. in Biological Science with an emphasis in Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics.