The enchantment of seeing wild animals is lasting, something the Natural History Museum of the University of Jyväskylä, located on top of the Harju ridge, makes clearly evident. Exhibition visitors step into the life scenery of local wintry nature, while museum professionals assist information seekers behind the scenes. Where needed, they provide researchers with a fur sample, a plant specimen, a cuckoo collection, or a flying squirrel’s DNA sample. Over the years, the museum has fulfilled some rather tricky research requests as well.
In front of the antlers of Heimo the elk, even the tallest of visitors has to look upwards. Some may even hesitate and prefer to keep a respectful distance. Behind a showcase, two wolves are sizing each other up, one of them showing their canine teeth. Is the lynx crouching there on a snowy rock perhaps waiting for its prey?
The Natural History Museum, located on the Harju ridge in Jyväskylä, is a window onto the nature of Central Finland. Animals end up as specimens in its collections for various reasons. The elk now called “Heimo” once lived at Isojärvi in Multia, while the lynx was run over by a car in Kuhmoinen. The wolves ended up on the conservator’s desk from the Ähtäri and Ranua zoos.
The features of a whinchat specimen which has seen the passage of time were studied already by students from the Teacher Seminary from 1860’s.
The animals that have ended up at the museum have their own interesting stories, and almost without exception these animals were found dead in nature, for some reason or another, says museum educator and coordinator Jonna Timonen, from the Jyväskylä University Museum.
The enchantment of seeing wild animals has maintained itself over the years – also at the museum.
“Seeing a real animal is always an experience. It also increases empathy towards nature,” says Timonen, who has observed the museum visits of thousands of school children.
This notion is shared by Marjo Virtanen, a class teacher from Kypärämäki School, who visited the museum with her first-grade class in February.
“The milieu is important, as people come here like they are entering the middle of a natural environment.”
Collections from famed donors
The collections of the Natural History Museum have accumulated over a period of about 160 years, beginning from the educational collections of the Teacher Seminary. Now the museum’s collections include more than 320,000 specimens, consisting of mammals, insects, plants, and birds, among other things.
Annually, the number of new specimens range from a few hundred to a few thousand.
For the most part, the specimens are butterflies and other insects. Including the showcases and the collection spaces in the basement, they number nearly 200,000. The collection features almost 68,000 vascular plants, 13,000 moss specimens and the same number of fungi.
Perhaps the most exotic specimens are an elephant’s molar, a small basket made of an armadillo, the snout of a sawfish, and the tiny tardigrades preserved on microscopic slides.
Earlier in the museum’s history, the collections were added, for example, by Uno Cygnaeus, the founder of Jyväskylä Teacher Seminary, and also by President Mannerheim’s grandfather, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, who donated some of his beetle specimens to the museum. The botanist and priest Lars Levi Laestadius donated his own plant collection.
Might it be that the museum now has Finland’s – or even the world’s – largest collection of specimens from Central Finland?
“There is no actual research data on the quantity of natural specimens from Central Finland in possession of other museums in Finland, let alone in the world,” says Tanja Koskela, Intendant of Jyväskylä University Museum. “In any case, the Natural History Museum, with its collections, exhibitions and science education activities, constitutes a remarkable research infrastructure, source of data and learning environment concerning nature in Central Finland.”
The collection is also a research resource for the unknown future
The nature in the region of Central Finland is outlined in the Natural History Museum in terms of winter life, predators, waterways, forests, swamps, and geology. At the time when the exhibition was constructed and opened in 2002, current themes included local environmental problems, such as the pollution in Lake Päijänne.
The permanent exhibition is entitled “Environment as a legacy” and it is accompanied by changing presentations, including photography exhibits.
Much of the work that goes on in the collection spaces and other workspaces of the museum remains invisible to the public. The museum’s collections are a treasure trove for scientists, and of these only a small fraction is on display in the exhibition upstairs.
The collections can be used, for example, to investigate the regional distribution of species as well as variation or ancestral history within a species.
The collections are valuable also in the sense that we do not even know what all can be studied or what people wish to study from these in the future.
“Still some decades ago, we did not have even the faintest idea of the fact that the specimens in our collections would lend themselves to a wide variety of DNA or genetic research, even the dried herbarium specimens are usable,” Tanja Koskela points out.
The collection is still growing, mostly owing to individual donors, and anybody can donate. The museum no longer has its own conservator, however, and animal conservation work is ordered from professional conservators or from other science museums.
What kind of a specimen or collection should be in question so that it would be worth for the collector to contact the museum?
“In principle, there are no obstacles for any specimens,” says Museum Amanuensis Jyrki Torniainen. “If the discovery data, such as time and place, are known, and the specimens are in proper condition, it is recommended to offer a donation to the museum.”
The more exact data there is on a specimen, the more useful it is for research and education.
A cuckoo collection is on its way to Helsinki, and Carex rupestris sent to Canada
The specimens that end up in the museum’s collection are not always whole animals or plants.
This can be seen in a room that the staff calls the “pelt storage”. There are stuffed animals on the desks and shelves. There is a row of cardboard archiving boxes, and a quick peek reveals what kind of specimens are eligible for the museum. The boxes include bird wings, animal claws, and whole or partial pelts.
In his role as museum amanuensis, Jyrki Torniainen evaluates in which form a specimen is best to include in the collection.
There is demand for the museum’s specimens and knowledge. Researchers and other museums contact the Natural History Museum with a range of wishes. They ask for the collection data of specimens, a whole specimen or a part of it to be studied. The specimens can be subjected to environmental toxin, isotope or DNA analyses, for example.
“We can send, for instance, a piece of fur for analysis. Some years ago, we sent a herbarium sample of Carex rupestris to a researcher in Canada,” Tanja Koskela says. “The researcher asked and was permitted to take a small piece of a leaf of this plant for DNA analyses related to research on the taxonomy and distribution history of this plant family.”
More recently, a Helsinki-based research team requested the museum’s cuckoo collection for their research purposes. They are investigating whether brown-coloured cuckoo females have equal chances and success compared to grey ones to lay their eggs in the nests of the host birds. A research team from the University of Oulu, for their part, recently asked for DNA samples from the museum’s collection of flying squirrel pelts. The purpose is to investigate the genetic structure at the landscape level and assist in the reformulation of protection issues for this species.
Specimen data found through persistent effort
Information from the collection documents of the museum’s material is converted to a digital format on a daily basis. At present, about a third of the collection specimens have been digitised.
Information from the digitised collections becomes freely available to the public through the Laji.fi online service and portal.
The Natural History Museum is also involved in the FinBIF project funded by the Academy of Finland. The project promotes the digitising, gathering and open distribution of species data in support of research, management, education, and business.
The digitising of specimen data calls for detective work and the right attitude. One has to be able to read decorative handwriting from the labels, even shorthand, and interpret collection site data in a time of changing municipal borders in order to get correct map coordinates for the specimens.
“Some time ago, one person recalled, from nearly thirty years ago, the collection site of his moss sample so precisely that we were able to eventually get the map coordinates for this specimen,” Koskela says.
The popular museum can be visited also digitally
The JYU Natural History Museum is one of Finland’s nine natural science museums and one of the most popular museums in Jyväskylä. Last year, the museum had nearly 27,500 visitors. The current record number of 31,500 visitors in one year was achieved just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019. In comparison, the Jyväskylä Art Museum received 38,000 visitors last year.
The museum is a part of JYU’s Open Science Centre and the Jyväskylä University Museum, which preserves and exhibits not only local nature but also the unique cultural heritage of the university through its various exhibitions and collections.
Jyväskylä University Museum now provides science education online as well. You can take a virtual or a guided tour in the museum. Children in day care as well as school children can select online teaching material (in Finnish) for a self-guided tour.
A new exhibition looks to provide hope and inspiration
In the coming years, the purpose is to overhaul the Natural History Museum’s permanent exhibition, which is already over twenty years old. Plans for it have already been made, but decisions on the schedule and funding are pending.
“An important viewpoint in the new exhibition is also to open up the process of producing scientific knowledge,” Koskela says.
“The new exhibition will address planetary well-being and how everything is interconnected with everything in the environment,” Jonna Timonen says. “We will address the issues of climate change, evolution, and biodiversity. It is also important to inspire hope and possibilities for change. Visitors are presented with various ways that they too can have an influence.”
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