166 years as a 'library of the natural world': You can see some of Notebaert museum's specimens

In an unassuming industrial building in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago lie nearly 400,000 meticulously preserved natural specimens.

The birds, mammals, plants, fossils and mollusks make up the vast collection of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum — some of which will be publicly displayed at the museum Thursday during its annual Founders Day celebration.

Director of Collections Dawn Roberts estimates that less than 1% of the academy's collection, which dates back to the 1830s, is actually on display at the museum. The rest is kept at the Ravenswood Collections facility, where scientists, historians, photographers and even artists can access it.

“This is essentially a library of the natural world,” Roberts said. “I had an artist visit here right before the holidays who was looking at colorful butterflies and insects — the patterns and the different color combinations. We also looked at birds. There's lots of inspiration here.”

While Roberts and her team spend most of their time managing the academy's collection at the Ravenswood facility, the group will dust off some of the specimens in storage for the celebration, where guests can chat directly with Roberts and other academy staff members about the research and data-gathering done behind the scenes. Families will also have the opportunity to take home a fossil.

The event will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Nature Museum just north of the Lincoln Park Zoo at 2430 N. Cannon Drive. Admission is free to Illinois residents.

Roberts said the celebration is a chance to look back at the academy's history while sharing some of the work that's still going on today.

“Most museums, especially not-for-profit ones like this one, hold collections in the public trust,” she said. “The whole idea is that we serve as a community repository for the natural world. Just like the Chicago History Museum holds the community's history in its collections, we hold its natural history in our collections.”

The academy was founded Jan. 13, 1857, by a group of individuals — teachers, doctors, lawyers and naturalists alike — who brought their personal collections together.

The organization's first museum, downtown, was destroyed amid the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The tragedy left the academy solely with what specimens were loaned out to other institutions at the time.

Since then, the collection has grown to just under 400,000 specimens, some of which are over 200 years old.

The specimens range not only among species but across time. The facility has drawers and drawers full of the same species, allowing researchers to piece together a fuller picture of biodiversity in the Chicago area.

“Every single one of these is an individual, just like you and I,” Roberts said. “Every single one brings with it the story of when and where it lived. Every single one of these individuals has a piece of the puzzle.”

If the facility has hundreds of the same sparrow species all from Chicago, how a habitat changes over time, how species interactions change and how people affect the environment in different ways can be studied.

Roberts and her team are currently cataloging botanic specimens they hadn't previously had the staffing to process, as well as digitizing the collection as a whole.

With a team of five employees in the facilities department, two of whom are part-time and two others whose positions are funded by grants, Roberts said the work is slow going but worth it.

“If we can make all of that available, then it's there for people who work in the forest preserves, or teachers who want to use that kind of real world data in our classrooms,” she said. “If we can bring all of that out for the public to access as much as possible, that's what the collection is here for.”

• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

Senior Director of Collections Dawn Roberts interacts with museum guests at a previous Founders Day. Courtesy of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Dawn Roberts at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum's collection facility in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood. Courtesy of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
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