What are synoptic collections!?

By David Dyer, Curator of Natural History

In my last blog post, I mentioned that the natural history collections at the Ohio Historical Society used to be stored in the “Synoptic Room”. This was a time when the Society’s collections were actually housed within the main museum building; now they are housed in an off-site Collection Storage Facility. I didnt really explain the term “synoptic” in that post, but rather left it open and asked folks to email me if they wanted a definition. Due to the absolutely overwhelming response (!) everyone now surely knows what that is! But in case one or two of you forgot to email, here’s an explanation and an introduction to the collections within natural history.

But first a little history of natural history! Before the Ohio Historical Center opened in its current location on 17th Ave. it was located on the Ohio State University campus. The large natural history collections at OHS were closely integrated with OSU’s research and teaching programs. When the Ohio Historical Society moved to the new building in 1970, the decision was made to retain the majority of the vast collections on the OSU campus where they would continue to be used regularly by university researchers, graduate students, and visiting scientists. These collections were not simply given to OSU but rather are on a long-term loan; they are still owned and monitored by OHS. It should be noted that only the zoological collections within natural history were retained at OSU. These collections then became the foundation for OSU’s “Museum of Zoology” which continued to operate in the basement of Sullivant Hall for many years after the Ohio Historical Society moved to 17th Ave. (I also worked in the Museum of Zoology collections as an undergraduate, as well as at OHS, but thats a story for another time!). Then in later years, many of the scientific collections at OSU were brought together in the current Museum of Biological Diversity on Kinnear Rd.

So how many zoological specimens were left at Ohio State!? Records show that over 215,000 lots* of specimens were retained on loan to OSU. That includes over 102,000 insects, 48,320 lots* of mollusks, 27,000 birds, and 26,300 fish. (*So what does the term lot mean when referring to museum specimens?! E-mail me!)

Now back to the story. In the discussions between OSU and OHS to leave major research collections at Ohio State, it was decided to transfer a comparative collection to OHS that encompasses the diversity of the flora, fauna, and geology within the subject of natural history; or a synopsis, if you will, of the state’s natural history. Synopsis? Synoptic!? Get it!? The overall theme of the new collection was a synopsis of natural history, or a “one of everything” approach. Some have called it a Noah’s Ark of the states natural history. If you want to see a sample of an ore from a 19th Century iron furnace, or a trilobite, or an endangered dragonfly, or the nest of a hummingbird, or a fern from Fort Hill, or a mammoth tooth… we got ’em! The natural history collection currently contains almost 30,000 specimens covering the fields of geology, mineralogy, paleontology, botany, entomology, and invertebrate and vertebrate zoology. It truly is a good overview of the
natural environment of Ohio.  

But the one-of-each synoptic collection is really only one component of the current natural history collection.
Next time: the rest of the story!

David Dyer
Curator of Natural History
[email protected]

Posted July 15, 2013
Topics: Natural History

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