Video: Makeover at the museum

Chris Bergeron

After years among strangers, a gliding colugo from Madagascar with pointy ears like Mr. Spock is finally nesting with its true relatives at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Once considered related to bats, the furry critter that glides through the forest on membrane flaps between its legs now perches in a refurbished cabinet with its primate cousins like the aye-aye, ruff lemur and tree shrew in the museum's renovated Great Mammal Hall.

The reassignment of the rare colugo is one small but significant change in a $175,000 renovation of the 137-year-old gallery that holds a thrilling collection of specimens, from the tiny four-toed elephant shrew to the sperm whale, from giant anteaters to humans.

Opened in 1872, the Great Mammal Hall was built to exhibit specimens from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology which had been founded 13 years earlier by Swiss geologist and icthyologist Louis Agassiz.

Curator of Mammals for the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Associate Professor Hopi E. Hoekstra said the yearlong renovations which she supervised make the Great Mammal Hall more accessible to visitors and up-to-date in its classification of specimens.'

"It highlights the diversity of mammals and also also highlights their unique adaptations," Hoekstra, an associate professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.

In a curious twist of fate, Agassiz, then a Harvard professor, founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1859, the same year Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species," the seminal text on evolutionary biology. Yet Agassiz resisted Darwin's evolutionary theory until his death in 1873 shortly after the Mammal Hall was opened.

The Museum of Comparative Zoology now holds more than 12,000 specimens, including about 500 mammals, mostly acquired in the 19th century.

In the second phase of renovations, the hall's second-floor balcony, in which other specimens are housed and the skeletons of several whales are hung, will be refurbished.

Visiting the two-story hall, which is packed with 270 specimens, is like passing through the Great Plains, the Amazon and tropical Africa just a few blocks from Harvard Square.

There are lots of other reasons to visit the Great Mammal Hall.

Today will be the last time to see, in a nearby gallery, a model of the extinct Dodo, a Goliath Frog weighing more than seven pounds or a 1.9 billion-year-old rock that contains bacteria. They are part of "Treasures of Nature and Science" which goes into storage tomorrow.

Just a short walk away, a more recent ongoing exhibition, "Evolution," offers varied examples of fossil, anatomic and genetic evidence that "all life is connected through a shared evolutionary history."

For many, the most mind-boggling object will be the 375 million-year-old fossilized remains of "Tikaalik roseae," which was discovered in the Canadian Arctic in 2004. Dubbed a "fishapod," it has been described as "the missing link between fish and land animals."

On a warm Wednesday morning, Andrea Koschwanez paused with her 2-year-old daughter, Hazel, to look at a display cabinet of marsupials.

"It's really a wonderful educational experience for children," said the Cambridge resident. "My children love it. It's one of their favorite things."

Koschwanez said her children "love to run around" looking at animals they'd never seen before and ask her about their habits. "We saw different members of the cat family from the puma and jaguar to the Siberian tiger. They wanted to know why the tiger had thicker fur on its tail," she said.

The refurbished Great Mammal Hall would be the place to answer those questions.

While preserving the gallery's Victorian atmosphere, during the yearlong renovation new lighting was added, display cabinets were cleaned and repainted to improve visibility, and the 19th-century floors were renovated using heartwood pine, said Hoekstra.

Even the mammal specimens in the 40-by-60-foot hall were spruced up.

Using modified vacuum cleaners, staff groomed mammals' furry coats and even polished their artificial eyeballs.

Hoekstra said the most significant improvement resulted from new "molecular tools" that helped staff rectify earlier classification errors that placed specimens like the colugo in the wrong mammalian groupings.

"Since the last renovation in the 1970s, the advent of molecular tools helped us untangle relationships in mammals that weren't recognized," Hoekstra said. "The new layout of mammals (in the hall) represents current thinking about the relationships among orders."

Also reflecting new information, Hoekstra said certain mammal specimens are now labeled "vulnerable, threatened or endangered," in ascending order of seriousness to alert viewers that some natural treasures are facing extinction.

As a result of those changes, Hoekstra said the Great Mammal Hall will help visitors of all ages fulfill the museum's mission to "Look closer, dig deeper."

Elisabeth Werby, the museum's executive director, believes visitors to the renovated Great Mammal Hall will feel "a sense of wonder" at the complex diversity and astounding beauty of nature's bounty.

She said the Great Mammal Hall holds "specimens unique to our area."

"I hope visitors standing here will experience a sense of wonder and amazement at the mammalian life here," said Werby. "Everything old is new again."

ESSENTIALS:

The Harvard Museum of Natural History is at 26 Oxford St., Cambridge.

All the HMNH exhibits are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The museum is closed New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and New Year's Day.

Admission is $9 for adults; $7 for seniors and non-Harvard students; and $6 for children 3-18. Admission is free year-round for Massachusetts residents on Sunday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon, and 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, September through May, excluding commercial groups.

On Sunday, Dec. 13 at 2 p.m., Harvard Professor of Applied Mathematics L. Mahadevan, who won a MacArthur "Genius Grant," will discuss "The Size and Shape of Nature." His talk is free with museum admission.

The museum is wheelchair accessible. For more information, call 617-495-3045 or visit www.hmnh.harvard.edu.