Once upon a time, the midwest was home to parrots—specifically, a gregarious green bird with a bright yellow head and reddish orange face called the Carolina parakeet. It flitted around primeval forests, orchards, and fields until the 19th century, and was officially declared extinct in 1939. Amazingly, there’s a drawerful of these colorful birds in an old industrial building on the corner of Irving Park Road and Ravenswood Avenue in North Center.
Other specimens found here: examples of the extinct passenger pigeon, drawers stuffed with snakes, rats, coyotes, and frogs, many varieties of butterflies, and more . . . all squirreled away in an unassuming building that also houses a DJ academy, a theater company, a vegan makeup business, and a burlesque school.
It’s the secret side of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, an offsite collections facility containing nearly 300,000 natural history specimens that document the biodiversity of the midwest, Illinois, and greater North America.
“Most museums actually have off-site collection storage,” says Dawn Roberts, director of collections for the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the Nature Museum, and one of the facility’s two full-time staff members. “They’re too large to fit within the constraints of the proper museum.”
In fact, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, founded 160 years ago, moved its collection to this location in the early 1990s, when it started to outgrow its existing museum in the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building in Lincoln Park. While it’s not open to the public, the facility welcomes historians, scientific researchers, and artists to come in and utilize its collection. The specimens are also incorporated into exhibits at the museum as well as educational programs.
“We’re focused on urban nature—we always have been,” says Roberts, moving among narrow rows of steel storage cabinets, pulling out one awe-inspiring drawer of specimens after another. “We look at nature that lives right alongside us.”
With a gloved hand, she gingerly holds squirrels and bats and a “type specimen” of the southern rock vole. This chubby, mouselike rodent is not so stunning as, say, the Carolina parakeet, but it serves a vital function. “It’s a specimen that was used to describe all members of that species and all physical characteristics of that species,” she explains. “It’s kind of like having the first edition of a signed copy of a book—it’s that important.”
Roberts says that what she finds most unique about the collection is that it’s reflective of a community. The Chicago Academy of Sciences was founded by local naturalists in 1857 to serve as a hub for scientific discussion. “People such as [naturalist and herpetologist] Robert Kennicott and [ornithologist] Benjamin Gault brought their personal collections to the table to offer as a reference library of the natural world.”
In the 1800s, she says, people made a hobby of understanding nature. “They were putting together collections of insects, plants, bird eggs. . . . They were getting outside and seeing different things and then having these little cabinets of curiosities, these treasure troves in their homes.”
As a result, the Ravenswood facility has a huge collection of lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), because they’re pretty and thus what people have collected most. One native species of butterfly, the orange-hued regal fritillary, is currently the subject of conservation efforts on the part of Notebaert Nature Museum biologists.
The Chicago Academy of Sciences collection is spread across two floors of the Ravenswood building and is also home to some 100,000 audiovisual materials—glass-plate negatives, lantern slides, and other historic photographs. As for the specimens, they keep coming.
“Natural history collections are best when they’re dynamic,” Roberts says. “That means we’re continually developing them in order to better understand the world we live in.” v