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Historic letters found by University of Michigan Museum of Zoology show importance of conservation

Letters, reports from notable U-M alumni discovered during collections move

The photo of sea-lion carcasses on a San Benitos Island beach taken by U-M’s William Burt and used by Clinton Abbot. The photo was included in their discovered correspondence. Photo by Scott Soderberg/Michigan Photography.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.During the process of moving its mammals collection from central campus to the Research Museums Center, the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology has rediscovered writings from notable scientists and conservations dating back to the 1800s.

An October 1939 letter from Clinton Abbott to William Burt. Photo by Scott Soderberg/Michigan Photography.

Twenty-two boxes full of hundreds of files, reports and letters, many of which demonstrate the importance of conservation and collection, were found during the move and will be digitally scanned during a multiyear project. 

Recovered from one of the boxes was a short study entitled, “Report on the qualifications and development of Isle Royale as a national park," by famous U-M alumni and scientist Adolph Murie. Best known for his pioneering work with Alaskan wolves, Murie was instrumental in the dedication of Isle Royale as a national park in 1940. During his time as a Ph.D. student at the U-M, Murie conducted research on the small island and returned with over 100 specimens of organisms living on Isle Royale.

A moose jawbone collected by Adolph Murie from his research on Isle Royale. Photo by Scott Soderberg/Michigan Photography.

Overseen by U-M Museum of Zoology mammal collections manager Cody Thompson, U-M alumni (then a student) Clark Schmutz, spent a semester scanning materials from one of the forgotten boxes. Digitally scanned into a database, the files will eventually be made available online through the University of Michigan Library’s Digital Library Platform & Services.

"The overall goal of the project is to make our paper records easily accessible by anybody across the world. This work also highlights the connection between museum collections and conservation," Thompson said. "These letters are ripe with interesting stories and provide context to our catalogued specimens, as well as details about field expeditions."

Clark Schmutz (left) and Cody Thompson (right) at U-M’s Research Museums Center. Photo by Scott Soderberg/Michigan Photography.

Also among the neglected boxes were correspondence letters between William Burt, a behavioral ecologist and former curator of mammals at the U-M Museum of Zoology, and Clinton Abbott, a former director of the San Diego Museum of Natural History. Their correspondence tell of how a photograph of sea lion carcasses, taken by Burt, was used by Abbott to tackle the conservation and protection of wildlife from predatory companies. Abbott wrote and published an article connecting the slaughter of the sea lions to predatory tactics by the Dr. W.J. Ross Dog and Cat Food Co. in California -- the company declared bankruptcy a few years after the article was published.

The historical letters and files will be given to the U-M’s Bentley Historical Library, which houses 11,000 collections on various subjects and a preserved materials conservation lab.

Clark Schmutz scanning one of the files found in one of the 22 cardboard boxes at U-M’s Research Museums Center. Photo by Scott Soderberg/Michigan Photography.

For more information about conservation and the efforts of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, check out the EEBlog.

The U-M Research Museums Center is at 3600 Varsity Dr.

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