A Gorilla Odyssey

By: and Alexandra Kralick

October 22, 2018

The big wooden board hanging from a shoulder strap was knocking against my side. Ka-lunk Ka-lunk. What did people think I was carrying? There was a measuring tape along the side and a moving piece of wood, but it was hard to notice those in passing. Still, by the time I arrived at the museum, most people would proclaim “Ah, you brought your own osteometric board!”–a device for measuring bone length–along with my calipers, measuring tape, DSLR camera, and SD cards. I was ready to standardize my bone measurements!

With a combination of the Penn Museum and the Anthropology Department Summer Field Funds, I dragged my huge osteometric board to five different institutions in four countries this summer (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology in Boston, University of Bordeaux in France, Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany, and University of Southern Denmark in Odense, Denmark). In the process, I learned a lot about setting up research visits, and what brings me the most joy in them.

Behind every museum exhibit with a few things on display, are hundreds and hundreds of specimens and artifacts hidden away in drawers and cabinets for researchers to use. So how does one use them? And, more importantly, how do you know what they have in the depths of their collections?

First, you start with an idea. Then, you tell a bunch of people about it, and hopefully you get some helpful recommendations of collections that might suit your project. Many museums have databases online, but they can be incomplete. So, the best thing to do is find the email of the collections manager and ask what they have, and see if you can come and visit. After that, you apply for funding, book your travel, and head over there! Every museum has a different system in place for visiting researchers. Typically, you have to work when the collections manager is there. They’ll show you around and set you up in the collection. At this point, you hopefully have a list of specimens, but you generally have no idea what they’ll look like and what condition they’ll be in until you open up those cabinets and boxes. I was working with bones, and each collection was preserved differently–some were dry, others very sticky, and some even mummified!

The author’s travels with her trusty osteometric board. Photos by the author.

The board at work in collections. Photos by the author.

You would think that opening the next box would be the most exciting part: will the bones be straight and clean, bent and greasy, who collected it, how long has it been here? Or maybe taking the measurements and typing in the data: will the data follow my predictions? But my favorite part of all time is when you notice something odd–an unusual shape or size or curvature or pattern in the bones you’ve never seen before. And wonder why. Did this gorilla have rickets? Was it kept in captivity and fed the wrong diet? How did it break that bone? What was its life like?

Pulling the suitcase containing that heavy osteometric board made my fingers red. My luggage was so heavy and large that I had to drag it behind me with both hands as it thudded along the cobblestone streets. I had to make the large duffel into a backpack just to get it down the stairs, the straps grinding into my shoulders and leaving red marks. But every painful moment, every tight French stairwell, every Washington, DC metro train, and every Danish escalator, was worth the chance to wonder what that gorilla’s life was like.