Collection Policies

The department staff are responsible to the Faculty Director for the prudent management as accepted by national museum community standards of all collections of invertebrate fossils held by the Museum. This document provides the necessary policies to achieve this management for the collections of responsibility. The contents of this policy will be reviewed by the department staff every three years. Recommendations to the Faculty Director should be made if changes are required, goal adjustments needed or problems perceived. If the recommendations are accepted the Policy will be emended.

Statement of Purpose, Scope & Goals

The department accrues, prepares for study, houses, maintains, conserves and establishes and maintains records of specimens of invertebrate fossils in accordance with levels of access, security and availability accepted by the community of natural history museums and under general operating standards set by the office of the Director. Collections of fossils are uniquely important because Paleontology is a historical science. Nearly all specimens in the collection represent species that are extinct. The specimens are incomplete and usually rare in terms of today's faunas. The specimens constitute an important part of the world's museum base on which all descriptive, systematic, interpretive and theoretical studies must eventually revert for testing. The departmental scope is a microcosm of several departments with systematic collections in having the responsibility for the collections of all invertebrate phyla and subgroups, with the exception of the insects and arachnids, as represented in the geologic past. Approximately one million specimens constitute a broad array of phyla ranging from early pre-Cambrian to post-Pleistocene in age. The geographic range is worldwide. The collections are particularly noted for the large percentage of specimens from localities outside of North America. There is no intent to confine any expansion of the collections to lessen geographic, stratigraphic or taxonomic diversity.

The collections are for use by professional research paleontologists, scholars and, through limited educational and exhibition programs, the general public. Harvard University students involved with the curatorial staff are considered an integral part of the department. All users of the collections are offered freedom of access to specimens within standard museum security and specimen handling etiquette. The collections are organized in ways to aid taxonomic and stratigraphic retrieval of specimens with particular attention to secure irreplaceable type specimens and other specimens of known historical and monetary value.

The collection represents one of the oldest systematic invertebrate paleontological collections in North America and ranks among the ten most important in the Western Hemisphere. It excels in the number of European specimens from many localities, the post-Cambrian trilobites, Paleozoic through Tertiary cephalopods, and Tertiary mollusks. There is also notable strength of both numbers and diversity in the brachiopods, Paleozoic corals and some material from Konservat-Lagerstatten localities.

The department is staffed by Curators drawn from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of the University and by a professional collection staff responsible to the curators for the management of the collections.

One of the department's priorities at present is the complete reorganization of the collections and their management, which will allow increased accessibility for research, increased security and accountability along with development of an updated cataloging system utilizing electronic data processing. This plan well underway. It is expected that 8-10 years will be needed to develop, carry out and fine-tune the reorganization. Potential growth through staff collecting, purchase and particularly student collecting for thesis work can be expected to be strong over the next decade.


In the absence of a central Registrar in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the activities of such an office necessarily become a part of the Department's collection responsibilities. To accomplish these activities in addition to routine management of collections several separate but partially overlapping sets of records are maintained to control the Acquisition, Accession, Loans with Tracking, Cataloging and Locality of Occurrence of the specimens in our collections of responsibility. These records are kept in manual files of archival correspondence, forms of record, and when applicable in electronic databases. Several number systems are in use to control and access these record sets while a fully developed collection management information program is prepared for electronic storage, backup and access.


Specimens may be acquired through field collection by students or staff, purchases, contract collecting, gifts, bequest, exchange, abandonment or other appropriate means. Each specimen or lot entering the collection area will receive a Registration Number for tracking while in the care of the Department although acquired specimens are not considered part of the permanent Museum collection until formally accessioned. These unaccessioned specimens may be culled, prepared or discarded at the discretion of the staff and collector with only a note relating to the disposition of the material in the registration record.


Specimens to be accessioned into the permanent collections must meet all specifications listed below. When materials are found suitable the acquisition Registration Number becomes a formal accession number and is attached to all documents relating to the incoming transaction along with any documents or information arriving at a later date. All documents relating to the lot or single specimen which are relevant to the transfer of ownership, provenance or other pertinent data will be kept in a separate folder and filed as described in the procedural manual. Specimens or collection lots will only be considered for accession when the Department can provide proper curation, storage and conservation.

Three levels of accessioning decisions exist within the Department:

  1. Routine accessioning of specimens uniquely referred to in the literature or of obvious scientific or exhibit value may be handled by the Curatorial Associate, with verbal communication before or after the transaction.
  2. Accessions of mixed or specialized specimens, some or all of which fall within the expertise of a particular Curator must be reviewed by this Curator for approval prior to the transaction.
  3. Accessions, which will involve major monetary value and/or major space considerations must be approved by a committee of the Department staff chaired by one of the Curators. The Director must approve prior to action if either space or monetary value is considered extraordinary, particularly if sizeable tax considerations are involved with a gift.

Criteria by which collections or individual specimens are evaluated for permanent addition to the Museum collections are numerous and closely related. Any single criterion may dominate or several may be combined to qualify material for accession Collectively the criteria constitute the intrinsic value of the fossils for research, teaching or exhibition. Included are:

  1. Specimens uniquely identified in any way in the scientific literature.
  2. Data suitable for modern taxonomic evaluation with the single exception of a specimen that might demonstrate some anatomical uniqueness.
  3. Quality of preservation.
  4. Recollectability.
  5. Historical significance.
  6. Need for filling gaps in existing collections
  7. Free and clear title of ownership conveyed by Deed of Gift or other legal statement must be provided by the donor.
  8. Title must be unencumbered by restrictions made by the donor as to use or future disposition.
  9. All specimens must have records demonstrating, or the donor able to satisfy the responsible staff in writing that:
    a) the materials were acquired legally in accordance with the laws of its country of origin
    b) the material was legally exported from the country of origin and legally imported into the U.S. and 
    c) the origin of the material did not involve any unscientific or intentional damage to sites protected for environmental reasons or which might be considered environmentally fragile.
  10. Size.
  11. Prices if a purchase.



Loans are considered temporary physical transfers of specimens or objects from one Museum, University or other organization recognized to be involved in research or education to another when there is no transfer of ownership. This is carried out through a formal loan agreement that acts as a contract concerning content, duration and other particulars of a transaction. It is the intent of the Department to ensure that no statute of time limitations concerning interest in the loan or full return of the specimens or objects shall be in question.

The Department, under the authority of the Director, will be lenient and cooperative in making available material to any scientist, student, individual or educational program when a properly justified need for carrying out scholarly activity is made. The definition of "properly justified" leaves flexibility with the following guidelines whereby the Curatorial Staff may use judgement in designating particular specimens to be loaned and potential recipients of loans.

Specimen safety is a primary consideration. No specimen will be shipped or carried from the Department if there is reasonable question concerning its safety from breakage, destruction or other loss. The nature of the specimen and transport conditions are major factors of consideration.

Requests for material may be addressed to any Departmental Curator or Collections Staff member. Records will be maintained for all transactions and are the responsibility of the Curatorial Associate. All materials being received by or leaving the Department will be processed through the office to the Curatorial Associate for approval of recorded information and format.


Three kinds of loans are recognized: Outgoing Loans, Incoming Loans and Intramural Loans. Type specimens include any specimen uniquely referred to in the scientific literature. .


Loans of type or non-type specimens are made to recognized scientists for justified research. Only non-type specimens will be loaned for justified exhibit or educational purposes. All loans will be considered the responsibility of the institution with which the borrower is affiliated. No loans will be sent to a private address.

Graduate students wishing to borrow material may apply only through their advisor or Department head. Loans will be made for a student's use with all responsibility for the material remaining with their advisor or department head.

Type specimens sent for research will be loaned for a period of two months from date of receipt. Non-type specimens may be retained six months from date of receipt. Most loans may be extended upon request. Long-term exhibit loans are considered on en individual basis. The number of type specimens sent in a single loan transaction would usually not exceed 15 type specimens. Non-type specimen loans may be larger at the discretion of a Curator or the Curatorial Associate.

Note: All loans are made at the discretion of the Department and may be recalled as necessary. The borrower is subject to any conditions added to the contractual loan papers. The borrower is responsible for all return costs of packing and transport. Specimens will be sent by registered mail, commercial courier or hand-carried. They are to be returned in the same manner as sent.


All specimens received on loan by the Department Staff, visiting scholars, post-doctoral affiliates, students doing research under staff direction or other students attached in any fashion to the Department will be processed into the Department through the office of the Curatorial Associate. Specimens will be examined to ensure that the covering invoice is correct. Records will also be maintained by that office of the presence of the specimens being temporarily housed and when they are due for return. All specimens will be returned through that office to ensure proper packing, shipping and completion of records concerning the transaction.

Students needing specimens from other institutions for study must make their requests through a Curatorial Staff member or the Curatorial Associate. Although the loan will be for student use the responsibility for the material will remain with the Staff member involved. Should loan extensions be needed they will be sent over the signature of the responsible person.


In-house loans to students housed in other Department, exhibitions or non- Departmental faculty/staff members will be recorded in the same manner as outgoing loans. Leniency will be extended in all such transactions but cooperation from the borrower is expected.


The goal of the Department is to catalog each specimen in the permanent collection. This will be accomplished at the lot or specimen level with a Catalog Number placed on or with each specimen. All data concerning taxonomy, geographic location, stratigraphic occurrence, bibliographic reference, accession, or other information pertinent to the specimen or lot will be recorded manually until completion of programming and then directly into an electronic data base. For cataloging details see the department procedural manual for cataloging.

Locality Register

The Locality File is a description of the geographic and stratigraphic occurrence of the find of a particular fossil or lot of fossils. An individual locality entry may not have complete information but will contain as much information as can be found from any records available. No attempt to transform the data from the original collection notes or available information into standardized geographic net will be done in recording locality information. A stratigraphic hierarchy of names will be added when the information is readily available.

The manual file will be coordinated with the electronic file at all times to ensure no overlap. See the procedural manual for entire protocols for ensuring this coordination.


If an accessioned specimen or lot of specimens fails to meet any of the criteria described under the accessioning procedures described above they will be re-evaluated and if found unacceptable will be removed from the collection and disposed of as the staff recommends. In general, the specimens may be used or given for use in teaching, exchanged, or discarded but not sold. Any state or federal regulations regarding fossil materials and their disposition will be followed in disposing of specimens as well as all legal and ethical standards.


While access to the collections is not an inherent right of the general public, all persons judged adequately trained, trustworthy and having reasonable scientific need shall be allowed access to the collections in the care of the Department and to the records referencing the collections. Security and physical safety of the specimens are of primary importance in considering access. Loss or misuse is the primary concern with all records. Members of the scientific community and, in particular, students in advanced standing or those considered specially trained are urged to use the collections as needed in research, contingent on understanding and following normal museum procedures involved with proper handling and use of specimens. Designated graduate students of the University are considered de facto staff members in collection use and access of the collections but are subject to regulations outlined under other headings of the Policy statement or any procedural guidelines.

Persons known to a staff member should make arrangements for access through that staff member or through the Curatorial Associate referencing that staff member. Persons not known to the staff may make arrangements through any staff member but should initiate the request well in advance of a visit and should expect to provide a specific statement of training and needs to access the collections.

Several general standing regulations should be understood:

  1. Random searches of the collections or records are not encouraged and most requests will be denied.
  2. Group visits are discouraged but small, escorted group visits may be arranged through a staff member.
  3. Availability of collections to visitors will correspond to normal staff working hours unless special arrangements have been made.
  4. Access may be cut short or denied, at any time, on the judgment of the staff if there is reasonable belief that there is a danger of abuse to the collections or breach of security on behalf of the user.
  5. Security has been upgraded for type specimens and collections of high value by moving all sensitive specimens to a "secure" room that contains locked cases. Access to this area and the cases will be liberal but monitored. As the electronic database for these collections is developed an inventory program at the specimen or lot level will be initiated.

Space Management


The Department is responsible to the Director for assuring that proper and safe care of its collection area. Adequate balance of available space for access, conservation and security of Department collections will be maintained. At the end of each fiscal year the Curatorial Associate will prepare for the Department a written overview statement which will consist of:

  1. Summary of the status of the physical condition of the collections at present.
  2. Statement concerning where acquisitions would be most helpful.
  3. General summary of materials acquired in the previous years including a statement of growth in finite terms (i.e. 10 cubic feet, 15 drawers of specimens).
  4. Status report on curation of collections acquired.
  5. Statement of known or likely acquisitions in the coming and/or future years. This report will be forwarded to the Director along with any requests necessary concerning space, storage hardware or major collection supplies needed in the coming year.
  6. All decisions concerning space allocation within standing Departmental areas are to be settled within the Department. Any extraordinary needs will be discussed among those Departments, which might be effected, and proposals sent to the Director for comment.


The collection will be monitored for climate conditions, which may affect specimens with structurally degradable mineralogy or organic content. Any adverse condition will be corrected or brought to the attention of the Head of the Department. Conditions out of the control of the Department will be brought to the attention of the proper authorities. Humidity is the most common damaging element of climate and will be monitored to try to maintain acceptable levels. Pyrite and Byne's diseases are the most prevalent chemical reactions effecting invertebrate fossils and will be carefully searched for during collection inspections and normal handling. The most prevalent cause, exceeding 99%, of damage to fossil material is mechanical. The Curatorial Associate is responsible for proper training of the collections staff in handling materials to reduce such damage to a minimum. Any other accepted conservation techniques, which effect specimens, will be applied to ensure physical safety of the specimens.

Pest Control

Invertebrate fossils are not usually susceptible to pest activity. Adhesives, coatings and other associated organic materials may be effected. Monitoring and any needed action will be taken if any infestations are noted. Labels or papers of any kind are sensitive to pest damage. Books, notes and labels may be literally consumed in relatively short periods of time during heavy infestations. Preventive maintenance will be carried out at any suspicion of presence of such pest activity in the collection. All control activities will be coordinated with the Museum and/or University authorities for such actions. Only OSHA, State and University recommended chemicals will be used and will be applied following any regulations provided by these agencies. Human safety is of first consideration in pest control.

Ethical Considerations

The curatorial and collections staff and associated Departmental students must maintain a standard of conduct and display an attitude toward the collections that avoids even the appearance of conflict of interest in collection activities. The areas described below are particularly vulnerable to unintentional or degrees of violation which this policy proposes to clarify.


No staff member shall make monetary appraisals if the Museum is involved in any way in obtaining or wishing to obtain the material in the future for the MCZ collections. Outside appraisers may be named if requested without showing favor for any particular appraiser. Any staff member who is requested to make contractual agreements for appraisals of fossil invertebrates may do so only if there is no intention of MCZ interest in adding the material to the permanent collections but caution is advised in this area. Appraisal for scientific value is not restricted but rather encouraged.

Personal Collections

No staff member involved with the collections shall form or expand personal collections of invertebrate fossils. All specimens collected or acquired while in the employ of or associated with the Department remain as acquisitions or accessions of the Department unless released under the provisions of this policy for deaccessioning or disposal of specimens. It is the responsibility of the Department staff owning such collections to demonstrate that they are not expanding, enhancing or, in any way, competing with any function of the Department or using their affiliation with the Department to further such collection activities.

Student Collections

In following with the preceding statement particular attention is needed concerning student collections. Any collections made while funded by the Department or University and any collections made for use in areas of a student's research leading to the degree remain the property of the Department until released by the staff. Guidelines are provided here but are flexible by staff agreement in considering individual cases

  1. All specimens identified in any way in any publication by a student supported by the Museum or involved with research while "in residence" will be published with MCZ numbers and remain the property of the Museum.
  2. Any specimen identified in any way in thesis or dissertations will remain the property of the Museum. It should be noted that a liberal loan policy will be employed if the post-graduate student plans to continue work with the specimens for publication. Such loaned specimens will be published with MCZ designated numbers.
  3. Specimens not falling in the above categories but collected during thesis or dissertation work or on field work funded/or partially funded by the Museum will be released to the student if not needed to enhance the Departmental collections.