Shells of the Smithsonian


This summer I completed an eight-week internship at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. I received the Elizabeth Bartman Museum Internship Grant from the Archaeological Institute of America to cover my expenses in D.C. I worked under the direction of Dr. Robert Hershler, a research zoologist and curator of Mollusca, in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology. My thesis and research interests revolve around zooarchaeology, which is the study of animal remains from archaeological sites to help us understand past human-environment relations. Particularly, I am interested in prehistoric shell mounds; thus, I was thrilled to work with someone who has spent their entire career researching shell.

IMG_3307 Inside the SI, looking towards the IZ department

IMG_3311 IZ lab space

I began my internship by familiarizing myself with the collection and the cataloging system used at the Smithsonian. Having never worked in a museum before it was all new to me! I started by reorganizing the Hydrobiid collection that was started by a previous intern. Doing this allowed me to familiarize myself with how the cataloging process works and how to properly store specimens permanently.

Next, I began working on the Bereza mussel shell collection, which is a large collection donated to the museum by Dan Bereza a few years ago. The collection consists of thousands of mussel shells from the eastern half of the United States and Mexico. Previous researchers had already identified many of the shells, therefore I only had to enter those into the catalog and prepare them for permanent storage. The shells that had not yet been identified were identified by myself and then cataloged and stored. The identification of the shells was especially interesting as I got to work with shells from Mexico, which I hadn’t done before.

IMG_3066 Shell from Bereza collection to be identified

IMG_3011_2 Preparing Bereza specimens for permanent storage

I was able to finish the Bereza project ahead of schedule, so I began working on the Brunson collection the last two weeks of my internship. The Brunson collection is a large snail collection that had never been properly curated. I went through the ~50,000 specimens, checking that the taxonomic names were correct and counting them. They were then entered into the catalog and the labels were dropped into the specimen boxes.

IMG_3123 One of the many trays of snails in the Brunson collection

Overall this internship was far more beneficial than I could have ever expected. I discovered that I love museum work and would be interested in pursuing a museum career in the future. I was able to handle different shells everyday, allowing me to keep myself current on new and different taxonomies. Additionally, I was able to participate in many behind the scenes tours offered to Smithsonian interns that were extremely educational and exciting! I am so grateful for my time at the Smithsonian Institute and am thankful for the lasting knowledge and connections I made there.

Kate McKinney

Archaeology Graduate Student


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