Stephen Tonsor in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Alcohol House. Photo by Amanda Waltz.

“We’re about to enter the Alcohol House,” says Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s director of science and research Stephen Tonsor, a hint of ceremony in his voice.

He stands in a short, narrow hallway lined with stainless steel tanks full of long-deceased turtles soaking in the very liquid that gives the distinguished space, which houses more than 250,000 reptile and amphibian specimens, its name. A dark, winding marble stairwell leads to an open, two-story room containing shelf upon shelf of lizards, frogs, snakes and other cold-blooded creatures forever suspended in simple glass jars. A faint ammonia smell hangs in the air.

Scanning the jars is like walking back in time. Collected by generations of researchers over the past 100 years, the advanced age of specimens is evident in their labels, which are either handwritten in large, vintage-looking script or spelled out in typewriter lettering.

The Alcohol House has been hidden away from the public eye since it was built in 1907. Now, over a century after it took residence in the bowels of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Tonsor and his colleagues are beginning to look at ways to utilize its collection as a tool to teach visitors and students about man’s impact on the environment and the importance of biodiversity.

Upper level of the Alcohol House. Photo by Amanda Waltz.

The museum recently received a $499,224 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) aimed at enhancing the preservation of the Alcohol House collection, and making it accessible and useful to the public.

Managed by Stephen Rogers, the collection remains a valuable resource to continuing biodiversity research, as it contains 148 holotypes, which are specimens upon which the description and name of discovered species are based. It also contains a vast array of specimens from areas that have suffered from or are in the midst of great environmental change, including the tropical forests of Africa, the Amazon and Southeast Asia.

“It’s unfortunately the case that we’re moving to an era where this is more like a mausoleum documenting what life used to be,” says Tonsor of the collection, which contains physical examples of five extinct and 78 critically-endangered species. He explains that the situation will only get worse over the next few centuries, as scientists predict that habitat loss caused by human population growth will lead to a mass extinction of what’s estimated to be between 20 and 70 percent of the world’s species.

“Having these specimens is incredibly important as a documentation of what has been here,” says Tonsor. “We hope we can contribute to understanding how to quell the tide of extinction and help to repopulate the Earth.”

Alcohol House lizard specimens. Photo by Amanda Waltz.

To achieve such a goal, the museum will use part of the funds to create two exhibits, one inside the Alcohol House for behind-the-scenes tours and a larger exhibit in the galleries. Museum educators will team up with teens from City Charter High School and Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy to create educational materials for the new exhibits.

Tonsor says they are also in the process of collaborating with students from the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center to “define and develop programming around the notion of the 21st-century naturalist.”

“Thinking back to what a naturalist in the 1850s is very different from what it means now,” says Tonsor, adding that the focus now is less on cataloging the world’s species, and more on examining how species relate to each other and their environment. “We want to be at the forefront of providing training for both youth and adults who have a love of natural history and providing access to the skills and knowledge development needed to make the most of that interest.”

A major intent of the NSF grant is to provide critical upgrades to the collection, such as replenishing evaporated alcohol solution and replacing worn rubber seals on the Mason jars used to store a large number of the Alcohol House specimens. It will also be used to bring the collection up to current scientific standards, as well as find the exact latitude and longitude for specimens whose location of discovery is either vague or nonexistent, all while preserving the old information.

Before opening the Alcohol House to the public, Tonsor says the museum plans to raise additional funds for necessary renovations, including installing a new ventilation system that would keep visitors from inhaling the alcohol fumes, and better displays that would keep specimens both visible and safe.

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.