55 Music Concourse Dr.
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco CA
Regular Hours:


9:30 am – 5:00 pm


11:00 am – 5:00 pm
Members' Hours:


8:30 – 9:30 am


10:00 – 11:00 am

Please note: The Academy will be closing at 3:00 pm on 10/24 (final entry at 2:00 pm). We apologize for any inconvenience.

There are no notifications at this time.

Project Lab 

December 20, 2013

Lolita’s Butterflies

In the mid 1950’s, the famed Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote the novel Lolita, which at the time was considered highly controversial because of its subject matter, the sexual attraction and relationship between the protagonist and his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Despite continuing controversy, both literary and otherwise, Lolita is today considered one of the most important 100 books in American literature today, (it was written in English and published in New York) and has given rise to 2 movies and a Broadway play.


Despite his fame as a novelist, few people are aware of his career as a scientist. While in England, he studied Zoology at Trinity College in Cambridge. Nabokov had a life-long fascination with butterflies, and became quite famous in entomological circles as a lepidopterist (a person who studies butterflies). After moving to the United States, Nabokov served as a volunteer entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and later became the curator of the butterfly collection at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, a position he held for many years. Nabokov described several species of butterflies, and had quite a few species named after him by other scientists.


Karner Blue_L_reduced

As in his literary career, Nabokov generated some controversy as a scientist as well.  He had some “old fashioned” ideas about emerging science, and didn’t believe that chromosomes and genetics could provide enough information to delineate species (this was pre-DNA). Nabokov distinguished among species of similar looking butterflies by dissecting and microscopically examining their genitalia. At the Harvard Museum, he was said to have studied genitalia for 6 hours a day seven days a week until his eyesight began to fail. Many of his early species were discredited by other lepidopterists, but DNA data have re-instated quite a few of them.



Nabokov is known for describing the Karner Blue butterfly, Lycaeides mellisa samuelensis, a federally listed endangered species found in the northeastern United States from New York to Ohio. He is said to have written much of Lolita while on a collecting trip looking for this butterfly, which is the state butterfly of New Hampshire.  The Karner Blue feeds entirely on species of Lupine, and is endangered because habitat destruction has destroyed much of its food sources. The federal government has a recovery plan, which it hopes will help restore populations of this small, beautiful creature.


Stay tuned for more blogs from the Project Lab…


Until next time,

Vic Smith

Imaging specialist

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:07 pm

December 8, 2013

Volunteer Spotlight- Palma You

Many visitors often ask how volunteers got their start at the Academy and what inspired each person to get involved.  Who better to provide some insight into the mind of the volunteer than some of the amazing volunteers themselves?

The Ornithology and Mammalogy department has a dedicated group of volunteers who prepare specimens for the research collection every Thursday during the Academy’s Nightlife event.  Starting in 2008, many of these Nightlife volunteers attended a 10 week class to learn preparation techniques for birds and mammals and haven’t stopped since!  One of these volunteers, Palma You, has now been preparing specimens for five years in the Project Lab and in her time here has also been able to work on some pretty amazing projects outside of the Project Lab around the museum floor.  I asked Palma a few questions about her volunteering experience here at the Academy:

What you do at the Academy?

I’m a volunteer for the Ornithology and Mammalogy Department; I prepare bird and mammal skins for the research collection.




How did you learn about volunteer opportunities at the museum?

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be accepted for an internship with the O&M Department working with the Collections Manager Moe Flannery. I was pursuing a master’s degree in museum studies when the Academy needed help with moving the O&M collection from the temporary space on Howard Street to the new Renzo Piano building in Golden Gate Park.  Being a fan of modern architecture, and of being green, I wanted to see the building behind the scenes. At that time, I was more interested in the building and the effort to be green than the collection.


Why did you decide to start volunteering?

A couple years ago the Academy needed more preparators because the freezers were maxed out. The freezer is where donated specimens are stored until they are prepared for the collection. The Academy offered to train a group of interested people. I jumped at the opportunity to learn a new skill.


What is your favorite thing about volunteering?

There are two. 1) I have the opportunity to see animals up close and to learn and appreciate the details of a species. In nature, I have to observe from afar. The details are hard to see especially if the bird or animal doesn’t want to be seen. 2) A great deal of satisfaction is derived from knowing the work I do ensures the preservation of a specimen for future study.


What are some of your favorite projects that you’ve been a part of?

The outstanding ones are the articulation of Orca 0319, the Ostrich project* and the move from Howard Street to GG Park.




*The Ostrich project volunteers helped raise Ostrich chicks as part of the Earthquake exhibit.  These chicks are no longer on display, but you can see them in action on our Earthquake exhibit blog page.

You can also check out our blog about the articulation of Orca O319.


What is interesting to you about the O&M collections?

The specimen labels are a considerable niche of history on their own. They show a style of handwriting, what information was considered important at the time, how the specimen was prepared, who the collector and identifier of the species and was from where the species was collected.


How does volunteering relate, if at all, to your current/former occupation?

Recently I’ve developed my skills in conservation of works on paper. The bench work includes cleaning, hydration, preservation and repair of fragile archival collections. Bird and mammal preparation is very similar to repair of paper because every specimen or artifact has its own history. I exercise my problem solving skills for every project regardless of whether the subject matter is animal or vegetable fibers (paper).


Lastly, what is your favorite exhibit here at the museum?

Human Odyssey.

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:01 pm

Academy Blogroll