Alabama Museum of Natural History introduces permanent freshwater mussel exhibit

Audrey Hall and Mary Claire Wooten

The Alabama Museum of Natural History is joining forces with UA faculty members for its new freshwater mussel exhibit. Carla Atkinson, a professor of biology, partnered with Kendra Abbott, the research and outreach coordinator for the museum, to install a permanent freshwater mussel exhibit .

Alabama is the most biodiverse state for freshwater mussels, but this status is threatened by climate change and the removal of mussels from Alabama’s waterways. 

The exhibit, which draws from Atkinson’s research, aims to bring awareness to the benefits of Alabama’s mussel population while warning of the dangers of losing that population to human interference. 

The museum partnered with the University’s fashion archive to show the tangible interactions between humans and mussels throughout history. Pearl buttons were an early 1900s fad, resulting in the overharvesting of Alabama’s mussels. 

The University’s fashion archive lent the museum articles of clothing with pearl buttons for display. Abbott included objects with buttons made from mussel shells as well as additional buttons to create the Script A. 

“The collaboration was wonderful, and the exhibit appeals to a broader audience because of bringing fashion into the natural history and science of freshwater mussels,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s favorite part of this exhibit is learning how to “age” mussels. Like trees, mussels have rings, and their years can be counted ring by ring.

The museum hasn’t had many new exhibits in recent years, but this freshwater mussel exhibit is a step toward Abbott’s goal to change that. 

She has 18 exhibits and outreach projects in progress. The freshwater mussel exhibit will refresh and renew every two years as an ongoing exhibit with the museum.

John Friel, the museum’s director, said the exhibit is a great way to connect members of the general public to the natural world around them. 

The exhibit includes iPads for on-site virtual learning, and the museum plans to have an online version of the exhibit for expanded education.