Professor Tamar Dayan
Professor Tamar Dayan Photo by Alon Ron
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Tel Aviv University’s natural history collections will be concentrated in a new center to preserve them, the university announced. The cornerstone for the building, named after donor Michael Steinhardt, will be laid on Thursday.

Researchers at the university applauded the new center, saying it would salvage the university’ treasured collections, which for decades have been kept in inadequate and even dangerous conditions around the campus.

The collections, numbering 4 million samples from the natural world gathered by generations of Israeli researchers, provide scientists with vital information across many fields, from medicine to agriculture to ecology.

“Up until recently our situation in that regards was worse than that of most countries, including developing nations, which take care to preserve their national natural collections,” Prof. Tamar Dayan, charged with organizing the establishment of the center, told Haaretz. “The state realized that and is now willing to invest funds which along with private donations will allow us to set up a building that will provide the appropriate conditions for these collections. You can’t conduct research without them, just like historians can’t work without a library.”

The dire state of the collections is illustrated by the vertebrae collection, which includes stuffed birds and mammals, bird nests and skeleton parts. Their present location is humid, poorly ventilated and the preservation facilities are outdated. Some collection halls pose a health risk, due to poor ventilation and exposure to toxic naphthalene vapors.

“The place is insufferably crammed,” says Prof. Yoram Yom-Tov, in charge of the collection. “I keep fighting with Tamar. She wants to add new specimens and I’m forced to refuse, because there’s just no room.” He points at a row of disintegrating deer furs. “No properly run country has conditions like that.”

Yom-Tov said the collections aren’t just dusty old keepsakes but have practical applications for today.

“The mammals collection allows us to trace changes in size − we found that present-day wolves and jackals are large than their predecessors − and the feather collection helped determine which birds posed greater risk to airplanes,” he said.