Historical Overview of the Collection

The earliest collections in the museum originate from around 1940, when organized marine research first began at the University of Miami (UM) under the direction of its founder, F. G. Walton Smith. Though originally housed in the Biology Department at the Coral Gables campus, the collections were moved to the separate campus of the Marine Laboratory when it was founded by Smith in 1943. In 1947, the large marine mollusk collection of Charles Torrey Simpson was acquired. C.T Simpson was a pioneer mollusk collector in Florida and the Caribbean. After this acquisition, the invertebrate collections expanded with the additions of sponge specimens from two State-of-Florida funded sponge surveys around the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Keys in 1947-49, as well as specimens from other extensive, largely state-funded, natural resource investigations conducted by lab faculty and students [6]. 

Gilbert Voss, then a graduate student with broad research interests in marine invertebrates (especially cephalopods), was placed in charge of the collections in 1948. Under his direction, the collections rapidly grew in size and importance. In 1950, the US Fish and Wildlife Service R/V Oregon began her famous exploratory work in the Gulf of Mexico and began sending a significant portion of her invertebrate collections to the museum for identification, report, and deposition. Additionally, in 1951, the marine animal collector L. Burry passed away, and his large collection of tropical western Atlantic mollusks was donated to the museum. In the same year, W. Poland, a longtime collector in the Lake Worth/Palm Beach area, donated another collection of Florida mollusks. 

Throughout the 1950s, large and diverse collections from North Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Brazil were taken during the continuing surveys of the R/V Oregon. The cruises of US Fish and Wildlife Service R/Vs Silver Bay and Combat, as well as the Gibbs Corporation R/V Antillas and the Cuban hydrographic vessel Yara, were received by the museum under a cooperative arrangement with the Cuban Navy. In the late 1950s and early 60s, important collections of invertebrates were added from marine survey of St. John, Virgin Islands. The overall collections were the basis for numerous published papers by faculty, students, visiting scientists, and students’ theses and dissertations. 

The museum moved with the laboratory in 1957 to its present campus on Biscayne Bay. Though first housed in the cramped quarters of one of the original buildings, it moved two years later to expanded quarters in the NGS/NSF funded addition to the main biology building, where it is still located today. 

The 1960s were a period of great growth for the museum. Under the leadership of G. Voss and F. Bayer, large unparalleled collections from Florida and throughout the tropical Atlantic were acquired. These include their 1961-63, NGS/NSF funded Florida reef ecology studies, and their 1963 - 1971, NGS/NSF funded Deep-sea Biology Program, during which RSMAS vessels sampled the fauna throughout the tropical Atlantic from surface waters to the greatest depths. Acquired collections during this period also include the 1961 Alfred C. Glassell, Jr/UM Argosy expedition to Ecuador, the 1966 -1967 biological survey for the proposed Panama Interoceanic Canal, the NPS funded ecological baseline study of the Biscayne National Monument, and the D. Steger mollusk collection, which contributed additional comprehensive collections from Ecuador, the Gulf of Panama, the Caribbean side of the Isthmus of Panama, and both coasts of Florida. During this time, the cephalopod collections also increased greatly in size and became worldwide in scope as a result of Voss’s NSF funded, 1958 - 1968 monographic studies of the cephalopods of the North Atlantic, and 1963-1967 Antarctic cephalopod studies. Additionally, the cephalopods taken during the International Indian Ocean expedition were received for identification, report, and processing.  

This period also saw increased use of the collections by national and international students. By 1973, 83 scientific papers had been published on the collections from the latter program alone (unpublished) and by 1985, the number of publications had grown to over 150. 

Notable acquisitions in the 1970s and 1980s included a large collection of mollusks from Central America and Northern South America made by the geologist/paleobiologist A. Olsson. Collections found at RSMAS during this time also include oil-company funded, pollution surveys in Puerto Rico and Aruba, and the 1981-1982, NOAA-funded baseline final survey of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. Following the tragic passing of Gilbert Voss in 1989, Nancy Voss, whose specialty was cephalopods, became the curator of the museum. 

The 1990s to the present day has been a period of great research, academic and physical growth, and innovation for RSMAS. The former six research/academic divisions have been reorganized into five departments that include the new addition of undergraduate students, new degrees, enhanced collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and a major new building, the Marine Technology and Life Sciences Seawater Complex. The school excels in research funding, with nearly $70 million received annually from federal, state, and private foundations compared to ~ $17 million received in 1989 from the same foundations.  

Following the passing of Nancy Voss in 2020, Dr. Nikki Traylor-Knowles became the director of the collection. Alongside collection curator and manager Dr. Maria Criales, the principles and values of RSMAS founder F. G. Walton Smith, as well as former directors Nancy and Gilbert Voss, continue to be pursued today.