In defence of museum collections
You’d be hard pressed to find a 19th century scientist more despised than Richard Owen. For all his qualities as an anatomist (at a time when the profession was so esteemed) he seemed to lack anything so unbecoming as integrity or decency. Not for nothing has he been cast as the villain in the story of Darwin’s life and the development of evolution, to say nothing of his role as the supervillian in the tragic life of Gregory Mantell. But as Bill Bryson notes, he did make one great contribution to the world (beyond his anatomical contributions of course), his reconceptualisation of museums from places only of research to places of research and public entertainment and education.
Today however I can’t help wondering if Owen’s insight hasn’t in fact started to destroy the very institutions he sought to build. Museums are increasingly seen solely in terms of visitor attractions, managed in ways that focus on getting visitors through the doors. Curators are considered less important than designers trying to pull in the punters.
This line of thought was started in me today with the horrifying news about the Monroe Museum of Natural History’s ultimatum from the University of Louisiana. To quote from their Facebook post:
It is my sad duty to report to you that the ULM administration has decided to divest the research collections in the Museum of Natural History. This includes the 6 million fish specimens in the Neil Douglas fish collection and the nearly 500,000 plant specimens in the R. Dale Thomas plant collection. They find no value in the collections and no value of the collections to the university. The College was given 48 hours to suggest an alternate location for the collections on campus so that Brown Stadium can be renovated for the track team.
This isn’t just a case of some business orientated universities having contempt for the natural sciences (although no doubt that plays a part). Disinterest in the importance of museum collections crosses over political beliefs and can be found anywhere. It can even be found, in an eye-popping display of scientific illiteracy, on this very website.
Make no mistake, museum collections are essential and irreplaceable tools to advance science. Studies into taxonomy, pollution, evolution, natural history, climate change, distribution, and that’s just the biological sciences. Splits and lumps made to birds you see every day are made using data, morphological and genetic, from museums. Data from museums helps the IUCN make decisions about threatened species. It helps scientists understand how climate change is changing species. It flagged up the dangers of DDT and chytrid fungus infection. It is the collections, which any scientist can go back to a check, that underpin so much about what we know of the natural world, which now more than ever we need to use and understand if we any to have any hope of saving our threatened home.
Header image: Melampitta lugubris (Lesser Melampitta) from the collection of Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. (Creative Commons)