Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Knight, his Squire, and the Bottomless Pot of Gold

Once upon a time, there was a knight, bold and brave, who rode the lands, accompanied by his faithful squire, looking for monsters to slay. In truth, the knight had only ever slain one monster, many years before. But he was firm in his belief that, given the right set of circumstances, he could be the mightiest monster slayer of all time, and that if he was, people would truly understand just how valuable he was to the kingdom and its monster-plagued inhabitants. As  it was, the knight and his squire never quite had enough money to live off. This irritated the knight greatly, not only because he was hungry, but because he could not understand why the people did not appreciate how important he was.

To convince the populace of his skill and prowess, the knight sang songs of his past victory. They were songs of surpassing complexity and eloquence and people loved to hear them. He particularly liked to sing his songs outside the walls of the City, because he was convinced that within those walls lay a treasure – a pot of gold whose contents could never be exhausted. The knight was certain that, one day, he would write a song so perfect that the burghers of the City would have no option but to give him access to the bottomless pot.

So each year, the knight sang a new song, and each year the burghers nodded politely and told him, as clearly as possible and in worlds of one syllable, that there was no bottomless pot of gold. Sometimes they even threw him small bags of gold from the walls of the city, to make him go away. But the knight would just chuckle knowingly, wink, tap his nose, and ride away to compose a new song. “Mark my words, laddie,” he would say to his squire, as they shivered away the night under some hedgerow, trying to stay warm and dry. “When I find the right words for my song, that treasure shall be mine.”

“Don’t you mean, ‘ours’?” the squire would ask, and the knight would look shifty and tell him to get on with feeding the horse.

Within the walls, the burghers were toiling away developing inventions to deal with their monster problems. One year, they built a steam-powered tank that could kill dragons. In an effort to make the knight go away, they told him about this. The knight did look a little worried for a while, but he came back the next day with a whole new song, written overnight, about how a bold knight used his unparalleled knowledge of the ways of monsters to lead the tank to the places where the dragons were most likely to be found.

“But our tank travels much more quickly than your horse,” the burghers protested. “How will you keep up?”

The knight looked especially crafty. “If you give me the bottomless pot of gold, I shall build a motorcycle.”

That year, the knight got no gold at all.

As time went by, the knight’s horse got thinner and more bony, and his armor began to rust. But he remained confident that the bottomless pot of gold was just around the corner. Meanwhile his squire, who was getting tired of being hungry, and who badly wanted another squire to help him with his duties (there being far more repairs to the knight’s failing armor than before), took to visiting the local farms and villages, looking for ideas about what they might trade for food.

In one village, he found the people getting ready for their May festival. “We’re in a bind, you know” the village elder said sadly. “We cut down all the trees hereabouts, and now we don’t have any maypole.” The squire thought of the knight’s tall lance.

At a farm down the road, he spoke with a plowman who was sat disconsolately by his bent plowshare. “The ground on this farm is as hard as iron,” the plowman said. “What I wouldn’t give for a blade of hard steel to break through it.” The squire thought of the knight’s mighty axe, which had a ready supply of spare blades.

At harvest time, he came upon a farmer whose scythe had broken. “These crops will spoil if I can’t harvest them,” the farmer wailed. “If only I had a sharp blade to chop them down.” The squire thought of the knight’s great broadsword, which had not been drawn from its sheath in many years.

At each place he visited, the squire asked about their monster-killing needs. He had listened to the knight’s songs for so long that he had become quite adept at singing them himself. He was a good singer, but while the people appreciated what he sang, they had no gold for songs, or for slaying monsters. “What good does it do me to slay dragons,” the farmer said, “if my family starves for want of harvested crops?” “Ogres live far away,” the plowman said, “but if I cannot plow this field, there will be no food for my village.” “But what if the ogres come here?” the squire asked. “The city folk will kill them with that tank they built,” the plowman said, confidently.

The squire went back to the knight and told him what he had learnt. “True, they have no bottomless pot of gold,” the squire said. “But they each have gold enough that our horse will be fed, as will we, and perhaps we can buy that new helmet you were looking at the other day.” The knight looked at the squire pityingly. “My equipment is for monster-slaying,” he said, speaking slowly, so the squire would understand. “It is not for use in rural pastimes. Besides, such rustic activities are a distraction from our main business of slaying all of the monsters in the kingdom, for which only the bottomless pot of gold will be sufficient. You are a smart fellow, in your own way, but you know nothing of the complexities of funding a monster-slaying program, which is the business of knights. Now go and fix my vambraces.”

So the knight continued his annual pilgrimages to the city, sang his songs, and received the occasional, but never quite sufficient bag of gold from the burghers. As time went by, his horse died, his armor fell apart, and his tall lance developed an unfortunate kink. Eventually the squire, fed up with being hungry all the time, parted company with the knight. He set up in business making axe blade plowshares and converting swords into scythes. In time, he made enough money to buy a horse and armor of his own, and while he never did get to slay any dragons, he did so much good for the peasantry that they made him their king. And he lived happily ever after.

Happy Holidays, everyone. This blog will return, rejuvenated, in the New Year. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Consensus, Cooperation, and Conversation

This is one of my periodic mea culpas for a lack of posts. In this case, I have an excuse and I think it's a worthy one. I'm one of a group of people editing a new book on collection storage, due for publication late this year. Or early next year. It's a 650 page monster with 35 chapters and 60 authors and while I've never given birth, I suspect producing this thing will give me some sense of what that's like. When it comes out, buy it. We managed to assemble a fantastic group of authors and the results prove this. It's awesome.

As part of the promotional activities for the book, we're holding a couple of sessions on collection storage at this year's AAM and AIC conferences, which is another excuse for me not getting any blogging done. This week, I'm in the process of pulling together the outline for a talk on institutional partnerships, which draws on discussions that we've been having among our authors and editors about the need for community outreach within museums, as much as beyond their walls.

As the people tasked with care of the collections, we often assume that the world revolves around us; that conservation priorities are dictated solely by the needs of the objects, as interpreted by us. In fact, we’re part of a wider institutional community that, while it may embrace the general concept of collection care, has very a diverse set of immediate needs that have to be met if the institution is to function effectively. A strategy for collection storage, or indeed for any aspect of collections care, that fails to take this into account is likely to fail. 

If you want more than that, you'll have to turn up for one of the sessions, either at AIC (Sunday, May 15 @ noon) or AAM (Thursday, May 27 @ 8:45am). There's a lot more than just me, you'll be relieved to hear; we have some truly awesome speakers, including Sanchita Balanchandran (AIC), Kelly McHugh (AIC), John Simmons (AAM), and Rob Waller (AIC & AAM). And there are interactive activities too!

Anyway, all of this talk of community, and the need for cooperation, and the value of consensus in decision making, has been resonating with me this morning. In the last couple of years, my own institution has been doing a lot of consensus-based decision making. You can read a pretty good article on it here. And you can read about one outcome of the consensus-based process here.

So today, I find myself in a pretty odd position. In a few weeks' time, I'm going to get up in front of a group of very passionate collections professionals and argue that, to do their job effectively, they need to embrace the reality that the world is not centered on them and their needs; that they need to take a wider perspective and engage in discussion with people whose goals may differ from theirs, in order to reach a consensus based on wider institutional needs. So if I truly believe in the value of consensus and communication, why am I so irritated?

I guess the answer is that there are some issues that are so toxic and so pervasive that no amount of "tough conversation" can substitute for clear, quick and decisive action. On a day-to-day basis, communication, cooperation, and conversation are invaluable tools for getting our work done. But sometimes, you just have to say "fuck consensus," and do what's right.

Friday, February 12, 2016

My Two Cents

A long time ago, in a museum far, far, away, I was giving an orientation tour of the collections for a newly appointed senior administrator. The head of human resources accompanied us, and at one point he interrupted my spiel to give her his take on our science program. “They’re our rock stars,” he said, referring to the museum’s curators. “It’s our job to support them.”

To be honest, some of those curators thought they actually were rock stars. They certainly tried to behave like one. There were times when this was quite fun. There were times when it was not fun at all. Bad behavior can be very entertaining, provided that you are not the victim of it.

That comment came back to me quite forcefully this week, as I read the articles in Science and the Washington Post describing allegations of sexual harassment at a major natural history museum.  This is not the time or place to delve into the specifics of that incident. But there are things that need to be said, more generally, about what this tells us about how some museums are run.

I thought long and hard before starting this post. At some level, I didn’t want to lay as much as a finger on such a messy subject. But if this blog is about anything (other than fossils, dumb cryptozoologists, and the vagaries of Federal funding) it’s about responsibility in the way we look after collections. And that responsibility extends to the way we treat the people that care for the collections.

In museums with tenured academic staff, be they university or freestanding, there are two categories of people. There are curators, and there is everyone else. As the man said, these curators are the rock stars. They are defined by metrics of achievement: publications, research funding, awards, and publicity. They come up through a grueling and intensely competitive career process that favors the alpha dog. The prize at the end is tenure. Once tenured, they cannot be dismissed from their position without just cause. In practice, they are unlikely to be dismissed at all.

Then, there’s everyone else. As that distant administrator once said, and as many tenured curators firmly believe, our job is to support the rock stars. Unless protected by a union contract, we’re employed at-will, which means the museum does not have to establish just cause for firing us, or even warn us in advance that we are at risk of being fired. In principle, I could be fired for writing this blog post; in some institutions, I actually might be, a risk that was pointed out to me by my previous employer.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that a two-tier structure like this is ripe for abuse. If you set up a system where you create a high profile class of people, who are outstanding talents in their field; set them apart from all other staff in the institution; send out the message that they are critical to the wellbeing of your organization; place them in positions of authority; and then make them more-or-less immune from any consequences of their bad behavior, you've created a potentially toxic situation in which bullying and harassment are not only possible, but are almost inevitable.

Many people who have worked in a museum in this country, including some of you reading this blog, will have either witnessed or experienced this. It might involve being summarily overruled on a question of professional practice. It might mean being yelled at in public, or sent bullying emails. It could be having to listen to inappropriate, dismissive, or offensive comments about yourself or others. In some cases, it could even mean assault or sexual harassment.

Museums are not the only places where this can happen. It can occur if you work in a bank, or a car dealership, or a supermarket, or pretty much anywhere. But that doesn’t make it OK, and it doesn't mean that we should shrug our shoulders and say it's just the way of the world. We should be better than that. And we certainly shouldn’t tolerate it because, as institutions, we value the contributions of the perpetrator more than those of the victim.

Towards the end of last year, Yale was embroiled in a firestorm over free speech that spilled out into the national press. One of the things that struck me forcefully was the response of some of my friends on the faculty, who were deeply upset that their students, boiling over with anger at longstanding issues of race and inequality, were shouting down other faculty members. A couple of things emerged in conversation.

First, there was a strong sense of closing ranks. There's a genuine, but largely unspoken tradition of faculty solidarity within universities, that was clearly on display. At some gut level, my colleagues seem less bothered about exploring the underlying injustices that sparked the protests, and more concerned with the infringement of the faculty's right to be listened to with respect. It was couched in terms of the need to protect free speech, for sure, but it was also more than a little tribal. Second, I couldn’t help but get the sense that they were upset because, in their minds, they were the Good Guys. Why are these kids beating on us?

If you're a faculty member reading this, I'm afraid I have some bad news; in the cases of harassment and bullying I’m discussing here, you are not the Good Guys, and however much you may feel oppressed by your administration, crushed by your tenure process, ground down by your teaching load, and underappreciated by your students, you are not the victims. You are a very entitled minority and you are a big part of the problem, either because you act badly yourself, or because you tolerate others’ bad behavior in the name of collegiality, faculty solidarity, or a reluctance to let central administration mess with the way your govern your affairs. But you can also, if you choose, be part of the solution.

The system of academic tenure was created to defend your academic freedoms; to be able to work, teach, publish, and speak out on whatever subjects you want without fear of censure; rights that all of us, myself included, would defend passionately. It was not intended to give you a free pass to behave like an asshole to your colleagues, staff, and students. Not only do you have a responsibility to the people that work for you, but you also have a responsibility as a mentor to the next generation of curators and academics; your grad students and postdocs who are watching how you behave towards your staff and colleagues, and who are modeling their behavior on you.

The way forward is to have faculty, be they curators or anyone else, make a clear, unified, and unambiguous statement that the protection provided by tenure applies solely to academic freedoms and that anything else, be it bullying, sexual harassment, or any other form of inappropriate behavior, will be subject to exactly the same disciplinary processes, the same sanctions, that apply to your non-faculty colleagues. That they will not turn a blind eye to bad behavior in the name of faculty solidarity. or to preserve their independence. And that they will go to their administrations and charge them with implementing those principles. Because ultimately, unless some people get fired for their actions, nothing is going to change.

I firmly believe that, one way or another, these changes are going to come. And it’s far better for our community if our tenured colleagues are seen to lead them.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Crash! Bang! Wallop!

Universal Pictures
I had intended to break my (relatively) long silence with a piece on the pitfalls of confusing research infrastructure with big science. But instead, I’ve ended up writing about Jurassic World. Go figure.

I’ll put my cards on the table straight away; I didn’t have high hopes for this movie and my instincts were right. Despite the relentless noise, roaring, shouting, running, etc., I actually dozed off about halfway through. Colin Trevorrow may be a highly competent director, but he’s no Steven Spielberg.

Which is a pity, because there was at least the kernel of a good film here. The idea of a world where genetically de-extincted dinosaurs are so commonplace that you have to engineer fake ones to meet the public’s demand for new thrills is an interesting one, and also quite meta given that this is exactly what the Jurassic Park movie franchise felt it had to do to drum up an audience. The massive figures for the opening weekend suggest that it’s a winning formula.

Look beyond this, and there are some more worrying things that emerge. Others have written more eloquently than I can about the clumsy misogyny represented by the portrayal of the main female character as a career driven ice-queen who can’t relate to kids and needs to be humanized by exposure to a real man. Knowing my daughter and her friends were watching made me feel a bit queasy about the message being conveyed; yeah, a woman can have an important job, but real fulfillment will only come when she gets herself a man and a family.

Clare Dearing is certainly no Ellie Sattler, but then there’s no Ellie Sattler in Jurassic World against which to measure her, and precious few scientists of any description. In the previous Jurassic Park movies, the scientists were the heroes. In this one, we have an ex-military dog-whisperer, which says a lot about where we’ve gone since the last JP movie came out, in July of 2001. Yes, we still boo the military-industrial complex – represented by Vincent D’Onofrio’s character – but now we want our leading men to come with the approved stamp of heroism that only Serving Your Country can bring.

Owen Grady may talk a lot about Alphas and pack structure, but this is animal behavior reduced to the level of understanding of the guy that teaches obedience classes for your dog. In Jurassic World, “science” is represented by the geneticist, Henry Wu; a character far more reptilian than the things he cooks up in his lab. Wu is not so much villainous as completely lacking a conscience; in one of the better moments of the film, he is asked why he has created the monstrous creature that is running amok in the park. “Because that’s what you wanted,” he says, or words to that effect. More teeth. Cooler. The fact that it is also lethally dangerous is not Wu’s problem.

And that, in a nutshell, is the message of Jurassic World. Science generates a genetically modified organism and releases it into the world with no concern for the troubles it may cause; deciding whether such a thing is right or wrong is not what scientists do. It’s left to an ordinary guy who understands, in a vague, gut-driven sense, that animals are sentient beings and not “assets” (to use the Park’s terminology) to save the day for humanity. This is a far cry from the original Michael Crichton novel, which argued that only scientific theory can critique and predict the perils and pitfalls of turning reconstructed dinosaurs into tourist attractions.

My colleagues in museums around the country are looking forward to cashing in on a new wave of dinosaur popularity, and for this I guess we have to show some gratitude to Jurassic World. But the overwhelming message that the movie leaves you with is that science is a dangerously amoral pursuit that is no substitute for a good old boy on a motorcycle who can relate to “raptors.” Given thelevels of public skepticism about the motives of scientists, I’m not sure this is something we should be embracing.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Why Big Museums Aren't Going to Save Us

On April 3rd, the Chicago Tribune breathlessly reported the creation of a new group whose aim is improved management of natural history collections. In the words of the group's convener, Field Museum president Richard Lariviere, these six North American and six European museums are working to create"a unified global collection," with "a digital backbone, a digital record, and shared responsibility for filling gaps."

According to the Tribune, Lariviere - along with Kirk Johnson of the National Museum of Natural History - invited his peers to meet in Chicago after learning there was no such gathering of the institutions with major biological collections. Apparently the group even has a name,"Natural History Museum Leaders Group, chosen, [Lariviere] said, because that's what his assistant had been calling the group in setting up the first meeting."

After giving you a moment or two to mull over quite how perfect that last quote is, and to consider whether this institution has anything to teach the world about how to create better managed collections, let's take a step back and ask the wider question that this article (indirectly) raises - what are big museums good for?

The twelve that make up the Natural History Museum Leaders Group (I guess we'll have to call it the NHMLG for now) are, unarguably, some of the largest of their type in the world. Big museums like this do a lot of good. In addition to the wealth of their collections, they are also generously endowed, can attract high quality staff, and because of their high visitor numbers they offer matchless opportunities for public education and outreach. So when big museums talk, people listen.

And this, of course, is also the problem with big museums. They are attention and resource hogs. There are many great museums in the United Kingdom, but you'd be hard-pressed to realize this in the face of the remorseless flood of slick publicity that emerges from South Kensington. Not for nothing did people bridle when the British Museum (Natural History) changed its name to The Natural History Museum. A large, high profile institution of this sort can act like a financial black hole within its national museum community, sucking in funding from donors, foundations, and government agencies, and leaving smaller institutions fighting over the scraps.

The U.S., by and large, has avoided this problem. Yes, there are massive institutions like the Smithsonian, AMNH, and Field Museum. But there are also a whole raft of small, medium, and large collections below this. Their absence from the membership of the NHMLG may be justified on the basis of size, but it's still a glaring omission.

It's also unfortunate because - again, by and large - big stand-alone institutions tend not to be great innovators.  I mean this as no disrespect to my many talented friends and colleagues in these museums, but there are good reasons why this is the case. When I think about who is making the running in, for example, collections digitization, it's places like Florida, Kansas, Berkeley, Colorado, the Illinois Natural History Survey, Yale, and Tulane, to name just a few. They tend to be medium-sized museums, often associated with universities, and featuring a mix of tenured academics and professional staff.

These museums are rooted in a culture where risk-taking and innovation is valued; where there is easy on-site access to expertise in other disciplines (computing, imaging, material science, etc); where collections are not so large that the task of operations and maintenance eats 100% of staff time; and where the collection staff is not so big that they can afford to develop all-consuming disciplinary specializations.

We also tend to collaborate a lot. Of the last five grant proposals I submitted, four were multi-institutional projects. Participation in these projects, in the national digitization activities of iDigBio, and in professional societies like SPNHC and NSCA, weaves together collaborative networks that are, I would argue, a lot more effective and sustainable than a top-down initiative like NHMLG.

And there are many organizations in the natural history collections community, tackling biocollections digitization (iDigBio, B-CON/NIBA), improving collections care (NatSCA, SPNHC), fostering international cooperation (SCICOLL, ICOM-Nathist), setting standards for data and data delivery (TDWG, GBIF), addressing the needs of small collections (SCNET), and lobbying for increased collection funding (NSCA); most of these are linked by shared membership and both formal and informal collaborations. There are organizations for museum directors (ASMD), registrars (ARCS), and conservators (AIC) and there are informal communities devoted to natural history collections connected by social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook. It's true that there is no organization specifically for heads of very large natural history museums, but that might be because the museum community does't really need one.

If big museums choose to participate in existing efforts, they can have a truly empowering effect. If they develop their own, competing programs then they run the risk of distracting attention and diverting resources away from established efforts. Rather than reinventing the wheel, big museums should be encouraging their staff to participate in these programs (as many already are) and taking onboard the lessons learned.

Initially I thought I was going to finish there, but on reflection there is one last thing that needs saying. In this day and age, creating an organization of major museums whose membership is limited to institutions from North America and Europe sends the worst possible message. Where are the Chinese? Where are the Brazilians? Are there no major museums in Africa whose leaders are worth listening too? It's not much of a "unified global collection" and for all of its talk of digital backbones and digital records, NHMLG looks more nineteenth than twenty first century.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

More Hot Air

In the New York Times this morning, John Schwartz reports that a group of prominent scientists are calling for museums of science and natural history to “cut all ties” with fossil fuel companies and philanthropists like the Koch brothers. He also quotes my opinion as to why this might be a bad thing, and very nicely refers to me as a "prominent" blogger. Since I've been a little quiet of late (grant proposals, editing a book, blah, blah, blah - all the usual excuses) I figured this might be a good time to provide a little background as to why I find myself in the unlikely position of defending David Koch.

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first. There's an overwhelming weight of evidence that supports the theory that global warming is real and that human activities are contributing significantly to this. This position is supported by the vast majority of the scientific community, and I agree with it too.

Obviously there are many people in politics and industry that don't agree with this. Because the weight of evidence is so conclusive, one of the few routes they have available to them is to challenge the integrity of the scientific process. This is what some people in Congress are trying to do at the moment, by critiquing the process of peer review.

Climate change deniers (for want of a better term) like to argue that the scientific community is not neutral - that it is an advocate for the theory of anthropogenic climate change and that scientists have slanted the peer review process to ensure that anyone who supports a different model for climate cannot get funded or published.

For anyone that knows scientists, or works in science, the idea that they could actually create and maintain a conspiracy of this sort is laughable - it's hard to find a more fractious, less-organized group of people. Nonetheless, the idea of a conspiracy has a lot of traction in the mind of the public.

Museums have many different roles in science - as research institutions in their own right; as sources of data for other people's research; and as vehicles for bringing science to the public. Museums play an important role in explaining the science of climate change and the implications of what we're discovering for people's life and well-being.

 All of the survey data that we have seems to show that the public really values museums as authoritative and accurate sources of information (see here for an example). They trust us in a way that they don't trust "scientists," even though many of us are scientists and our collections are one of the many resources used to model the effects of climate change.

If we shift our position from education to outright advocacy, then we risk damaging that trust. There is a world of difference between educating people about the effects of climate change versus telling them not to buy products from company X because it's causing climate change. Once we start doing that, we lay ourselves open to the charge that we are no better than the climate change deniers - that we are just pushing our own agenda.

 The mission statement of the Yale Peabody Museum is:

 "to serve Yale University by advancing our understanding of earth’s history through geological, biological, and anthropological research, and by communicating the results of this research to the widest possible audience through publication, exhibition, and educational programs."

And, just for kicks n' grins, the mission statement of the AMNH is: 

"To discover, interpret, and disseminate—through scientific research and education—knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe."

These are pretty typical mission statements for a natural history museum and you'll note that neither says anything about fighting to defend the natural world or campaigning against the fossil fuel industry. There are other organizations that do have that in their missions, but by and large museums do not.

Museums need money to perform their mission of research and education, and for that they need donors and investments. Board members are responsible for helping museums realize that mission, through advice on finance and investments, by soliciting support from donors, and by providing support themselves. If you, as a board member, were to do something that interfered with the museum's pursuit of that mission - such as actively lobbying for reductions in funding for science education, or for research in museums - then that would be a problem that would likely result in your being asked to leave the Board. So if anything, being a board member might actually tie your hands.

Ah, but what about "covert" influence, as Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University and signer of the letter calls it? Well, that can cut both ways. Consider a point made later in the NYT article. Referencing a 2010 New Yorker piece, it says:

"an underlying message of exhibits in the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is that humans 'evolved in response to a changing world.' The article said that such language suggests that climate change has been a feature of the planet since prehistoric times, which plays down human contributions to climate change."

Outrageous. Except that climate change has been a feature of the planet for the last 4 billion- plus years, life on Earth has evolved (and continues to evolve) in response to the changing climate, and we use those historical data to model the impacts of the current, anthropogenic changes. Tricky, right? So perhaps the signatories of the letter think museums should be modifying their message to de-emphasize past climate change? You see where that might lead...

Faced with similar pressure from campaigners to disinvest from the fossil fuel industry, the President of Harvard, Drew Faust, provided a very clear statement of why Harvard was disinclined to do so. In essence, it boiled down to one main point:

"We should.... be very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution.  Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the University into the political process or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise.  The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change."

From her lips to my blog. Museums are not responsible for campaigning to protect the natural world; they are responsible for generating and supporting the science that underpins those efforts and for educating the public about both the science and what it means for them, their communities, and the planet. When they shift into the role of advocacy - disinvesting from this industry, turning down that donation, or removing those board members - they risk damaging their ability to fulfill that mission and enabling others to argue that the information they provide is partisan and not to be trusted.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


At its eastern extremity, the state of Tennessee comes to an end in a point, sandwiched between Virginia and North Carolina, and right in the tip of that point are the towns of Johnson City, Bristol, and Kingsport. Around 200,000 people live in this area, but flying into the Tri-Cities Regional Airport they're not much in evidence. Instead, the overwhelming impression from the window of the plane was one of bucolic pastoralism - rolling hills and fields, the occasional barn, cows, and scattered wooded Appalachian peaks and ridges. I don't know whether Tolkien ever visited eastern Tennessee, but it looks as close to the Shire as anywhere I've ever been.

As it turns out, one of those rolling hills was hiding something very special, which was why I was in the Tri-Cities region. The hill in question - which is, in truth, more of a bump than a hill - lies just outside the town of Gray. It used to be crested by Fulkerson Road, a rural byway that connects with TN 75, and was a notorious accident blackspot; traffic coming over the brow of the hill had little or no time to slow down if the lights at the intersection with 75 had turned red, leading to collisions. So in the spring of 2000 the Tennessee Department of Transport decided to remove the hill, or rather make a cutting through it.

Initially the road crew were cutting their way through the red soil that is typical of the region, the eroded remains of limestone. But they hadn't gone far before they encountered something that was a lot less familiar - a dense, black clay. Because they weren't expecting this, the crew stopped digging and called in a geologist. Which is where things started to get interesting, because closer inspection revealed that the clay contained bones.

Before we get to what they found, we need to take a couple of steps back. If you've been reading this blog for a while (and yes, there are one of two of you that have) you'll know that one of the most frustrating things about being a paleontologist is the limitations of the fossil record. It's one of the most powerful pieces of evidence for evolution, but as a record of life on Earth it's annoyingly incomplete. The chances of any particular animal of plant being fossilized are infinitesimally small, the chances of it being discovered are even smaller. Multiply those two probabilities together and you have… well, a much, much smaller number.

Even when you do find a fossil, the amount that you can learn about what it was, and where it lived, is often very limited. Not all of the animals in a habitat, or even all of the parts of one animal, get preserved. It's a tribute to the diligence of paleontological researchers that we know as much as we do, but even that isn't very much. Every now and then, however, we discover fossil sites that deviate from this norm, because they preserve and unusually rich diversity of animals and plants, or because they preserve parts of the organisms that don't usually fossilize.

Paleontologists call these sites Lagerst├Ątte," which means "storage places" in German, and they are very, very rare. Worldwide, there are probably less than sixty of these sites known. And it just so happened that, with the pure, dumb luck that accompanies many great scientific discoveries, the Tennessee DOT had driven their bulldozers right into one.

Between 5 and 7 million years ago, around the same time as our earliest ancestors were parting company (in evolutionary terms) from the ancestors of chimps, a cave system formed in the limestone just outside what is now Gray, Tennessee. The roof of that cave system collapsed, creating a sinkhole that filled with water. Many types of animal, both big and small, lived around and in the sinkhole, and when they died, their bodies sometimes ended up in the water, where they sank to the bottom and joined the remains of the various types of plant that grew there too.

Over many thousands of years all of that organic material got compressed down to form a dense black clay, that eventually filled the sinkhole like a plug. As it turns out, this plug was more resistant to the forces of erosion than the limestone that surrounded it. When the limestone weathered away, the clay was left. Over millions of years, the hole became a hill. And the descendants of those ancient African apes evolved into humans, invented the pick-up truck, and took to driving too fast over the crest of that hill.

Of course, back in 2000, no-one realized this yet - all they had was a layer of strange black clay and some bones. The State Archaeologist was called in, along with researchers from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Their preliminary investigations revealed that the bones were fossils and that the site was a rich one. The problem was that it was still in the way of the road.

At this point, however, the story gets a hero, in the form of the then Governor of Tennessee, Don Sundquist. Some politicians might have struggled to grasp the importance of the discovery. Sundquist did not. He decreed that the site was to be preserved for research and education. TN 75 was moved, Fulkerson Road was closed, houses were relocated and, most remarkably, an $8 million Federal Highways Administration grant was made to the nearby East Tennessee State University to develop a museum at the site. 

Fast-forward 14 years and here I am, standing on top of what was once the bottom of that Miocene sinkhole; reverse topography is a mind-bender. At first sight, it doesn't seem like a hive of scientific activity. The remains of the cutting started by the DTOT crew are still there, forming a shallow trough through the top of the hill. Grass has grown back, and the only signs of excavation are some small pits, covered by temporary shelters; spoil heaps, and a large stack of yellow plastic bags filled with dirt.

But turn around, and the fruits of that $8 million grant come into site - two modern buildings that cradle the hillside, connected to the dig site by a bridge that allows fossils to be wheeled directly into the Museum prep lab. Those few small pits, a tiny fraction of the 5 acre site, have already yielded 18,000 fossils. Pause and consider that number for a moment. 18,000 fossils. Included in that total is what is now the world's largest collection of fossil tapirs; remains of nearly 80 individuals of the extinct species Tapirus polkensis, including many complete skeletons. It also includes 4 rhino skeletons, a camel, an early relative of elephants, a horse, peccaries, a ground sloth, rodents, rabbits, shrews, turtles, alligators, snakes, lizards, fish, birds, salamanders, frogs, plants, and even insects.

And then, there are the pandas. Yeah, that's right. Pandas. Not the giant, black and white bear, but the smaller, red panda, or rather an extinct relative of that animal. The red panda is not a bear and is only distantly related to them - it sits within a large group of carnivores, including raccoons, weasels, otters, and skunks. Today, you'd have to go to the temperate forests of the Himalayas, in China, India, or Nepal to see one. But 5 million years ago, they were quite at home in the ancient Appalachians, and their fossilized bones, including an almost complete skeleton, are there in the pit at the Gray Fossil Site to prove it.

The pandas are a strong indicator that there was something odd about the Appalachians at the end of the Miocene. For most of the continent, this was a time of global cooling, increasing aridity, and the relentless expansion of grasslands. But the fossils at the Gray site are evidence of a different kind of Miocene habitat - a remnant of the forested environments that once covered North America.

On every side, the Gray fauna is full of surprises. The Miocene fossil record of America is dominated by horses, but at Gray they've found only one horse and unlike today's horses it's a browser, not a grazer. The rhinos are from the extinct genus Teleoceras, a relatively common and familiar animal (at least to paleontologists). But rather than the barrel shaped, short-legged rhino seen in locations from Nebraska to Florida, the species at Gray is slimmer and longer legged.

It would be easy to get distracted by the megafauna at the Gray Fossil Site, but what makes it so unique, and so rich, is the care being taken in retrieving the smaller fossils. Every shovelful of dirt that comes out of the out gets run through a series of sieves of ever decreasing mesh size, before being transported into the adjacent lab where a small army of volunteers (at times more than 50 strong) picks through the resulting fragments for isolated bones and teeth. It's painstaking work, and it means that exploration of the site is proceeding slowly. But the picture of late Miocene Tennessee that is emerging is astonishingly rich. And with every single object collected being mapped digitally in three dimensions, it's possible to focus in on the most promising areas for new discoveries.

So by now I hope that I've convinced you that the the Gray Fossil Site is a paleontological treasure, but what makes it really unique, in my opinion, is having research, collections, and exhibit facilities immediately next to the site. As I mentioned above, material leaving the excavation goes directly from the pit to the prep lab and from there to the collections and, for some of the material, into the exhibits. The research program itself is on exhibit, with a viewing platform overlooking the pit and windows from the galleries into the prep lab and the collection storage space. I'd seen all of these things at other institutions, but I'd never seen anywhere where they were integrated so well.

Which brings us to the back to something I talked about in an earlier post. One of the big challenges facing museums is how we center our programs more effectively on the collections that form the core of our museums. In many cases we're working in institutions that have accumulated a mass of programmatic baggage over a long history. Focusing can be difficult. But in the case of the East Tennessee State University Natural History Museum, the focal point is clear and present. You can see how all the pieces come together - collections, research, exhibition - to make the magic.

The ETSU Natural History Museum is still at a relatively early stage in its development, building programs off the incredible resource that was discovered 14 years ago. The trick will be one of balance - how can they build public programs that truly do justice to the extraordinary resources at their disposal; how they will develop the strongest possible public programming without detracting from the care of their growing collections; and how they will find the time with the growth of both collections and public programs to develop a research program that feeds both. How they meet this challenge of balance will be fascinating to watch.

One thing that they will not be short of is work The pit at the Gray Fossil Site is 100 feet deep in places and with the current rate of excavation it will take hundreds of years - at least - to get to the bottom. Who knows what's down there?

I actually wrote this post several months ago and it's been stuck in limbo since then. Fortunately I don't think it's aged much, but just in case you were wondering why I'm not complaining about leadership summits and valuing collections… those are coming. Once I finish writing a bunch of grant proposals. Sigh.