Thursday, February 19, 2009

Collections and the Corinthian Ideal

This morning, somewhat to my surprise, I found myself thinking about a man called Gaston. It’s been a good 15 years since I last saw him and, as he’s been dead for a number of these, it’s a pretty good bet that I won’t be seeing him again, but before I explain why he crossed my mind I’ll give you a little character sketch. Gaston was, I guess, in his late seventies when I knew him. He had previously worked in some official capacity in the British colonies – he once produced a faded photograph of his younger self in baggy shorts and knee-length woolen socks, surrounded by ferocious looking Africans with spears. Under his command, I should add, although given his frequently-expressed and entirely unreconstructed views on people of ethnicities other than his own it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the spears stuck in him. Say what you like about him, but he was an equal opportunity hater – he also disliked women (despite being married to one for many years) and anyone more liberal than he was, which encompassed a lot of people. He was quite unwell in later life and spent much of his time in hospital where, to his horror, he found himself entirely at the mercy of nursing staff who were for the most part a) women and b) black. Who says there is no God?

I knew Gaston because he was one of the gallery of grotesques that inhabited the tea room at the museum where I was working. There was a small band of men, of varying degrees of age and decrepitude, who turned up every day without fail to work in the entomological collections, despite receiving no payment from the museum for their services. Retired clerics and military men predominated – women were unknown. Our paths would only cross at morning and afternoon tea breaks, when they would huddle in the corner and discuss the whys and wherefores of their various Diptera and Coleoptera, raising their voices to cope with the less-than-perfect hearing of their listeners. My fellow graduate students and I viewed their eccentricities with a mix of amusement, irritation, and bafflement (little realizing that such would be our fate with the advancing years). What possible benefit could there be in having such relics around the place?

The answer, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, is “a lot.” When Gaston died, his obituaries in the entomological journals were fulsome. It turned out that this unprepossessing ex-civil servant, with his profoundly bigoted views and mono-dimensional view of the world, was actually one of the country’s leading lepidopterists - that’s an expert on butterflies and moths, for those of you who have happily avoided any contact with entomologists. He was recognized as the world’s foremost expert on a family of moths whose identification was regarded as unusually challenging even for professional entomologists. And all this despite having never held a paid position as a biologist or museum curator.

Gaston came to mind because the vrtpaleo listserve (which clogs up my email to an annoying extent, but which also provides me with endless material for blogging) is currently being engulfed in one of its regular “amateur vs. professional” firestorms. This one was occasioned by SVP’s advocacy for the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act. The Act didn’t get passed in the last Congress and discussion is currently (and understandably) delayed by the House’s consideration of the Economic Stimulus Package. Most of the action on the listserve relates to the concerns of a few individuals that the purpose of the Act is to restrict the activities of “amateur” collectors, to the benefit of “professionals.” This got me thinking about the whole amateur vs. professional issue.

Today, “amateur” is a word with decidedly negative connotations. The adjective “amateurish” if applied to a job is unlikely to be meant as a compliment. Yet the ultimate root of the word is the Latin amator, meaning lover, so in the strictest sense being called an amateur simply means that you do something for the love of doing it, rather than for any particular reward. Go back a hundred years or so, and you’ll find an ironic reversal of the current situation. Amateurs were praised because they applied their labors for a higher goal than mere monetary reward, whereas professionals were looked down upon as money grubbers. This was particular true in sport, with its Corinthian Ideals of “amateurism.” Beneath these lofty ideals, of course, lay the unpalatable question of Class. Upper and middle class players could afford to take time to play for no pay. For working class players it was much more difficult.

In my own preferred sport of cricket (and yes, I do conform to that particular national stereotype) professionals were expected to address amateurs, at least to their faces, as "Mister" or "Sir" whereas the amateurs usually referred to professionals by their surnames. Newspaper reports often prefaced amateurs' names with "Mr." while professionals were referred to by surname, or sometimes surname and initials. At some grounds amateurs and professionals had separate dressing rooms and entered the playing arena through separate gates. This distinction between “Gentlemen” and “Players” was not formally removed until 1963 and until Len Hutton became captain of the England team in 1952 the idea that a professional player could lead the national side was unthinkable.

This was obviously a toxic situation, but I’d argue that it can be equally toxic when the positions are reversed. Basing status solely on the possession of graduate qualifications, or holding a tenured or salaried position in a museum or university, is a risky position for any “profession” to adopt, especially ones like paleontology or collection management, where our ultimate claim to professional status in the strictest sense is a shaky one – unlike doctors or attorneys, we have no formal system of accreditation that controls access to jobs. And in museums we have good reasons for ensuring that we do nothing to promote the spread of this toxicity to own field.

I can confidently say, based on my direct experience of the last 15 years and knowledge of the preceding 20 or 30, that we are not going to see any significant increase in the number of salaried workers in our collections and that any reductions in numbers from the current fiscal crisis will probably not be reversed when things improve. Put simply, we have proved too good at making do with less, and the apparent lack of any consequences for shrinking staff budgets have not gone unnoticed by our administrations. By and large, nobody dies when we screw up and short of wiping out some object of iconic significance most of our deficiencies will go unnoticed by those that are in a position to provide or withhold funding (boy, I am in a negative frame of mind today!)

If we have a shrinking salaried staff and we want to maintain or, ideally, increase both our standards and our output, then we are going to become increasingly dependent on unsalaried workers. We already are. At AMNH, our collection of 4.75 million fossils was cared for by a staff of 5 paid and 20 unpaid workers. We called the unpaid workers volunteers, but we invested as much time in training and managing them as we would for employees, and they more than repaid this investment. At YPM, we currently have only one paid fossil preparator, but her work is heavily supplemented by a crew of volunteer preparators of varying ages who she has trained to a high standard. Yesterday I was looking at work done by one of them, a retired doctor. The standard was exceptional, as good (if not better) than many “professional” preparators could achieve. And yes, as our budgets for collecting and fieldwork shrink, we are going to become more dependent on the efforts of avocational and commercial collectors. Without their efforts, the flow of fossils into many museum collections is likely to dry up.

If this is the case, we can no longer promote the sort of two-tier status for salaried and unsalaried that can be found in many museum policies and procedures. We should not refuse to extend access privileges to volunteers (as is the case at AMNH, whose collection policy mandates direct supervision of volunteers by paid staff at all times, regardless of the volunteer’s experience) unless we are prepared to withhold such privileges from our professional colleagues and students. The most egregious examples of theft and specimen damage that I’m aware of have been carried out by paid employees, visiting academics and students (who, unlike volunteers, tend to regard collections access as a right rather than a privilege). It is quite possible to carry out the same background checks on volunteers working in collections as we do on new employees and some museums already do so. And we can’t afford to demonize every commercial collector on the basis that some of “us” may have a distaste for commercial collecting and private collections. Clichéd though it may be to say it, there are no bad categories of people; only bad people.


  1. Applause! I absolutely concur. Currently, on average museums have 7 volunteers for every full-time paid staff person (AAM Museum Financial Information Survey data.) This ratio swells to 14:1 in small museums. Clearly they are vital resources. And an possibly an endangered one--the current economic crisis may require the traditional groups from which volunteers are drawn (spouses who work part time or not at all, retirees) enter or extend their time in the workforce.

    It is worth exploring how to attract and retrain these valued workers. I think you identify a major factor in this post--respect and official recognition. In the alternate reality forecasting game Superstruct that the Institute for the Future ran last fall ( one player invented "Trustnet"--a way for people to recognize others in a publicly accessible way for being trustworthy, knowledgeable, skilled. (Kind of like a universal, portable Angie's List.) What if museums provided some kind of public certification or recognition of the skills of their volunteers? What about supporting their participation in professional conferences, and providing venues for them to publish and disseminate their own work? I can hear the immediate warning cry of liability, but that is only one kind of risk. Another equally scary risk is not keeping these experts engaged in our work.

  2. Ah, the number of things we don't do because of "liability"... Someday institutions should realize that attorneys are not the best people at assessing risk.