Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Live Free and Die Un-Coordinated

I spent yesterday sat in a lecture hall at the Leiden University Medical Center, listening to a conference session entitled "New Initiatives and Perspectives in Natural History Collections" which was sponsored by EDIT. EDIT is the European Distributed Institute of Taxonomy, a massive effort to network the collections capabilities of some of the largest museums in Europe. There are Russian and North American partner institutions (the two US participants are the Smithsonian and the Missouri Botanic Garden), but make no mistake about it - EDIT is a European initiative and the EU is paying heavily to support it, to the tune of millions of Euros. EDIT has ambitious objectives - it wants to break down barriers between different institutions and leverage their collective expertise and efforts to address planetary macro-scale problems like climate change and vanishing diversity. And they can apply quite a lot of leverage - between them, the 28 members of EDIT hold more than half of the world’s natural history specimens.

As a collection manager, I might have been inclined to skepticism over all this enthusiastic promotion of transnational taxonomic institutions. My academic colleagues are great enthuiasts when it comes to jetting around the globe talking science, but whatever positive effects may accrue from this don't always filter back to benefit the collections that they draw upon for their research. But EDIT is just part of a two-fisted European punch. There is another EU-funded program, SYNTHESYS, which networks 20 European natural history museums and botanic gardens, and which sets (and I quote directly here) "standards for collection management and databases, and aims to raise scientists’ awareness of best practice by offering improved training and workshop opportunities, and guidelines for the care, storage and conservation of collections." OK, so I laughed when I read the bit about making scientists aware about best practices in collections care. But it actually seems to be working. And (here's the real kicker) these multi-million Euro research programs are actually talking to each other! And coordinating their activities

Over the course of the day, I sat and watched contrasting emotions chase each other like cloud shadows across the faces of my American colleagues. There was interest, skepticism, grudging respect, then open enthusiasm. After this came despair, misery, and (I think) a great deal of envy. At least, I think the green color was envy - it might have been nausea. At one point, where one of our euro-colleagues was describing how the institutions were working together to develop a common loans policy, my American neighbor turned to me and whispered, in tones of awe, "Wow, imagine if we could do that!" Then his face fell. "Aw heck" he said (or words to that effect) "I don't think I could get our curators to agree on a common loans policy across our museum, let alone across the States

Europeans have good reason to want to cooperate with each other. Ever since the fall of the Roman Empire they have been cheerfully butchering each other in a series of ever more catastrophic wars, fueled by a huge lack of mutual understanding. I should know - I'm British, so I'm genetically incapable of understanding anyone from across the Channel. Post 1945 it was clear that this could not go on, so the people of Europe started to put together structures that would encourage nations to cooperate, starting with the decidedly un-sexy European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, and ending with today's 27 member, 1.7 million square mile, and 500 million-strong European Union. It's easy to laugh at the EU, with it's impenetrable bureaucracy and standards for the curvature of bananas, but the fact remains that people now move, work, and cooperate transnationally from the one end of the continent to the other with an ease that would have been unthinkable when I was a child.

This all comes at a cost and the one most usually cited is "erosion of national sovereignty." It's still an odd feeling to go to an ATM and get a bunch of anonymous Euro notes rather than familiar guilders. They may have been around since 2002, but I still can't take Euros seriously. With their bland illustrations of generic pieces of architecture (bridges and windows) they look like something that was designed by a committee. Which, of course, they were. This blandness extends to what a lot of the EU does, but it may be a necessary evil when it comes to getting a very large group of very different people to work together.

Anyway, as I sat in the EDIT session, I began to wonder whether the US national character mean that Americans will never be able to coordinate collections transnationally in the way that the EU is doing. Now I realize that, as a foreigner in the Land of the Free, I'm on shaky ground here. But I think I can safely offer the observation that at some level, successful collaboration means doing what you're told for the greater good. And, frankly, many Americans don't like the idea of being told what to do, especially by i) their government or ii) foreigners.

There are plenty of examples of successful, government-supported schemes to promote research collaborations between US institutions, and there are emerging examples of international collaborative schemes (a good example of this is the FIRCA Program, supported by the National Institutes for Health) but the idea that similar museums in different countries might develop a common set of operating procedures in areas where they have to interact seems strangely alien when viewed from an American perspective. And the idea that governments might pay for it seems even odder.

The question in my mind is whether this is due to the American mindset, or the mindset of the American Curator. I remember working on policy development with a curator who, while being one of the most politically astute people I've ever worked with, was almost phobically averse to actually writing down anything that looked like a policy. His rationale was that while many of these policies were good things, ultimately there might be circumstances in which they would restrict his ability to do what he wanted. And he did not want to be hemmed-in

There is hope on the horizon. The American Association of Museums has done a great job of persuading recalcitrant museums that Standards are nothing to be afraid of (I want to give a big plug here for my friend Beth Merritt's excellent book National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums) and this year the National Science Foundation's Improvements to Biological Research Collections Program is emphasising collaborative proposals that network collections. But after seeing what's underway in Europe, I can't help feeling that there's still a long way to go

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