Friday, August 14, 2009

Missing, Presumed Gone

Many years ago, while I was working in a university museum, we had a visit from the university auditors. It wasn't really clear what they wanted to do, but after we'd walked them around the collections for a while and showed them some cool stuff they told us. What they basically said was - "OK, we're going to go to your catalog and pick a specimen at random. Then you're going to go and find it for us." And, of course, we all laughed long and loud.

Obviously, I was much younger then.

This incident came back to me very forcibly a few days ago, when I read an email from colleagues at the Natural History Museum in London that "a number" of bird skins had been stolen from their Ornithology Department, which is housed at the Walter Rothschild Museum in Tring. This was later reported in the press - you can read more about it here. It's an enormously depressing story, and not just because it seems like this extraordinary collection of birds of paradise, quetzels, and cotingas, having been hauled back from the ends of the Earth and carefully cataloged for use in research and teaching, may end their days pulled apart and used as fishing lures.

For the average collection manager, this is the sort of thing that wakes you up in the early hours of the morning in a cold sweat. There may be some readers out there who, having watched movies like "The Thomas Crown Affair," believe that all museum collections are guarded by the sort of hi-tech security systems that can only be circumvented by a genius. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Natural history collections are particularly vulnerable because of their enormous size (the NHM bird collection, for example, contains around 750,000 bird skins) and the fact that they are next to useless if they are not actively used for research. This means that we have to let people in to look at them.

Of course, we take all sorts of measures to protect them (and no, of course I'm not going to tell you what they are), but the fact is that if someone is really determined to take a specimen from the collection, they can. And unless there are cast-iron procedures in place for taking regular inventories of the collection, the chances that anyone will notice if they do is pretty small. With huge collections, limited staff, and enormous demands on resources, most large museums have enough to do keeping on top of day-to-day operations, let alone tracking every specimen in their collections.

Things continually go missing in museums. I remember reading a museum collections policy a couple of years ago that decreed that we immediately report every specimen found missing to the museum's lawyers. Once again, we fell about laughing (OK, so I haven't grown up all that much) as we wondered how long they would put up with receiving daily emails from all the collections divisions. Things go missing because someone puts them in the wrong drawer; or because a curator or student removes them to his or her office without filling out a removal slip; or because they came back from loan and six months later someone still hasn't had time to return them to the collection; or because they are out on loan and someone forgot to fill out an invoice; or because their location was mistyped in a database. Most things turn up in a week or so. Some turn up in a year, or five years. Some things reappear, miraculously, after decades. And sometimes they disappear for good.

So most collection managers don't really worry when they can't find a specimen (unless it's something extremely important - I once lost the genotype of Velociraptor for a week because I put it into a random cabinet "for 10 minutes" while I went off to do another job and then forgot about it. It was not a pleasant week). What is really alarming is when you discover that there's more than one specimen. And if it turns out that there's a pattern - certain very specific things are missing - then things get really unpleasant. That's what happened at the Australian Museum six years ago. It spiralled away into an enormous scandal that eventually brought down the Museum's director. You can read about it here, and I urge you to do so. It's a cautionary tale for all sorts of reasons.

Anyway, now I'm off to review our security procedures. Can't sleep.

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