Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Relevant"

Yesterday, I got three separate emails from colleagues, all urging me to go and read an article in the New York Times which, I was assured me, would blow my socks off. Entitled “Dawn at the Museum,” it was written by Olivia Judson and it seemed to have aroused great excitement; as one poster to a listserve put it -

'Dawn at the Museum' is well worth noting and have [sic] on file for your department head or dean when cuts, elimination and/or moves are suggested for your herbarium or part of the museum. It is encouraging to see an eminent molecular biologist today advocate publicly the value of museums when so many in the academic physiological, cellular and molecular areas have only distain for field biology and specimens.”

As you will have gathered from previous posts, life in museum collections tends to incline you towards grumpiness and a feeling of being unwanted, or at least unappreciated. This can lead us to react poorly even when people are being nice to us. So I really, really wanted to react in a positive way to this piece. Honestly, I did.

At first sight, things looked good. There was a large color picture of my alma mater and birthplace of my museum career, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I felt a surge of nostalgia. Then as I glanced down the page I saw, blown up for extra emphasis, the following quote:

It is the DNA molecule that has made museums strangely — wonderfully — relevant to biology in the 21st century.”

Oh dear.

Where do you begin with a statement like this? Does it mean that museums were irrelevant to biology before the advent of DNA amplification and sequencing technologies? Does it imply that collections that do not preserve DNA (i.e. like mine) are not relevant to 21st century biology? And why “strangely?”

By now I was spoiling for a fight; like some belligerent drunk in a bar, I was looking for an excuse to start one. And a few lines later, Dr. Judson provided me with the perfect excuse. She used the word “dusty.” To be precise, what she said was that collections have the ability to become much more than “hugely important stores of information about biodiversity“because of “all those dusty specimens.”

Let me paraphrase this article for you. “Crikey. I bet you though that those museum collections were just a bunch of dusty old bones and skins. Yeah, of course they’re ‘important’ because they have all that biodiversity stuff in them. But get this – they’re actually really important, because now you can get DNA out of them. And DNA means real science. Wow, who knew?”

Olivia Judson saying museum collections are “strangely relevant” is a bit like Joe Biden describing Barrack Obama as “articulate.” It may be well-meaning, it may be true, but boy is it patronizing.

So here’s my answer to Olivia. Yes, you’re correct that the advent of new technologies for extracting and sequencing DNA are giving us access to information from museum collections we didn’t previously have, as are other techniques like stable isotope analysis, microwear studies, CT scanning, laser surface scanning, and GIS mapping. But these things don’t make collections relevant. Collections are relevant.

Every time you use a scientific name, you’re making use of a hypothesis validated by the existence of an actual, physical type specimen that’s sat in a collection somewhere. You may never need to see that specimen, but if you decide that for some reason you want to confirm that hypothesis for yourself, you can go look at the specimen (and others like it). That’s the foundation on which our understanding of the natural world is built – you cannot make a meaningful description of life on earth without reference to museum collections. I can’t think of anything more “relevant” to biology, be it 20th, 21st, or 22nd Century.

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