Monday, June 29, 2009

Fieldtrip

Last week, in the pub, my friend Andrew accused me of being a Nazi. I think (although it was late in the evening and my memory of events is unaccountably fuzzy), that he also accused me of being an accessory to the Shoah. All this because I had the temerity to question his view that Bodies Revealed - yet another in the apparently interminable succession of plastinated corpse shows now orbiting the globe - was the greatest evil afflicting the planet today. I can't really remember the gist of his argument, if indeed there was one, but it was something to do with sensationalism, pandering to people's basest instincts, and commercialism run amok. My friend Carl and I tried to make a counter-argument that while purient curiosity might draw people in through the door, there was a good chance that people might come away a little more educated by the workings of the body. But we just got yelled at.

At this point Carl asked whether Andrew had actually seen Bodies Revealed, which of course he had not. I then asked how he knew it was so bad, at which point Andrew became extremely agitated and said (and I kid you not) "I don't know, but I'll know it when I see it" thus unconsciously echoing Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's 1964 attempt to define obscene material. Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that Andrew and I are now going to the Foxwood's Casino to see "Bodies Revealed" and that Carl (who is an extremely famous writer and really ought to have better things to do with his time) is coming too. Expect a report in a month or so, when I return from a trip to the Netherlands.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Hermit

The BBC reports that the Manchester Museum has just employed a hermit. Ansuman Biswas, 43, will spend 40 days living in the Museum's tower, contemplating things "lost" and the impact of extinction during his confinement. Communication will be limited to his blog (of course). Mr Biswas says he will be passing his time by singing. I'm scratching my head as to what will distingish Mr. Biswas from a typical collections manager: his job was massively oversubscribed (300 applicants), he's going to refuse to speak to anyone while working, and he'll spend his time worrying about lost stuff. So I guess it must be the singing, right?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Unproductive Blogger

What with grant deadlines, conferences, student project outlines needed for next year, field crews returning, field crews department, and the end of the school year, this is turning into a lousy month for PoH posts. I was almost driven to break my one-post-old ban on blogging about a certain British TV program. But I didn't. Anyway, to my loyal readers (all two of you) fear not! June is bad, July will be worse, but in August... maybe you'll be on holiday and won't notice that I haven't written anything.

Off to the pub now, where there is a good chance that someone will irritate me and thus a proper post will be forthcoming.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Curses!

(formerly titled "Damn You, Carl Zimmer!" until I realized that there are still people out there who are shocked by the "D-word"). The other day, I was gloating to my friend Carl that spending a week up a Welsh mountain at the height of the magic monkey fest had meant that I had been able to avoid any temptation to blog on the world's most famous notharctid. However, I had vaguely been thinking of using it as a hook to talk about the strange obsession that the media and general public have regarding the existence of "links" - missing or othewise - in the fossil record. I sat down to write it today when, lo and behold, I discover that Carl has covered the whole issue of links in an excellent post on Limusaurus (which I can say with complete certainty is a much more interesting fossil than Ida). Robbed of my opportunity to talk about weighty scientific issues, I ended up having to write yet another blog about Primeval. Bother.

In any case, I urge you to go and read Carl's post, which covers the whole issue much better than I could and also contains fascinating pictures of Carl attempting to demonstrate the process by which bird wings evolved by using variants of the Vulcan salute from Star Trek.

Connor's Database, or why I really need to stop watching Primeval

This evening I was halfway through writing a post about Connor's amazing database on Primeval when I realized that I was attempting to seriously critique the IT aspects of a program whose plot revolves around holes in time that allow fearsome beasties from the past and future to pop up in present-day Britain and eat people. Plainly I have let my fascination with Primeval get out of hand.

Connor's database is a truly remarkable thing. It allows the "team" to identify prehistoric animals, even when it is blatently obvious what they are to anyone that's spent more than 10 minutes looking in a kid's book of dinosaurs. What I find amazing is that all of the animals that come through the "anomalies" are things that are already known to science - given the incredible patchiness of the fossil record, you'd think that every now and again something would pop up that would cause Connor to say "Crikey, Professor - there's nothing like that in the database!" At which point the late Professor Cutter would describe it in Nature and Connor, being a student, would be the 25th author on the paper, just in front of the guy that made the tea.

I had planned to demonstrate the extreme improbability of Connor's database by comparing the current diversity of Neornithes with the fossil record for birds over the last 60 million years. But halfway through totting up the number of genera of fossil Neornithes (I had reached Hydrotherikornis, an auk from the Late Eocene of Oregon), thus showing the lack of biodiversity preserved in the fossil record, when I suddenly stopped. "What are you doing?" I asked myself. This is a program in which guys take ages putting on biohazard suits to enter a room full of lethal fungal spores, then walk out into a crowded lab with their spore contaminated suits still on. And, come to think of it, where the effect of these spores is to turn the infected person into an indestructible fungus monster. The database is the least of their problems.

So, I'm washing my hands of Primeval. Like plucky Jenny Lewis, who resigned from the "team" because she could no longer cope with the fact that she started out as Claudia Brown in another timeline, I'm walking out of the "ARC" for the final time. They've got Jason Flemyng now, so it'll be just like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, only with giant flightless bat/monkey things from the future. Or maybe they're from the past and we just haven't discovered them yet.

Ugh. I'm off to bed.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Effective Collection

Dropping into my mail box a few days ago came the programme prospectus for “Effective Collections” a new initiative by the UK Museums Association. Effective Collections, which is supported with funding from the Esmee Fairburn Foundation, offers funding and support to museums to make better use of their collections. By getting rid of them.

OK, that was a little unfair. To understand where this is all coming from, you need to go back to a 2005 report produced by the Museums Association called “Collections for the Future” – you can download a copy here. Collections for the Future argued that it is not enough for a museum to simply acquire and preserve a collection; the museum also has a responsibility to make sure that the collection gets used.

So far, I think most curators and collection managers would be in agreement with this (even those of us that think that the biggest threat to the well-being of the specimens in our collections are the idiots that we allow to work on them). One solution is to make people more aware of the amazing things that we have in our collections, give them better tools for resource discovery, and find ways to improve both physical and virtual access, something near and dear to my heart.

But the MA goes further than this. They believe that even when such steps are taken, there will be a significant rump of museum objects that are not being used. For these objects, says the MA, the path to better usage lies in long loans, transfers, and other forms of disposal that keep the objects in the public domain while ensuring that they get used and seen more frequently.

So why am I objecting to this? Well, it’s not so much the general principle that I object to so much as some of the thoughts that spin off from the report. One of my favorites is the statement that “many museums and individuals are risk averse in their attitudes to using collections.” Although in principal we seem to be in favor of increased access, we balk at the reality of, say, putting one of our dinosaurs on exhibit in the lobby of the local Hooters. Why are we so risk averse? Well according to Effective Collections we are scared of the potential personal liability of taking a risky decision and also the potential damage to our reputation if we make certain decisions. In other words, we’re a bunch of chickens.

The statement that really gets my goat, however, is this one. The report writers think it’s so crucial that they put in a big red font to make it stand out on the page.

The MA’s work on sustainability in museums highlights the fundamentally unsustainable practice of acquiring more objects and it is increasingly difficult to justify large (growing) collections to governing bodies in the face of current economic conditions and the need to reduce energy use.”

So we’re back to sustainability again. We can’t do our job, because it’s energy intensive. Because, rest assured, for natural history collections it is our job to grow our collections. For paleontology, our understanding of the fundamental processes by which life on this planet originated and diversified depends on the discovery of new fossils. Almost 200 years after Gideon Mantell began the scientific study of dinosaurs, we have barely scratched the surface of the former biodiversity of the planet. If our collections cease to grow, then our science grinds to a halt. The same is true of recent biodiversity – it is a strange paradox that the MA is trying to argue that the growth of the collections that we need to develop effective conservation strategies is actually leading to the destruction of the communities we are trying to save.

But of course, they’re not actually arguing this. Every example, case history, and illustration in the report is of an artwork or other human cultural object. The only natural history specimen in the report is a rather sad looking stuffed polar bear on page 5. This is hardly surprising, given the current level of understanding of natural history collections in the MA (the coverage of natural sciences in the Association’s main publication, Museums Journal, is limited to periodic pieces about the ethical issues surrounding the inclusion of taxidermy in displays – they tend to publish variants on this one article every couple of years). The MA has written the report from a entirely monocular perspective – display quality material that can be passed on to other institutions for exhibit, education, etc

I think this is an important point. The sort of usage described in Effective Collections is unlikely to apply to most of the millions of natural history objects in museums worldwide. Unfortunately, when you start applying the same usage rationale to these collections it reveals some uncomfortable facts. As I discussed in an earlier post, the fraction of our specimens that are actually used in a year is tiny – for a big collection it’s likely to be less than 1%. The material on loan is about 1/10 of this. What’s the sustainable “solution” for these collections? Disposal? Dispersal? Or is it all just a big waste of time and effort, as I argued in my post.

I was discussing these issues with a colleague of mine a few days ago. A previously avowed sustainability skeptic, she was now coming around to the idea that we can no longer ignore these issues in the management of our collections. She felt that I’d been a little unfair in dismissing the energy costs of museum collections as a miniscule fraction of humanity’s carbon footprint – while this might be true, we had a responsibility to at least consider what might be done. The most practical route might be to take a look at the enormous energy costs required to sustain the currently accepted environmental standards for collection storage. In many cases, we have unrealistically tight standards which are then addressed using inefficiently designed engineering controls. This is an area where action by the collections community might have a significant impact.

“You know how it is,” she said. “The Brits always come up with this crazy, extreme museum management stuff. Then we look at it, dilute it down, and turn it into something that actually works.”

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Death of the Sexy Paleontologist

Following on from my earlier post about the apparent lack of sexy paleontologists in the world of fiction I have to report, with great sadness, the demise of one of the few such scientists on the small screen, Professor Nick Cutter of Central Metropolitan University (formerly, I suspect, Daventry Sixth Form College), star of the unintentionally hilarious ITV series Primeval, which is currently showing on BBC America for US readers.

I was never entirely sure whether you could call Cutter a paleontologist, as he was never seen digging things up or even looking at a fossil; he also seemed horribly dependent on his student Connor and his "database of prehistoric creatures" (an extraordinary piece of information technology which is probably worth a blog post in its own right) to identify things that anyone with access to a children's book of prehistoric animals would spot immediately. Nonetheless, as candidates for the title of SP are few and far between on our TV screens, I was prepared to adopt him as one of our own.

I'd like to report that Professor Cutter was engulfed by a giant priapulid worm from the Cambrian, but he was actually gunned down by his evil/sexy ex-wife Helen, who was attempting to stop the future from being overrun by giant echolocating fligtless bat things (if you've never seen this series, honestly, you have to try it - it's so bad it's brilliant).

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed

One of the joys of spending the last 10 days in a hut on a Welsh mountain without any form of web access was that I missed almost all of the sturm und drang over Ida the Magic Monkey and now so much has been written that I have nothing novel to say on the matter. Hurrah! However, I will leave you with one last thought, which is this very insightful interview in The Scientist with Matthew Nisbet, a media specialist from the American University in DC. It should be required reading for any researcher who's planning a media blitz in the near future....