The December edition of Museums Journal contains a depressing article by Gareth Harris on the slow demise of the specialist natural history curator in UK museums. It accompanies an even more depressing letter from Steven Falk, who was recently made redundant from his position as senior keeper of natural history at the Warwickshire Museum. Falk was, in his own words, the "last surviving keeper of natural history in the West Midlands," a region with a population of over 5 million people. When he started work (in 1990) there were 10 specialist natural history positions in West Midlands museums. Now there are none.
As has been discussed in previous posts, the UK is ploughing the depths of public austerity measures at the moment. Anyone who reads this blog knows what I think about that, so we won't rehash it here. But one result of shrinking budgets is that managers are keen to look for efficiencies in their operations. This is the stock response of various local authority managers that Harris quotes in his article. There's much talk of "integrated approaches," "restructuring," and "realignment of resources."
I have a certain sympathy with this logic. I don't particularly see myself as a paleontologist, a zoologist, or a natural historian. I'm a manager - of people and resources, both financial and fossil (the resources that is - not the people....). But I do have one significant advantage over a non-specialist, which is that having trained and done research in systematic zoology and paleontology, I understand the needs of our users and I can prioritize effectively based on this. I can also interpret the material in my care for a wider audience. And both of these skills, I'd argue, are critical components of responsible collections stewardship.
Could I transfer my skill set to a non-natural history museum? Probably, if I were solely concerned with administration. But I would still be heavily dependent on specialists to guide the decisions that affected their collections. The fact is that natural history collections are different from those covering the arts and humanities. I'm currently working with colleagues from Yale's libraries and art museums on metadata standards for cross-campus collections discovery, and its already very clear that we place different values on different categories of data.
To expand on this, it's frequently said (but worth repeating) that a large part of the value of natural history collections lies in their associated data, something that may be hard to grasp if you look after Rembrandts for a living. So an effective strategy for managing natural history collections might be tilted more towards data management and delivery than, say, object treatment. Or at least, it ought to be. And the quality of those data will be heavily dependent on specialist expertise. There is no amount of experience as a conservator or historian that will equip you to identify insects.
Part of the problem, as anyone who has ever attended an AAM meeting will know, is that natural history forms only a tiny part of the the museum sector. There are far more art museums and many, many more history museums. This is reflected in the output of graduates from museum studies programs. So in simple statistical terms, if local authority managers don't actively defend the need for at least some science expertise on their museum staff, you will end up with "social historians and archaeologists" (in Falk's words) dealing with natural history collections. There are just more of them around.
That managerial decision will be easier if the skill sets of those natural history curators encompass some general management experience, and even easier if the person making the decision was once a natural history curator themselves. I still know too many colleagues who turn their noses up at "administration" or "management-speak" and want to be "left alone to get on with my job." Unfortunately, in a shrinking workforce, flexibility is key. The cost of keeping your job may be doing less of what drew you into the profession in the first place.