Friday, April 29, 2011

I Was Glad

I came downstairs this morning to find the pink-cheeked and strangely featureless visage of David Cameron bellowing Jerusalem out of my TV screen in hi-def. For a moment I was disconcerted. Then a strange wave of calm washed over me. You may wake up in Britain next week with no job, no healthcare, no police, no museums or libraries, crippling university fees, and the Liberal Democrats demolishing your electoral system so that their odious brand of unprincipled and opportunistic politics will have a stranglehold on power for decades to come. But relax. After years of false Labour egalitarianism, once again you live in a country run by Old Etonians and people called St John and Ffoulkes, where even the daughter of flight attendants can grow up to be a queen, provided they have the gumption to make themselves into millionaires. Rest easy, Britain - all is well.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

An Apology?

The regular reader of this blog will recall that, at regular intervals, I have got myself quite upset over the writings of Thomas H. Benton, a self-described expert on natural history museums who writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Benton's pooterish diatribes on the decline of the natural history museum seemed to me to be little more than an unwarranted assault on modern exhibit design, the principles of which had completely eluded the author.

Or so I thought.

A couple of weeks ago, I paid my first visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Yes, I know, this is quite unforgiveable for one who has lived in the Northeast for years, but honestly, I'm quite a busy person. Founded in 1812, the Academy is the oldest natural history museum in the Americas, a storied research institution with a noble history and a long tradition of public exhibits and educational programs for both schools and the general public.

It is also very dear to Thomas H. Benton's heart; it was a visit to the Academy that sparked the first of his polemics. There have been several since then, but the one that offended me most was his assertion that museums that display casts of fossil specimens are engaging in fraudulent behavior at the expense of their visitors. I took issue with this on a number of grounds, one of which is that reputable museums have a series of safeguards that ensure that the visitor is always aware what is real and what is a cast. So I have to say that I was a little shocked when I took a walk around the fossil gallery in Philadelphia.

As you can see from the photo above, it is packed full of skeletons. Almost all of these are casts. Virtually none of them are labelled as such. There's no information on where the original specimen actually came from - for example, I was pretty sure that their Tylosaurus skeleton was a cast of a specimen from western Kansas, the original of which is in the collections of the University of Kansas, but there's no way of telling that from the exhibit label. This information may seem geeky, but it's actually very important because it links the reproduction to the actual specimen, which is a real occurence of the animal in time and space. Without that data, you might as well just buy a model.

To be fair, some of this information is available on the Academy's website (for an example, see http://www.ansp.org/museum/dinohall/tylosaurus.php), but there's a bigger issue here. The Academy is the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology, the home institution of Joseph Leidy, with a collection of over 22,000 specimens that includes the first remains of a dinosaur (beyond isolated teeth) from North America. Very little of this is on display. One or two casts would be fine, but is a whole army of reproductions justifiable in a museum that has an actual VP collection (and a very good one) and which continues to do high quality paleontological research? Surely more of this should be accessible to visitors through the displays?

I still believe that my original anti-Bentonian argument holds true - casts have a role to play, not least by generating an appropriate sense of awe in visitors, especially smaller ones. But I can't help thinking that the Academy's fossil gallery has crossed a line.

More Digitization

After spending a lot of time writing about collections digitization on this blog, I'm delighted that someone else has now created a blog dedicated to this topic. So You Think You Can Digitize is a collaboration between a biodiversity scientist, Rob Guralnick, and a data curator, Andrea Thomer. Go read it. They're much funnier than I am.

From a Visitor to MoMA

Says it all, really...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Old Specimens, New Pespectives

Many of you will, I hope, have explored the excellent New Light on Old Bones blog at the Manchester Museum. If you're interested in the wider context of this project then I highly recomend downloading their report (PDF). This was a novel and important effort to look at the broader context of natural history specimens, interpreting them from a social sciences and humanities perspective. It's a timely reminder both of the continuing value of these collections (which is not limited to the support of scientific endeavour), and also of the sort of project that will be difficult to support after the demise of the MLA.

Crowdsourced Fish

At the recent Museums and the Web Conference in Philadelphia, there was much talk about this project at the Smithsonian, which used Facebook to mediate a project to rapidly identify 5,000 fish specimens from Guyana. Within a week, they managed to get genus-level identifications for around 90% of specimens. Admittedly this wasn't Joe Public doing the IDs - the majority of people commenting held a Ph.D. in ichthyology - but the global scope of the respondents was impressive, as was the speed with which the task was accomplished. For those of you who think social networking is a waste of time, perhaps it's time you thought again.