Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Antiquated"

Sad to say, there's news of another proposed museum cut, in this case the ornithology program at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Natural History, which is part of the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Here's the email from the ornithology curator, John Klicka. Note particularly paragraph 2; admittedly it's not a direct quote from UNLV's VP for Research, but the statement about museum work being "antiquated and no longer relevant in the modern world," if true, is quite extraordinary. Even a cursory glance at this group's publication list shows that they are using a mixture of molecular and morphological techniques to address real issues in conservation, wildlife management, and environmental change; the journals that they are publishing in are indicative of its quality. As a former university administrator, I normally heave a deep sigh when I hear my colleagues go off on the iniquities of their administrations, but even I'd have to admit that this one takes the biscuit.

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EMAIL FROM: John Klicka klicka@unlv.nevada.edu

Dear Colleagues:

As many of you have likely heard, due to a prolonged economic downturn in Nevada the Curator of Birds position at the Marjorie Barrick Museum will likely lose its state funding after July 2011. This decision was ultimately made by the University's Vice President for Research (a long-term administrator, formerly a chair in the Sociology Department). The Director of my academic unit (Dr. Oliver Hemmers [Oliver.hemmers@unlv.edu], an expert in X-ray atomic and molecular spectroscopy) has suggested that it might be helpful if I solicited some opinions from outside sources that would argue in support of the continued operation of the Ornithology program at the Barrick Museum.

The immediate problems appear to be two-fold. First, Oliver has told me that the VP for Research believes that museum work is antiquated and no longer relevant in the modern world. He needs to be informed that the type of work being done in the Ornithology program is of critical importance in these days of disappearing habitats and climate change. Second, the VP for Research is apparently under the impression that nearly all we do in this program is collect, prepare, and catalogue specimens. Of course, as specimen-based researchers our group does these things, but the program has also been very productive with respect to student training and original research. Since 2006 we have produced 26 peer-reviewed publications and have given 22 presentations at national or international meetings (see web links below). The single state line associated with this program (the Curator position) thus produces a considerable return for the University. Our VP for Research needs to be informed that we do better than average work here, and that despite its small size, the Barrick Museum Ornithology Program and its collections have put UNLV on the map in the Ornithological world at an international level.

If this sounds like a desperate, last-ditch effort to save yet another museum program from disappearing, it is. It is possible that the VP for Research may not change his mind, but I'd like for him to know that some very qualified people recognize the important contributions that this program makes to UNLV and to science and that they (you) do not approve of his decision. If you choose to help, please expand on the themes mentioned above and send your views to Dr. Oliver Hemmers at oliver.hemmers@unlv.edu (and please CC me). Your support is much appreciated.

Regards, --John Klicka

Publications here: http://barrickmuseum.unlv.edu/ornithology/publications.html
Students here: http://barrickmuseum.unlv.edu/ornithology/personnel.html

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John Klicka
Curator of Birds
Marjorie Barrick Muse.of Natural History
University of Nevada Las Vegas
4505 Maryland Parkway - Box 454012
Las Vegas, NV 89154-4012

Challenges

Speaking of the challenges of exhibits, here's one that's been bugging me lately. This little guy (see left) is Tremataspis. It's an early vertebrate that lived about 420 million years ago in what's now Estonia. Let's just stop for a moment to consider that number 420 million. That's a long time ago. It's almost 200 million years older than the oldest known dinosaur, six times older than that relative newbie T. rex, and a whopping 235 times older than our own species, Homo sapiens. It inhabited a planet that would have been totally alien to us. The Silurian world had a greenhouse climate, with an atmosphere so rich in carbon dioxide that it would have been almost unbreathable for humans, wracked by huge storms that were driven by warm seas that covered the entire northern hemisphere.

Terrestrial plant and animal life was in its evolutionary infancy and most of the planet's biota was aquatic. Unlike today, vertebrates occupied a relatively lowly position in the food chain, which was dominated by large predatory invertebrates. To compensate for this, early vertebrates often had hard, bony armour covering all or part of their bodies. In Tremataspis this armour was confined to the head, which was completely encased in bone - the animal peered out at a hostile world through a hole on top of its head, the biological equivalent of a view-port in a tank. It's this head shield that gets preserved in the fossil record - if you click on the photo, you can see the view port and imagine a small pair of eyes staring out at you (OK, maybe not the last bit, unless you have a very overactive imagination). On the underside is a small mouth that has no jaws - Tremataspis and its relatives diverged from the "main" path of vertebrate evolution before jaws evolved (from modified gill arches). It is, to our eyes, a deeply weird animal. But it's also a distant relative of ours - part of our (very extended) family tree.

We'd like to use Tremataspis to help show visitors that the world of 420 million years ago was a very different place, as part of the wider story of our changing planet that will be told by the new fossil galleries at the Peabody. And this is a great fossil of Tremataspis. The problem is that it's tiny - not much bigger than my thumbnail. Viewed quickly, it looks - dare I whisper it? - a little unimpressive. When we were first evaluating fossils for the exhibit, working from photos, we discarded all of the Silurian vertebrates as being unworthy of display. It was only when I went back into the collections to look at the fossils myself that I realized just how stunning this little guy is. The challenge is how to get people to appreciate this when Tremataspis has to share a gallery with multi-ton bruisers like Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops.

It's one of the many paradoxes of paleontology that some of the most important material we have is also some of the least impressive to look at. It's easy for the public to understand why someone could spend a lifetime studying T. rex; it's less easy to understand why another paleontologist might spend decades sieving the sediment from around a T. rex in search of microscopic mammal teeth. But I'm guessing that for many paleontologists, the discovery of the first Cretaceous primate would far exceed the importance of another tyrannosaur. Well, I'd think it was more important. The old maxim that size isn't everything is never so true as when it's applied to paleontology and this is another message that we'd like to get across through our displays.

Historically, museums have adopted various strategies to try to get the public interested in visually unimpressive specimens. Models are one possible solution; artwork another. But one needs to be careful. As a child, I was convinced that the Natural History Museum in London was the owner of a stuffed dodo. As I later discovered, of course, the "dodo" was actually a Rowland Ward model made from plaster and goose feathers. The actual "most complete dodo," which resides in Oxford, is an infinitely more important specimen and very moving - when, after some years working there, I finally got to hold the skull with its withered skin and feather stubs I had a "moment" - a rare occurrence for me (as the regular reader will know, I tend to take a very unemotive view of the material I look after). We did eventually add a model (and a composite skeleton) to the Oxford exhibit, but the more I look back on this, the more I wonder whether we didn't end up disrespecting the actual specimen.

One solution that we've discussed is to treat these tiny fossils like the jewels they are - use a combination of spotlighting and a tiny specimen in a large case to draw the visitor in. Another is to use a bigger fossil as a hook. Placing Tremataspis alongside an 8 foot long predatory arthropod from the same period makes a powerful statement about a world that was so different that our distant  ancestors were menaced by something that today we'd probably make into Thermidor.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Conversation

It's always nice when people respond to things I post. As the regular reader will know, over the past couple of years I've written some quite critical things about Thomas H. Benton and his views on natural history museums. After my most recent post on this subject, where I acknowledged that he might have a point where some museums are concerned, he was kind enough to get in touch - you can read his response at the bottom of the post. Anyway, the upshot of all this is that we're going to meet in a month or so to walk around the galleries at ANSP and have a convesation about the challenges of exhibiting natural history, which I hope will be posted here shortly thereafter. I'm looking forward to it.

No, I'm Not Dead...

... and neither have I been Raptured. I've taken up gardening and it's planting season. What can I say? 250 Pachysandra can play hell with your typing skills.