Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Science and Media

This painting from the Optimistic Paintings Blog says it all, as far as paleontology and the media is concerned. Thanks to Christine for sharing...

Busted

You have to feel a little sorry for my former boss, Mark. Having spent more than 30 years cultivating a cool persona, he has had it blown to shreds by this, frankly hagiographic, piece in the Wall Street Journal. The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, but there is nothing more uncool than being publicly outed as cool. Unless it's being publicly outed as the second coolest person in the world.....

Friday, June 10, 2011

Yours For a Price

I don't know about you but, while I accept the right of private dealers to make a living, I find natural history auction catalogs deeply depressing. Consider, for example, the catalog for Heritage Auctions June 11, 2011 sale, which is taking place in Dallas, Texas. I would particularly like to draw your attention to Lot #49053, a slice from the Williamette Meteorite. The Williamette, a 15 ton iron/nickel monster from Oregon, is one of the flagship specimens of the American Museum of Natural History. It is also a sacred object for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. This led to various requests for repatriation in the past, culminating in a landmark agreement between the AMNH and the Grand Ronde that allows tribal members to conduct a private ceremony around the meteorite once a year. It also stipulates that ownership of the meteorite will be transferred to Grand Ronde should the Museum cease display it.

So far, so good. But by now you might be wondering what a 30lb chunk of this sacred object is doing sat in an auction house in Dallas. If you want to know the full history, take a look at the auction catalog and this 2007 article from the New York Times. You can draw your own conclusions from them. But what does it say about the private market in natural history that one of the major selling points for this object is the Museum's recognition that the act of sampling is so sacriligious to the Grand Ronde that it should no longer be allowed? And that the Robb Report lists Tomanowos, representative of the Sky People to the Clackamas, as one of the "21 Ultimate Gifts" for 2011?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Ev'rything's Coming Up Dusty

Things have come to a pretty pass when I use a post as an opportunity to namecheck a Dusty Springfield album (even if it happens to be my mother's favorite record). But in this case it helps to highlight a pet peeve of mine, which is the tendency for journalists (some of whom should know better) to refer reflexly to all museum collections as "dusty." The latest one to draw my ire is David Malakoff, who wrote a piece in Conservation Magazine describing how isotopic studies based on museum skins have demonstrated that macaque monkeys in Singapore are now feeding at a lower trophic level as a result of biodiversity losses. A great example of how the historic data stored in collections can be used to address pressing research issues, undermined only by the author's assumption that they are housed in the institutional equivalent of a mad uncle's attic.

Anyway, I was all fired up to comment on this, but my Canadian colleage Judith got there first. Apparently she uses Twitter to track this stuff. So I had to be the third comment, which made me look less than cutting edge.