Friday, January 9, 2009

Counting the Bones

Proving my point that you can never really escape, I spent a pleasant day yesterday working at AMNH – yes, that’s the same AMNH that I resigned from last Friday. Unlike many professions, the projects that you begin in a museum have a lifetime that may outlast your employment there. So yesterday I was working with my long-time collaborator, Lisa Elkin (above left), and our intern Alex Fernandes on a collection assessment project. To understand why we do collection assessments, we need to take a short history lesson. Back in the late 1980s, a Smithsonian entomologist called Ron McGinley wrote a provocative little paper in an entomological journal that basically said that collection managers are nothing of the sort – they don’t actually “manage” their collections in any way that would be recognizable to managers from other professions. Instead, they respond in an unplanned and ad hoc way to challenges thrown at them. McGinley proposed a method of quantifying curatorial effort by assessing collections against a series of criteria that would show how far a particular collection had advanced from the raw, unprocessed state in which specimens arrive in a museum to the point where they are properly housed, identified, cataloged, and available for use by researchers and others. McGinley’s work was groundbreaking, but it represents only one method of quantifying the state of a collection. There are other methods (the SYNTHESYS project, funded by the European Union, has produced a fairly comprehensive summary of these) which look at, for example, the material wellbeing of specimens in the collection, or their vulnerability to certain types of risk. Old-school collection managers are often skeptical of the benefits of spending time on collection assessments, partly because they believe they already “know” what’s wrong with their collection and also (I suspect) because they associate this sort of “management” activity with the real world, which they have successfully escaped by working in a museum. Nonetheless, collection assessments are important precisely because of their real world aspects – for the average university or museum administrator they are a far more persuasive argument for investing scarce funds than any amount of impassioned pleading. And at a time when museums are feeling the impact of the current financial meltdown on their endowment income (Chicago’s Field Museum recently announced a $95 million drop in the value of its investments) it’s becoming even more vital that collection managers can quickly show exactly where those scarce dollars could be best spent. Off course, this assumes that there actually are some dollars to be spent and that there some staff left to care for the collection. Less money means less staff, stretched more thinly, and with less time to do things like collection assessments. Ideally, what’s needed is an efficient survey/assessment methodology that gives you the most information for the least investment of staff time. Which brings us back neatly to the work that I’m doing with Lisa and Alex, as part of a collection improvement project funded by the National Science Foundation. We are assessing the same group of specimens, in this case the AMNH’s world-renowned collection of over 50,000 fossil horses, using different methodologies. The sorts of questions we are addressing are whether you get the same answer if you randomly pick individual specimens from the collection versus all the specimens in a drawer, or all the specimens in a cabinet. We’re also looking at whether methods based on curation progress, specimen conservation, or vulnerability (i.e. risk) will highlight the same groups of specimens as requiring care or produce differing results. The project is already generating a bunch of interesting results, which we hope to publish next year, and feeds directly into AMNH’s plans for the future curation of the fossil horses. Lisa and I bring contrasting approaches to the work as, respectively, a conservator and a collections manager, while Alex brings high levels of energy and enthusiasm, which come through clearly in her entries on the project blog created by our interns. All in all, not a bad way to spend a day off.

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