Thursday, July 30, 2009

Hermit Update

Back in late June, I reported that the Manchester Museum had hired a hermit. At the time this seemed like a rather whimsical project, and I treated it with a fair amount of whimsy. Now that the hermit's 40 days in the Museum's tower are coming to an end, I see that this was actually quite a crafty exercise in - wait for it - community engagement. For those of you who haven't been following the hermit's blog, each day he has chosen an object from the museum's collections. His challenge to the wider community, which included both museum staff and the general public, was to come up with suggestions for the fate of the object - keep it in the collection, dispose of it in some way, or destroy it. If no-one bothered to offer at least some positive appreciation of the object, then the hermit would destroy it.

And people did offer appreciations, ranging from curatorial discourses to poetry to simple observations; take a look at this post for a good range of responses. The fate of the object would remain undecided until some sort of consensus decision was reached at which point "stewardship of the object will... be transferred to the respondent who may decide to return it to the Manchester Museum or some other place." Hmm, the registrarial part of me has a bunch of questions that I would like to explore regarding that statement, but I think we'll leave those to one side for now. It's easy to label this as a "pretentious self-serving pseudo-art project…," as one respondent did, but whether you like it or not, this is a genuine example of involving the community in the process of collection management. The comments and consensus will be fed back into the collections planning process for the Museum, and not in an abstract sense either.

Of course, there are things about this that make me suspicious; the Director of the Manchester Museum, Nick Merriman, is one of the main advocates for the concept of "sustainable collections" which is something that I've been critical of in past posts (which you can read here and here if you're interested). The cynic in me can't help thinking that the hermit project serves to put a smiley human face on the rather cold-blooded insititutional process of deaccessioning, which is generally driven by forces a lot less receptive to simple "positive appreciation" of an object. But enough of my griping. For now, I think we should applaud Merriman and the Manchester Museum for actually doing something where many of us only pay lip service.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Challenge for Readers

My friend Beth Merritt picked up on the community "vs" collections debate on her excellent CFM Blog and has written a very thought-provoking post that I urge you to read. She's laid out a challenge for her readers - how do you define a museum? Go take a look, and take the time to comment if you can.

Perils of Soundbites

Never let it be said that I don't fess up when I'm in error, even inadvertantly. After my recent post on the question of community-centered vs object-centered museums, James Chung and Suzy Wilkening of Reach Advisors got in touch with me to put me right on the subject of James' supposed "It's not about the collections anymore. It's about community" quote, as reported in Christian Science Monitor. It seems that this was a result of a 30 minute interview being boiled down to a one-line soundbite, and of course they have a much more rational approach to the role of collections which they lay out in the comments on the post - I urge you to scroll down to the bottom and read what they have to say. We're both sticking to our respective positions - I think collections are critical to the identity of museums, James and Suzy believe that community engagement is equally critical - but I don't think the two positions are mutually exclusive. Reach Advisors will be reporting on the findings of their upcoming research on the role of objects in shaping museum attitudes from early ages at some future date and I'll be happy to talk about it here. So this is by way of a mea culpa for accusing James, who seems a very reasonable and thoughtful chap, of being "pointy headed." Many apologies, James.


The Wellcome Collection has just opened a great exhibit of 19th Century medical waxworks entitled "Exquisite Bodies" - I think "exquisite" may be an example of my countrymen's famously ironic sense of humor, because while these are truly spectacular anatomical exhibits, the wax recreations of tertiary syphilis sores and diseased genitals made me run for the bathroom, hand over mouth. Anyway, for those made of sterner stuff, the exhibition is open through October 18. It is not recommended for those under 18 years of age, but if you are a parent who's thinking about whether or not to take your children, the Wellcome Collection has some general notes about their exhibits to help you make an informed decision, which you can read here. For those that can't make it to London, the Guardian has an on-line slideshow which you can visit here but again, be warned - it is not for the faint hearted.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


As the regular reader of this blog (yes, there really is one) will know, I rarely get irritated about anything. OK, I'm lying - I'm always getting irritated. And last night I got irritated all over again.

My friend Rachael posted a link to this Christian Science Monitor article on museums and community engagement. This is an important challenge for museums today and the CSM article is a good one. Having just spent a couple of months writing a grant that is aimed at improving the quality of public access to collections and building "virtual" communities around collections there was a lot in this piece to applaud.

However, as is often the case when we talk about hight-flown principles like public engagement, a person with a pointy head was wheeled out to give a "provocative" soundbite. There are a lot of people like this floating around the margins of the museum world - most of them have never actually worked in a museum, but they come heavily equipped with backgrounds in marketing and communication and look very impressive when your average museum colleague still has egg on his tie from breakfast two days ago.

Anyway, the provocateur in this case was James Chung, who works for Reach Advisors. What do Reach Advisors do? Well, according to their website' they focus on "emerging shifts in how people live, play and buy" and deliver "data-driven strategies that allow clients to put insight into action." In other words, they're market researchers. But doesn't it sound so much more exciting the way Reach Associates describes it? I'm totally hiring these guys to write our next grant.

Anyway, James has a message for us museum people, and that message is "It's not about the collections anymore. It's about community." Pow! Each of those sentences probably cost $10,000 and they were worth every cent. Previously, I had been worried by reports like the recent one from Mike Mares (see this earlier post) that suggested that our national heritage was at risk because we weren't investing in caring for it. Now I can rest easy, secure in the knowledge that our institution's excellent roster of community-based programming (and it is truly excellent - this is the one part of this post where I'm not being sarcastic) absolves me of any responsibility to actually do my job.

To be fair to James Chung, he gets paid large amounts of money to say things like that. That's why you hire consultants - to tell you things that you might not otherwise have thought of. You may not agree, but by putting the option on the table you open up new avenues of discussion. No, what irritated me was the comments that it elicited from some of Rachael's Facebook friends.

Now, I'm not going to name names because that wouldn't be fair: what you say on Facebook ought to stay on Facebook. Neither do I know these people, but I know Rachael very well as a friend and colleague for many years and I'm going to hazard a guess that her friends will be the sort of smart, well-educated people that are intrinsically sympathetic to museums and their mission. Some of them even work in or for museums. So I was a little surprised that they accepted the argument for the massive expansion of museums' activities into the community so enthusiastically and uncritically. I was particularly struck by one comment, which I will reproduce (anonymously) in its entirity:

"I hope he is right and we are moving from an object centered museum towards a community centered museum... it's the right direction to be going in. I have my doubts however as too many people still have the "addiction" to stuff (Both museum workers and visitors).

Huh? We're supposed to try and cure people of an interest in our collections? The collections that we have spent the last 200+ years curating, supposedly on their behalf? The stuff we spend tens of millions of their taxpayer dollars on, either directly or indirectly? It's a bad thing that when they come to a museum, that's what they want to see?

I'm all in favor of community engagement. I love that our museum hosts festivals of music and dance, or poetry slams, that pull people in through the doors who might otherwise never come to a museum. But the purpose for getting people into the museum is to help them begin to engage with our collections. We have an excellent afterschool program that allows local high school students to work directly with our collections and exhibits. We don't do it just to "keep them off the streets." We do it because we believe that both sides benefit through having hands-on contact with the amazing resources that we hold in trust for them.

We'll never abandon programs like this, because we have a responsibility to maintain and improve access to our collections. We also have a responsibility to care for those collections, so that future generations can access them. At the same time, because we are a museum, our activities, public or otherwise, are collection-centered. Museums are all about objects and collections. If not, we wouldn't be museums. We'd be galleries, or science centers entertainment venues or research institutes; schools or retail outlets.

Modern museums suffer from profound cases of insititutional schizophrenia. They have broad-based mission statements, which they try and implement as broadly as possible. All of the roles that I've listed above can be part of a museum, but this will only be successful if the museum's mission remains collection-centered. Each of these diverse functions requires resources that might otherwise be used to support the collections - the trick is to get the balance right. All too frequently, we don't. That's why our collections are in the mess they are in today.

So yes, museums have a responsibility to connect with their communities. But we need to connect through the thing that makes us unique - our collections. That "addicition to stuff" is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal and we would be idiots if we threw it away.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

UK Museums Discover Naming Rights

A moment of unintentional levity in this otherwise grim tale from the Times about budget cuts in UK cultural institutions as Niall FitzGerald, Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the British Museum, comes up with the earth-shaking suggestion that the Museum might actually offer donors the opportunity to have their name on part or all of the Museum's new wing. “It could be the Fred Bloggs exhibition centre, the Fred Bloggs conservation and research centre or the Fred Bloggs storage and handling area. If someone was really keen to have their name attached to another part of the museum we could do that as well.” Wow, fancy that.

As it happens, this may all be moot anyway, because the $215 million project just got shot down in flames, 5 votes to 3, by Camden Council's planning committee, with some members describing it as a massive over-development which would have an adverse impact on neighbouring historic buildings. I wonder if anyone has broken the bad news to Mr. Bloggs?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Back With A Vengeance

So today my colleagues and I finally submitted the grant application that we spent the last 10 weeks working on, so hopefully you'll see a slight upturn in the number of PoH posts. I'd love to tell you we were planning a trip to the Cascades to look for giant bipedal ape-like black bears. But I'd be lying.

Cryptozoology (II)

Continuing on the cryptozoological theme that I started in an earlier post, there was much amusement at the Leiden meeting regarding a recent study by Jeff Lozier and colleagues on the perils of taking habitat analysis too seriously. Lozier et al carried out an ecological niche modelling study based on reported bigfoot sightings and came up with an impressively plausible niche model for this cryptozoological icon. Then they compared that niche model to one for black bears in the Pacific Northwest. The two models were statistically indistinguishable. Their conclusions were two-fold; first, most (if not all) bigfoot sightings are probably bears and, second, as far as ecological niche modelling is concerned, "garbage-in" may produce some very impressive looking maps, but it's still "garbage-out." Of course, a cryptozoologist would probably argue that they are missing a third hypothesis, which is that black bears and sasquatches have similar habitat requirements....

New Scientist's digested version of the study is available here; if you have on-line journal access you can grab the whole thing from the Journal of Biogeography site, here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cataloging Collections, or a Catalog of Collections?

Q. What's the next best thing to cataloging your collection? A. Making a catalog of your collections. Confused? Well don't be. It's actually quite a simple idea, and it goes like this.

We in the natural science collections world face an enormous challenge. There are probably around 500,000,000 natural history specimens in US museum collections alone, perhaps 2 billion worldwide. They constitute a potentially enormous reservoir of data for research usage, but in order to be used they need to be cataloged.

In principal, cataloging is a straightforward process. You are applying a unique identifier, usually a number or a combination of numbers and letters, to a specimen. You apply the same number to the data that are associated with the specimen. Now you have a link between specimen and its associated data that you can use either to put the specimen in context, or to provide physical evidence for the reality of the data (when a specimen is used like this, we call it a "voucher specimen" - it is substantiating or "vouching" for the truth of the data).

Of course, it's more complicated than that and if you get it wrong there are a number of things that can happen, none of them good - if you go and take a look here, you can find out what some of those things are. Plus, there are a bunch of things involved in the actual cataloging of an object. It might involve trying to figure out the modern spelling of a phonetically rendered name of a village in the Belgium Congo, which is only found in a faded, handwritten, 100 year old letter from the collector. Or simply finding the specimen and writing a catalog number on it.

The upshot of all this is that cataloging takes a surprising amount of time. On a good day, an experienced collections assistant might do 50 specimens. Assuming that they actual get a day to do cataloging - as a long-term, "background" activity, cataloging usually takes second place to whatever the current priority is, be it dealing with a visitor, assisting with a public event, or moving collections as part of a construction project (all activities that my staff have dealt with this week, by the way). Cataloging is also a choke point in the collections workflow, because despite considerable advances in technology it's almost impossible to automate completely.

So how many of those theoretical 2 billion specimens are cataloged and available on-line? The answer is that I don't know, and I suspect no-one really does, but I'm going to take a punt and guess that it's less than 10%. If that's true, and I suspect I may be being optimistic, then we're looking at a mountain of work before global natural science collections reach their full potential. Are museums up to climbing this mountain? My feeling is that they're not.

To be fair, they never have been. For natural history collections there is an enormous asymmetry of effort between the work required to collect specimens versus the work needed to curate them. It's comparatively easy, for example, to use insecticide foggers to sample thousands, if not tens of thousands of specimens of insects from the rainforest canopy in a single day. But to process, sift, identify, catalog, pin, and house them can take years and the efforts of a army of trained collections staff. Museums have multi-faceted missions that encompass a wide range of activities in addition to collections care, but even if they were to devote all their resources to the management of their collections my guess is that they still wouldn't have enough staff.

Of course, there are tricks that can make the workload more manageable. One is to catalog by specimen lots. A specimen lot is a group of specimens collected at the same place and time. They are usually made up of the same organism. It's a good way to catalog groups like insects or planktonic animals and plants that are collected in large quantities. A single specimen lot can contain several thousand, or even tens of thousands of individuals under the same catalog number. Start doing this, and that 2 billion specimen number begins to fall to something a lot more manageable. Even so, it's still an enormous challenge.

So if museums can't catalog everything, then perhaps they can catalog what's needed most urgently. Ideally, this should be driven by demand - researchers should determine priorities for cataloging. But to do that, they need to know what's there to be cataloged. And that brings us back to my rather opaque opening paragraph.

At last week's SPNHC meeting at Leiden, I attended a workshop given by Walter Berendsohn (Berlin) and James Macklin (Harvard) on setting priorities for specimen digitization. Under discussion was a proposal from Berensohn and co-workers via the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) to set priorities for specimen digitization (cataloging and databasing) that would be based on taxonomic and geographic criteria. What they were talking about was collecting collections metadata - not data from the collections, but data about the collections - to decide how limited resources should be targeted.

Suppose I'm working on a project that requires a bunch of distribution data for bird species from New Guinea. The idea that Berendsohn & Macklin were proposing in the workshop was that I could search an on-line database that would tell me where all the major collections of New Guinea birds are located, reagrdless of whether or not they've been cataloged and made available on-line. I find that there's an exceptional, but uncataloged collection of New Guinea birds in a museum in Holland. Not only that, but the database tells me that if I pay them 10 Euros a specimen they will do a priority, gold-standard cataloging job for me, including full georefering of all localities, etc. Now I can write a grant application including this cost and the museum gets some much needed support for cataloging.

Now obviously there are a few questions that spring to mind, the first of which is how do you make that initial database of collections metadata? Collections databases tend to be centered on information about specimens or specimen lots. A database that stored information about collections rather than specimens would have to be a new creation.

Then there's the question of how granular the data will be. Is it enough for me just to know that a museum has birds from New Guinea, or do I need to know what Families of birds are present, and from what province? The more detailed the data become, the more useful they are, but the more time and labor is required to capture them. At some point, you have to wonder why you don't just catalog the collection and have done with it.

And who builds and pays for this database? Museums could reasonably argue that while they're capturing collections metadata for this project they're not doing other things that make collections accessible, like cataloging specimens, rehousing, processing loans, or helping visitors. It can also seem like a redundant activity, because at some level museums do know what's in their collections; the issue is whether they know enough detail for the purposes of users. Ultimately it's likely to be a compromise - more than museums want to have to provide on their own dollar, but less than users would ideally want.

Finally, the process of advertising rates and charging hard cash for cataloging specimens would move museums explicitly into the role of service providers, something that many curatorial staff that I work with would be distinctly leery about doing. There is a move afoot among some advocates in our field to recast natural history collections as an enormous, globally-distributed research support facility, which would fit the pay-as-you-catalog model. There are certainly opportunities here, but there are also pitfalls. However, the sun is shining, my daughter wants me to take her blueberry picking, so this will have to wait for another post.

If You Feel Like Getting Depressed......

.... try reading an opinion piece by Michael Mares in the latest edition of BioScience, which is entitled "Natural Science Collections: America's Irreplaceable Resource." Mares, who is the director of the Sam Nobel Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and a former president of the Natural Science Collections Alliance, provides a series of often horrific examples of collections that are at risk because of a lack of funding. While acknowledging the important roles that funding agencies like NSF and IMLS current play in supporting natural science collections, he issues a clarion call for massive investment in collections at both a state and federal level. In essence, he's arguing that they are too important to be allowed to fail.... an argument that is all too familiar these days.

I may be gone....

.... but the project soldiers on. The Perissodactyl Project at AMNH that is, which enters its fourth summer with a new crop of student interns discovering the joys of cutting hundreds of yards of Ethafoam and trying to georeference localities as diverse as "Urgla Golcok, Mongolia" and "3 yards past Walt's red barn, Ainsworth, Nebraska." Yeah I made those two up, but there's plenty worse. Anyway, read about their trials and tribulations from the horse's mouth (hahaha, a perissodactyl pun!) on the Perissodactyl Project Blog.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


This isn't really a post about cryptozoology. That will have to wait for another day, when I will hold forth at length about all the things that irritate me about cryptozoology and cryptozoologists. I was moved to write this because I got an email via ACUMG-L, which lest you wonder is the listserve for the Association of College & University Museum & Art Galleries. It was called "Saving Museums: From the Cryptozoologists" which struck me as an odd title because the two blog posts in question (which you can read here and here), taken from "Still on the Track: The Voice of the International Crypto Community" were actually rather good. They were both on the theme of why people need to realize that natural history collections are important.

OK, the tone was a little rabble-rousing for my tastes and I was greatly amused to hear cryptozoologists trumpeting the merits of actual specimens and data - things that most cryptozoologists tend to avoid if possible. But their heart was in the right place and so I was surprised that the listserve post described this as a case of saving museums from cryptozoologists. Then I realized that I had read the title wrong and it was a message from the cryptozoologists about saving museum collections. Duh!

However, it did make me go and read the paper by Kris Helgen and colleagues that was cited in the first of the CZ blog posts. I first met Kris back in 1998 when I had just moved to the States. At the time, he was an undergraduate volunteer in the mammal collections at the Harvard MCZ. He was extremely keen about pursuing a career as a mammal taxonomist, an ambition that I regarded with great skepticism. Now ten years on he is a curator at the Smithsonian and I have to be very polite in this blog because I will probably end up working for him one day. This, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with my opinion that his paper on Samoan fruit bats is an excellent piece of work, or my urging you to go and download it here and read it immediately.

Reading through the paper, I noticed that Kris and his coworkers had been unable to track down the type specimen on Pteropus whitmeei, a species of Samoan fruitbat described by Alston (1874) from a specimen collected on Samoa by the Reverend S.J. Whitmee. Alston's paper notes that the specimen was in the personal collection of "the Reverend Canon Tristram." This, of course, is why we collection wonks are extremely reluctant to describe type specimens in private collections; 135 years later we have no idea who the Venerable Tristram was, or where his blessed collection went, leaving Kris and his colleagues with a nasty loose end in their otherwise exemplary taxonomic account.

Except in this case, I know where this specimen is. It's in the Zoological Collections of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and I'm quite familiar with it because I worked on it once. They have it databased under the wrong name, the collector's name is spelled wrong, and there's no record in the database that it's a type, but I'm pretty sure that it's this one. Or possibly this one. Which is actually two specimens under one catalog number.

This is an object lesson in how things in museums get lost. It doesn't matter that the specimen was described as a type, because no catalog number was recorded in the description, it was in a private collection, and the museum that eventually acquired it decided that it wasn't worth recording a taxonomic name that had lapsed into synonymy in their on-line database. But, of course, the day was saved by someone with personal knowledge of the collection, which gives the lie to all those earlier posts of mine in which I've disparaged cantakerous old timers with over-valued encylopedic knowledge of their collections. People like me, it now seems.

Of course, I immediately fired off an email to Kris, trying not to sound smug. Afterwards I wondered if this was really the right thing to do. Perhaps ignorance would have been better. After all, I wouldn't want to make him mad.

Did I mention that it's a very, very good paper?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Live Free and Die Un-Coordinated

I spent yesterday sat in a lecture hall at the Leiden University Medical Center, listening to a conference session entitled "New Initiatives and Perspectives in Natural History Collections" which was sponsored by EDIT. EDIT is the European Distributed Institute of Taxonomy, a massive effort to network the collections capabilities of some of the largest museums in Europe. There are Russian and North American partner institutions (the two US participants are the Smithsonian and the Missouri Botanic Garden), but make no mistake about it - EDIT is a European initiative and the EU is paying heavily to support it, to the tune of millions of Euros. EDIT has ambitious objectives - it wants to break down barriers between different institutions and leverage their collective expertise and efforts to address planetary macro-scale problems like climate change and vanishing diversity. And they can apply quite a lot of leverage - between them, the 28 members of EDIT hold more than half of the world’s natural history specimens.

As a collection manager, I might have been inclined to skepticism over all this enthusiastic promotion of transnational taxonomic institutions. My academic colleagues are great enthuiasts when it comes to jetting around the globe talking science, but whatever positive effects may accrue from this don't always filter back to benefit the collections that they draw upon for their research. But EDIT is just part of a two-fisted European punch. There is another EU-funded program, SYNTHESYS, which networks 20 European natural history museums and botanic gardens, and which sets (and I quote directly here) "standards for collection management and databases, and aims to raise scientists’ awareness of best practice by offering improved training and workshop opportunities, and guidelines for the care, storage and conservation of collections." OK, so I laughed when I read the bit about making scientists aware about best practices in collections care. But it actually seems to be working. And (here's the real kicker) these multi-million Euro research programs are actually talking to each other! And coordinating their activities

Over the course of the day, I sat and watched contrasting emotions chase each other like cloud shadows across the faces of my American colleagues. There was interest, skepticism, grudging respect, then open enthusiasm. After this came despair, misery, and (I think) a great deal of envy. At least, I think the green color was envy - it might have been nausea. At one point, where one of our euro-colleagues was describing how the institutions were working together to develop a common loans policy, my American neighbor turned to me and whispered, in tones of awe, "Wow, imagine if we could do that!" Then his face fell. "Aw heck" he said (or words to that effect) "I don't think I could get our curators to agree on a common loans policy across our museum, let alone across the States

Europeans have good reason to want to cooperate with each other. Ever since the fall of the Roman Empire they have been cheerfully butchering each other in a series of ever more catastrophic wars, fueled by a huge lack of mutual understanding. I should know - I'm British, so I'm genetically incapable of understanding anyone from across the Channel. Post 1945 it was clear that this could not go on, so the people of Europe started to put together structures that would encourage nations to cooperate, starting with the decidedly un-sexy European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, and ending with today's 27 member, 1.7 million square mile, and 500 million-strong European Union. It's easy to laugh at the EU, with it's impenetrable bureaucracy and standards for the curvature of bananas, but the fact remains that people now move, work, and cooperate transnationally from the one end of the continent to the other with an ease that would have been unthinkable when I was a child.

This all comes at a cost and the one most usually cited is "erosion of national sovereignty." It's still an odd feeling to go to an ATM and get a bunch of anonymous Euro notes rather than familiar guilders. They may have been around since 2002, but I still can't take Euros seriously. With their bland illustrations of generic pieces of architecture (bridges and windows) they look like something that was designed by a committee. Which, of course, they were. This blandness extends to what a lot of the EU does, but it may be a necessary evil when it comes to getting a very large group of very different people to work together.

Anyway, as I sat in the EDIT session, I began to wonder whether the US national character mean that Americans will never be able to coordinate collections transnationally in the way that the EU is doing. Now I realize that, as a foreigner in the Land of the Free, I'm on shaky ground here. But I think I can safely offer the observation that at some level, successful collaboration means doing what you're told for the greater good. And, frankly, many Americans don't like the idea of being told what to do, especially by i) their government or ii) foreigners.

There are plenty of examples of successful, government-supported schemes to promote research collaborations between US institutions, and there are emerging examples of international collaborative schemes (a good example of this is the FIRCA Program, supported by the National Institutes for Health) but the idea that similar museums in different countries might develop a common set of operating procedures in areas where they have to interact seems strangely alien when viewed from an American perspective. And the idea that governments might pay for it seems even odder.

The question in my mind is whether this is due to the American mindset, or the mindset of the American Curator. I remember working on policy development with a curator who, while being one of the most politically astute people I've ever worked with, was almost phobically averse to actually writing down anything that looked like a policy. His rationale was that while many of these policies were good things, ultimately there might be circumstances in which they would restrict his ability to do what he wanted. And he did not want to be hemmed-in

There is hope on the horizon. The American Association of Museums has done a great job of persuading recalcitrant museums that Standards are nothing to be afraid of (I want to give a big plug here for my friend Beth Merritt's excellent book National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums) and this year the National Science Foundation's Improvements to Biological Research Collections Program is emphasising collaborative proposals that network collections. But after seeing what's underway in Europe, I can't help feeling that there's still a long way to go

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Death by a Thousand Cuts

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has published a very good article about the gradual erosion of curatorial expertise caused by the freezing of positions. This has been a fact of life for most of us in museums for years, but it's one that's largely invisible to the public. Of course, it's not just the academic research programs that suffer - for every frozen curatorial position there's usually at least one, and sometimes more than one, in collections care. Many institutions are operating with a skeleton staff and sometimes no staff at all. It would be tempting to view this as a symptom of the current financial crunch, but in fact - as the article makes clear - it's been going on for years. Even in times of relative prosperity, museums have been redeploying funds to support new initiatives at the expense of existing programs. You might say that this was good management, but in many cases what's actually happened is that support for core activities has been nibbled away - a case of too much icing and not enough cake.

[written from my hotel room in Leiden, where I am wrestling with the Dutch interface for - apparently "aanmelden" means "sign in." Who knew?]

Friday, July 3, 2009

Going Dutch

I'm sat in my office, on a holiday, watching my printer churn out copies of reports for the forthcoming annual meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC). Here is the report of the sessional committee on Grants and Mentorship, which I chaired earlier this year. Here comes the 2009 budget figures (projected and actual), followed by the 2010 budget figures, followed by the amendments to the 2009 budget, followed by the CPA's report - I am already cursing myself fluently for agreeing to stand in for the Society's treasurer, who is unable to attend this year. Her notes tell me that I must bring a calculator to the meeting. A calculator? I haven't seen one of those in years.

My reward for this is a trip to Leiden, which is one of the towns on a very short list of places where I could imagine living. It's a good thing I've been there a couple of times before because I'm not going to see much of it this time. What with meetings and a grant proposal due on my return, my plan for the next few days will not involve anywhere near as much cheese and Dutch beer as I feel I'm owed. Examining the map, I notice that the conference venue, railroad station, and hotel (the not-at-all-Dutch-cliched "Tulip Inn") are all within a few hundred feet of each other. Hmm, guess I'll have to order in.