Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Check out this great article by Stan Friedman on the proliferation of "curators" outside of the traditional heritage institution world (my particular favorite is "Ryan Seacrest, pop culture curator"). Does this prove the oft-quoted dogma of the collections manager that "Any fool can be a curator"?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Get Stuffed

I can understand the principle behind the recent efforts by Rajshahi University Zoology Professor, Dr Bidhan Chandra Das, to train more Bangladeshi taxidermists in order to preserve dead wildlife for use in education. But I'm not sure the exhortation to "stuff more rare animals" hits quite the right note.

Anthropology "Not Anti-Science"

A couple of weeks back, the New York Times reported that the American Anthropological Association had made a decision to strip the word "science" from it's long range plan. This was cast in the light of a science/anti-science struggle within AAA's membership. AAA has now issued a press release which forcefully rebuts the Times article and emphasizes that anthropology draws on research from both the sciences and humanities. This clarification of AAA's position is very welcome, and only the most churlish of readers would respond to it by saying that there's no smoke without fire...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why We Accession

At first I was puzzled by the headline to this article, entitled "Local museum retrieves some fossils at auction." Why would the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History, which is located in Bakersfield CA, have to go to auction to retrieve its own fossils? Well, of course, the fossils don't actually belong to the BVMNH - this exceptional collection of Miocene marine organisms was in fact the property of a local collector, Bob Ernst. Ernst died in 2007, leaving the fossils to his widow, Mary. Financial pressures have now forced Mrs Ernst to sell the collection. Cue much angst on the part of the Museum, which has been trying to raise funds to buy some of the specimens.

I don't know anything about the specifics of this case, but a study of the Museum's mission statement rang immediate alarm bells. According to their mission, the BVMNH is "the repository of the Bob and Mary Ernst Collection, the largest private collection of Sharktooth Hill Miocene fossils in the World." In a museum context, "repository" is a not a great word. All too often it's code for "I lend it, you pay to look after it, I get it back whenever I want."

The best approach is to accession the specimens so that they become the property of the museum. Most museums only enter into repository arrangements only when there is no other alternative - e.g. for collections that were made on Federal land - and have a legal agreement in place that sets out the expectations of the parties. These include ensuring ongoing access for researchers, providing appropriate curatorial care, and - critically - the circumstances under which specimens can be retrieved by the owner. For most Federal agreements, the museum's expectation would be that we keep the fossils in perpetuity, unless we breach our obligations of care and access.

BVMNH was co-founded by Ernst because of his concerns that Miocene fossils from Sharktooth Hill were being removed by other institutions, including the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Smithsonian. Apparently, his intention was to make sure that Bakersfield residents would be able to enjoy their local fossil heritage. It's sadly ironic that, should the fossils pass into private ownership, the only material to which they will have access are the specimens whose long-term  accessibility is guaranteed by LACM, CAS, NMNH, etc. As for researchers that have based their studies on specimens from the BVMNH collections, they run the risk that the specimens cited may no longer be available for study by future generations of scholars. I doubt we've heard the last of this one....

[with thanks to Josh Ludtke for bringing this to my attention.....]

Sunday, December 12, 2010

"YouCut" Bad

I am writing this as a former left wing radical and card-carrying member of the Labour Party. In my opinion the whole "YouCut" episode is nothing to do with the public understanding of science and all about the toxicity of modern American politics.

It's a widely acknoweldged fact that Americans have a deep distrust of intellectuals. This is something that the Republicans have never been shy of exploiting and even Democrats have had to acknowledge. It's no accident that one of America's smartest presidents ever (William Jefferson Clinton: Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale; Rhodes Scholar, etc.) spent most of his presidency honing his best Jed Clampett impression. Sad to say, the current president may be brought low because he's smart, well-educated, and not afraid to show it.

Science is an easy target because most people don't understand it and because scientists are easy to caricature as out-of-touch with reality. Combine that with the fact that they often work on things that are a major turn-off to the Republican base - stem cell research, evolutionary biology, and climate change are a few that spring to mind - and you have a sure-fire recipe to turn research funding into another productive front in the culture wars. Politicians don't attack science because they don't understand it. They attack it because they know that other people don't.

Another issue that makes NSF an attractive target for politicians is that the destination of monies allocated to science via the agency is determined by peer review - i.e. by scientists and scientific priorities. This is anathema to most politicians, who would like to dole out big research grants through the same system of political patronage that determines most other Federal funding. Under this model, the decision as to whether a multi-million dollar research grant was given to, say, Harvard or Kansas would be determined by how much you needed the votes of the Kansas senator vs those of the senator from Massachusetts.

Of course, I'm not dewy-eyed enough to believe that political factors play no role in the award of large grants, especially and the mega-grant level, but NSF is scrupulous in its employment of peer review, to an extent not matched by all Federal agencies. The idea of all that potential pork being handed out on the say-so of a bunch of pointy-headed intellectuals must drive Members of Congress batty.

Of course, the problem with taking a "negative" stance is that while it's much more fun, it doesn't really take you anywhere. So that's my challenge to the "YouCut" people. Rather than the public telling us what should be cut, why not have them tell us what should be funded. Pick your favorite proposals and then let's publish them and see what everyone thinks. No? Well that's not surprising. Because that's not the debate that you're interested in having, is it?

"YouCut" Good

I'm am writing this as a member of Britain's educational elite (MA Oxon, St John's, 1988) and adopting the persona of a firm, but caring conservative in the mold of my contemporaries David Cameron (Brasneose, 1988) and Boris Johnson (Balliol, 1987). From this perspective, I think it's entirely reasonable that in these fiscally challenging time our elected representatives should ask the public to consider whether they are really getting good value for money from Federally-supported research.

To me, the issue here is one of public understanding of science. By and large, scientists have not been particularly good at explaining to the public what they are doing with all those taxpayer dollars. This becomes rapidly apparent when you begin to search the NSF database, as suggested by the YouCut program. Few of these projects feature anything like a Plain English summary of why the project is important, how it will improve people's lives, and how the money is going to be spent.

Instead, discussion of the "broader impacts" of the work are dominated by grant-speak phrases like "synergy," "cyberinfrastructure," "proactive," "leverage," and "transformational." This "verbiage" (another grant-speak term) isn't good science, nor is it even very meaningful. It's just gobbledygook. Minimally, any project worthy of public funding ought to come with an explanation, understandable to most members of the public, of why they're having to pay for it.

Many scientists will argue that their work is so complex and the U.S. public is so scientifically illiterate that such as task is impossible. To which I say "bullsh*t." Consider this explantion, one of a number that were produced by partical physicists in 1993 in response to a challege from the then U.K. Minister for Science to produce an answer that would fit on one page to the question "What is the Higgs boson, and why do we want to find it?" If you can do this for sub-atomic physics, surely one of the most abstruse branches of science, then why not biology, genetics, social sciences, or any other discipline?

"YouCut" is a challenge, but it's not an unreasonable one. Rather than protest loudly that we are under attack by a bunch of know-nothings, we should embrace the opportunity of providing better access to, and understanding of, publicly-funded research.

Not the Best of Weeks

It hasn't been the greatest of weeks for science in the U.S.A. First, serious concerns began to emerge about the lab work behind the discovery of an arsenic-digesting bacterium, which was announced with great fanfare by NASA a week previously. My friend and colleague Carl Zimmer has produced a great synposis of these issues for Slate, which you can read here.

What's particularly saddening is that, according to Carl, his article is already being picked up by Tea Party bloggers and websites, who are using it to add to the growing clamour from the Right for tighter controls on Federal funding of science, more skepticism about climate change research, and you name it. This is an unfortunate time for a high profile case that casts doubt on scientific practice and procedures to hit the news.

Over at the New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer has been doing a great job of undermining my confidence in science by publishing an excellent article on the Decline Effect, a phenomenon by which repeated re-testing of apparently rock-solid scientific results results in their becoming less, rather than more convincing with time. The conclusion the article comes to is that it may be next-to-impossible to prove anything experimentally. Sigh.

Which raises the question of why we don't just do like the anthropologists and abandon science altogether. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that the American Anthropological Association has been thrown into turmoil by a decision at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan. "Why" you might ask? Well this highly entertaining blog post by Alice Dreger gives some background, but essentially the take home message is that the Right has no monopoly on wingnuts.

Meanwhile I had promised a more detailed follow-up to the whole "YouCut" assault on NSF, but when I came to consider it in detail I realized that I was so schizoid on this subject that I would have to right two posts from diametrically opposed positions. So that's what I did. If you want a sensible analysis of the situation, this is a very good article from USA today. If, on the other hand, you want to know what I think, read on......

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Man, I love lolcatz. Who doesn't?

One Down

The first of the three grant proposals I had on my plate was submitted yesterday - congratulations to all the people who put in a ton of work on this. Fortunately, my part was a fairly small one. However, that still leaves two to go. Next deadline, December 31st. Ugh.

One knock-on effect of all the activity, grant or otherwise, this year is that the number of posts on PoH will be less than last year. Nonetheless, I've set myself the goal of hitting 100 by the end of December. Of course, there'll be no sacrificing quality; you won't catch me publishing worthless stuff just to get the numbers up. And that's a cast-iron commitment.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wisdom of the Crowd

This topic deserves a lengthier post - and rest assured, reader, one is coming - but for now, a quick heads up about the Republicans' "YouCut" initiative, which allows the public to select Federally-funded projects that they believe should be cut as worthless. This week they were taking aim at NSF, encouraging citizens to search NSF's awards database for projects they felt were wasteful and then send the grant numbers to YouCut. Note that one of the key words they suggest to help narrow the search is "museum." Sigh. Of course, this isn't the first time that NSF support of museums has been criticized - you may recall this case from earlier in the year. But that was just the numb-nuts at Fox News; this time it's people that actually control funding allocations. There are good reasons for using tax payer dollars to support science in museums and you can rest assured that SPNHC, NSCA, AIBS and a bunch of other organizations will be making that case over the next couple of years. It's not going to be an easy ride... more on that later.


Ah, the noble science of oology, useless for just about anything except Scrabble (and even then it won't net you many points). To have a collection of birds eggs these days is about one stage up from being found in possession of... well, I'll leave that to your imagination. Anyway, apparently I missed this court case back in March, but it's already having implications for natural history collections. A post on the NatSCA listserve this week alerted recipients to the availability of an historic collection of shells. The owner was selling the antique cabinet that housed the shells, but couldn't find an auctioneer who would take the collection itself for fear of possible prosecution. While I'm no great fan of the commercial market for natural history specimens, one has to wonder how many UK natural history collections will just get dumped in the future because of publicity about this prosecution.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"James Bond"... with a flute

Update on the Great Tring Bird Robbery, courtesy of the Daily Mail. It seems that the theft was carried out by Edwin Rist, a 22 year-old American flautist and champion fly-tyer studying at the Royal Academy of Music, who conceived the whole escapade as a "James Bond" fantasy. In the words of his lawyer, "he did not use exotic tools to get in, in fact he smashed a window. He didn't even take a torch, and has described going around trying to get light off his phone. It was a very amateur burglary."

The lesson for us collections types lies in the reconnaisance that Rist was able to carry out - posing as an ornithology student from the University of Oxford, he gained access to the collection, checking out their holdings in the catalog, and under the guise of taking photographs of specimens was able to photograph the alleyways and corridors that he would use to get access during his break-in. Without seeming clever after the event, this is why you should always ask for references for students and do a quick background check before letting any visitors in (there's this thing called "Google" that you may have heard of).

Beyond that, I have a lot of sympathy with the staff at NHM. The reality is that most museums, especially the big ones, have nowhere near enough staff to constantly monitor the behavior of visitors while they're in the collections. I remember occasional discussions with the General Counsel at a previous employer on the subject of collection security; his opinion was that we allowed "far too many" people access to the collections. Obviously I disagreed with that, not least because while it's cheaper to try and deal with the problem of theft by choking off access, it does nothing for our fundamental mission of ensuring the utility of the collections. Ultimately you have to pony up for the staff or accept the occasional losses; locking the doors in the face of users isn't an option.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Night (and Day) at the Museum

Congratulations to the clever folk at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry who came up with the idea of a competition where the prize was the opportunity to spend a month living in the Museum. Yes, really living there. Like you can't leave, except for one day a week. This would be my vision of Hell, but they actually got 1,500 applicants. Apparently the five finalists went through psychological screening, which I guarantee means that they are better adjusted than the average museum employee. Anyway, the lucky winner was Kate McGroarty, a 24 year-old theater graduate, and you can read all about her adventures here. And on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a blog. Good thing they're not flogging the Web 2.0 aspects to death, eh?


Heard the one about the guy who found a thylacine pelt at a garage sale? The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that Bill Warren of Fallbrook CA purchased the skin for $5.00 and is now looking forward to cashing in big time. Unfortunately for Bill, it's also possible that his bargain is actually the hide of an African zebra duiker. For a surprisingly thoughtful analysis of the evidence, see here. Be warned - I say "suprisingly" because the author of this analysis also believes in Bigfoot. In Texas.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Awe Inspiring

A friend who shall remain nameless has sent me a truly titanic work of literature, entitled Tempting the Fire, by Sydney Croft. I'm not entirely sure what genre you'd put it in - torrid romance, perhaps. It combines - wait for it - cryptozoology and porn. It's so bad that I'm surprised it hasn't created a singularity of crapness and eaten my bookshelf. I haven't actually been able to bring myself to read it yet, but the blurb on the back cover promises delights beyond mortal understanding.

Deep in the Brazilian Rainforest, a team of Navy SEALS has been nearly wiped out. Note the "nearly" - Navy SEALS are so bodacious that they never get totally wiped out, even by "a mythical monstrosity with a taste for human blood." Plot spoiler: it's the Chupacabra! Anyway, the Federal government does what it always does in these situations - it dispatches a pair of hot chicks to investigate.

"Sela is an expert on cryptozoology..."

OK, you've lost me right there. She's a woman, she's hot, and she's interested in cryptozoology? Yeah, right. 

"Sela is an expert on cryptozoology with a sideline skill that could prove invaluable." Making fire by rubbing sticks together? Fluent speaker of Yanomami? No.

"When she makes love to a man, she ingulfs his innermost thoughts."

Hmmm, not what I would have thought of at first, but I guess it might come in handy. Anyway, I for one can't wait to find out how Sela and her pal fare in "this sweat-drenched realm of danger and deception," since my experience of fieldwork in tropical rainforests suggests that passion usually falters in the face of the intractable fungal infections that attack one's groin from day one. Oops, TMI.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Preservation of Evil

Growing up Jewish in 1950s Queens, Mark Jacobson used to wonder why the tough Italian kids referred to him and his friends as "lampshades." You can put that down to being a kid, and to protective parenting. There are few people today who are unaware that among the miriad of horrors inflicted by the Nazis during the Holocaust, there was the manufacture of items from the remains of their victims; gold from fillings, hair for blankets, and - notoriously - lampshades from skin. The lampshade story is a persistent one. The only problem is that, other than testimony from survivors and a 3 second film clip taken after the liberation of Buchenwald, there is no real evidence for such lampshades. Unless you count the one that turned up, unsolicited, at Jacobson's apartment in 2006.

The lampshade forms the core of an extraordinary book of the same name, written by Jacobson and published earlier this year. I highly recomend it as a fascinating, if deeply unsettling read, but if you want the potted version you can take a look at this piece in The Independent. One of the most interesting parts of the story involves Jacobson's attempt to donate the lampshade to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. where he hits a brick wall, in the form of Diane Saltzman, the Museum's head of collections. As far as Saltzmann is concerned, the skin lampshades are a myth. Her rationale is an interesting one, and one that's worth unpacking if you, like me, happen to work in a museum. It relates to the two touchstones of accessioning; provenance and relevance.

Jacobsen believed that he had three pieces of evidence that demonstrated that the lampshade may be a product of the Holocaust. First, DNA tests showed that the material of the shade was of human origin. Then there was the appearance of the solder used on the lampshade frame, which the original buyer had noticed was similar to that seen in German-made guitars. Finally there was the assertion of the seller, a former graveyard thief from New Orleans, that the lampshade was made from "the skin of Jews." Would you accept that as adequate provenance? No, of course you wouldn't, and neither did Saltzman. She listed some of the things Jacobson should also have done; tested the age of the thread holding the lampshade panels together, the metal of the frame itself. By Jacobson's own admission the preservation of DNA was insufficient to prove ethnicity. And there was no information as to how the lampshade ended up in New Orleans, where a friend found it for sale.

But, as Saltzman  went on to explain, even if the object had watertight provenance, even if you could prove that it was made from a Buchenwald prisoner ca. 1943, that wouldn't be enough. The Museum's educational mission relates to the Holocaust, and the making of lampshades, horrific though it might be, wasn't part of the machinery of the Holocaust. If anything it's an example of individual pyschopathy, rather than the institutional psychopathy that makes the Holocaust so unique. There's even an argument, proposed by Saltzman and expanded upon in a later interview with Michael Berenbaum, the Museum's project director from 1988 to 1997, that these kind of objects are a distraction; as Berenbaum says "they are a form of pornography, because people focus on them to the exclusion of everything else." Furthermore, they can't be displayed because of the strong sentiment felt by many people, and critically by many Holocaust survivors, that showing the objects is disrespectful to the victims.

So no provenance, and no relevance to the institution's mission. That should be more than enough to give a thumbs-down to accessioning. But that still leaves the fundamental question, which Jacobson asks and Saltzman declines to answer - what do I do with this thing? Reading the book, I found myself questioning my own attitudes. Before I was a paleontologist, I worked in mammal and general zoology collections, both of which frequently contain human remains. I vividly remember fishing in a tank full of flayed animal carcasses, my arm submerged to the shoulder in almost opaque ethanol, trying to find a pickled human baby that had been "misfiled." My feeling when I finally managed to identify an infant foot among all the various appendages was one of relief at being able to get my arm out of the tank, rather than horror at what I had pulled up from the depths.

But there was something about the lampshade that made my skin crawl. Surely this thing had no place in a museum? I realized that I was beginning to get some understanding of what indigenous peoples feel when they see human remains in museum collections. For someone who spends his life trying to preserve items, the sense that this was an item that should probably be destroyed was an uncomfortable one.

Hot off the Press

For those of you that have been following this story for a while, the outcome will probably be no surprise....

Another Week of Grant Madness

Turning out to be a very poor month for PoH posts - sorry loyal reader(s). Anyway, there was some good news; the BBC reported that a 22 year old American citizen had been arrested for the theft of 299 bird skins from the ornithology collections of the Natural History Museum last year. You may recall from this 2009 MFW post that there was concern that the skins would be destroyed and the feathers sold off to fly-tying enthusiasts. Fortunately, police report that the majority of the skins were recovered intact. The guy is due in court next week; assuming he doesn't plead guilty, we may have to wait a while to hear how and why he did it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

No, I'm Not Dead.....

.... just tied up with grant deadlines. Ugh. Anyway, one good solution to having no time to write one's own blog posts is to link to other people's posts that I've enjoyed. With this in mind, check out this great post from New Light on Old Bones, and the follow-up post, which look at the nature of "real" in natural history museums. Should be required reading for any Bentonites out there. And if nothing else, you'll want to watch the 1932 video of a tiger fighting a python.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Banged Up

In our quest to reach out to new audiences and encourage citizen science participation, this is one option that museums haven't yet considered. But maybe we should....

Monday, October 25, 2010

See, I'm Not Crazy!

For those of you who think I'm getting a bit monomaniacal on the subject of the UK government's austerity measures, the New York Times agrees with me! OK, they didn't literally agree with me, but we are of one mind, the  Times and I.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ouch. Again.

Meanwhile, over in "that country where everything sucks" (to quote Beavis and Butthead) Chancellor George Osborn finally announced his Comprehensive Spending Review, aimed at taking £80 billion out of the public sector budget over the next four years. You can read the whole thing here, if you want, although it doesn't make pleasant reading. Nick Clegg (remember him?) says that everyone's making a big fuss over nothing, because all that's happened is that public spending as a proportion of the economy in 2014-15 will be back where it was in 2006-7. It should be obvious to many people why this is a facile argument, but BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders spells it out very well in this blog post. The bottom line is that these are the largest cuts in public spending for 50 years and by the time we reach 2015, about 1 in 12 civil service jobs will have gone. Overall, estimates of public sector job losses are around the 600,000 mark.

What does this mean for museums? As we've already seen, there's been one early casualty in the form of the Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), which was abolished in the "Bonfire of the Quangos." That means that there is now no single body responsible for museums in the UK and the MLA's programs will devolve back to various Government departments like Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS). Apparently duplication of function across different departments is more efficient - go figure. The problem, of course, is that these departments have also had their budgets slashed. DCMS has lost 40% of its admin budget and has to reduce costs by £1.1 billion by 2014-15. One of the points highlighted in many reports is that despite these cuts, free entry to museums and galleries will remain. This is great in principal, but all that means is that the cuts will be applied where the public can't see them - the "business as usual" model beloved by many museum administrators. Want to bet on not seeing reductions in the level of collections care over the next 5 years? No, neither would I.

Some people of an optimistic bent will be cheered by news that the UK science budget has not been cut. Instead it's been frozen for four years, which is actually a real terms cut of around 10%, but from the amount of celebrating from British scientists you'd think they didn't teach math in British universities these days. Before any of you museum-based scientists get too happy about this, however, I would caution that Tories don't think what you do is science - they see it as more like a hobby. In their view, science is all about wealth creation. Museum research programs do contribute to the economic well-being of the nation in many ways, but these are mostly indirect. Conservatives' interest in scientific research are limited to two big questions: "Can you sell it?" and "For how much?"

By now, US readers will have long since tuned out, but if there are any of you left I would urge you, as I often do, to take notice of what is happening in the UK. With mid-term elections approaching, you are faced with a fundamental choice - a party that believes in public spending and another that doesn't. Take a long, hard look at Britain. This is what happens when a party that dislikes the public sector gets into power, and it's not pretty. And Cameron, Osborn, and that guy from the midget party no-one cares about anymore, are raging Trotskyites by comparison with their U.S. equivalents. You have been warned....

[BTW, for the lighter side of the budget cuts, my favorite are the two £5 billion aircraft carriers that are being paid for, in part, by cutting the planes that are supposed to fly from them. More here]

Three Simple Truths

Those of you with half-decent memories will recall that earlier this year I blogged on the parlous state of the U.S. Federal scientific collections, highlighted in a series of uncomplementary reports issued over the past few years. I'm pleased to report that the Government has now acted, in the form of a new policy for scientific collections issued by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which you can read here. It's not a long document, but it says three very important things:

1) It's not appropriate for Federal agencies to appropriate money designated for collection support and spend it on research.

2) Different collection holding agencies need to pool their efforts to develop consistent standards and best practices for collections care.

3) These collections belong to the American people and they need to be made accessible. This means investing in on-line collections access.

You'll notice that these are three topics that PoH often bangs on about. Does this mean I have a direct line to the White House? Hah - I wish! Wouldn't have an office with no windows if I did, that's for certain. However, what it does show is that these are simple, commonsense measures for the care of collections that are so obvious that even the Federal Government recognizes them. So how come so many non-Federal institutions don't?

Friday, October 22, 2010


This was sent to me from the AAM Registrars listserve last week and amply demonstrates why registrars are... special:

We’ve found a bottle rocket in our archives.  Cursory research indicates that bottle rockets normally contain black powder along with other things.  I checked the listserv archives but everything I’m finding seems to relate to stores of black powder.  In this case, the powder is contained in a small firework, and that firework is part of another object, so we’d prefer not to discard it…

at which point, I couldn't read any more.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Work vs Work Study

Laying off 56 workers is, while regrettable, not an unusual state of affairs in these straitened times. But replacing them with work-study students, as the  Indianapolis Museum of Art did? That's the sort of thing that gets you into trouble with the Feds, because the students in question were supported by Federal funds. Read more here - one suspects this may not be the last of these cases to hit the papers.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Sound of Silence

In previous posts, I've documented the emergence of a national strategy for the digitization of the US biological collections and the creation of a new NSF programs, Advances in the Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC), as a first step in the realization of this strategy. If you haven't been following this and want to know more, just click on the word "digitization" in the tag cloud on the right hand side of this blog. I would also urge you to go take a look at the ADBC Community Blog.

One of the things that's struck many of us working on the digitization project is how little response we've had from the wider collection management community. During the initial process of creating the strategy, there was quite a bit of feedback from curators and researchers, and a little from collection managers. But since then, despite the emergence of more than $10 million from NSF to kick-start the initiative, there has been little in the way of further commentary. I find this quite worrying.

To explain why, I need to go back to the early 1990s and an initiative on taxonomy and systematics that was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). It was aimed at reversing the decline in taxonomic research in the UK; the long-term success of this initiative can be judged by the fact that there is yet another review of UK taxonomy going on at the moment with more-or-less the same objectives.

There were various reasons why the first initiative didn't work - lack of money was a key problem - but to my mind, one of its most striking features was that very few practising taxonomists or systematists were involved in its creation. Instead, the loudest voices were from the users of systematic research, especially researchers who used the so-called "comparative method" to study the evolution of life history strategies, host-parasite relationships, etc.

For these researchers, a major source of frustration was the lack of accurate phylogenetic trees to describe the interrelationships of the groups that they studied. They attributed this to a lack of trained taxonomists working on these groups, and went from there to making the case that the UK needed more taxonomists. A good thing, one might think. And so it was, as far as it went.

The problem was that this lack of taxonomists was just the outward sign of a much bigger and more complex set of underlying problems; these included the steady erosion of organismal biology in UK undergraduate degree programs, a lack of funding for museum collections, reductions in museum staffing at all levels (not just researchers), and especially a lack of permanent positions in universities and museums; it can take literally decades to acquire expertise in the taxonomy of some groups.

The researcher advocates of the taxonomy iniative were, by and large, ignorant of these issues. The taxonomists weren't. They were also alienated by some of comments made by promoters of the new program, who argued that, for example, funding should only be provided to do research on groups whose systematics are poorly understood. It may be a good way to use limited funds, but it's unlikely to win friends in an academic community that contains many vertebrate workers.

Another issue was hyperbole. The advocates of the program argued that this was a grand scheme for the benefit of humanity - to catalog all the species on the planet and uncover the one "true" phylogenetic tree that links them all. Talk like that tends to irritate practising taxonomists, who are well aware that species boundaries are notoriously fluid (even in relatively well-studied groups like mammals and birds) and that trees change every time new data emerges.

The end result of all of this was that the community that should have coalesced around the new initiative - a multidisciplinary collaboration between taxonomists, collection managers, biologists, conservationists, and the wider academic world; a community that could have perhaps leveraged more funding than the relatively modest amounts available to NERC - never formed. In time, the comparative method biologists moved on to other problems and the taxonomy initiative fizzled out after five years.

By now, you'll probably have seen where I'm going with this. The national collections digitization strategy is another program with ambitious objectives, albeit better-funded. It is being pushed strongly by the potential users of the newly-captured data. But it does not seem to have captured the imagination, energy, or enthusiasm of the people that actually work on collections. So do we have a problem?

At one level, I'd say no. The digitization iniative has the enthusiastic support of SPNHC, the society representing collections care professionals. SPNHC has pledged to work with applicants for funding under ADBC to help build collaborations with the collection management community and tackle some of the tricky practical issues with capturing large volumes of specimen data in a relatively short period of time. We also have at our disposal a raft of community-support tools - blogs, wikis, etc - that can disseminate information and feed back comments from stakeholders. If they choose to use them.

And this is where the problem comes in. Speaking bluntly, as one collection manager to others, we seem to have a problem historically in responding positively to change in our work and work practices. Our tendency is to assume that no-one understands the job we do; no-one consults with us; and no-one listens to what we say. In the past, sadly, that may have been so. But now, with this initiative, we're being listened to. The problem is, many of us are choosing to say nothing.

Maybe you're keeping your powder dry. Maybe you think that digitization is a distraction from the serious business of caring for collections. Maybe you think it's not enough money, or you suspect that the money that is available won't be coming to you. If so, then the answer is to get engaged. Comment on this blog. Better still, comment on the ADBC blog. Lobby SPNHC. Lobby your discipline-based societies - SVP, ASM, AOU, ASIH....  Do something.

For years, we as a profession have been arguing that what we do is important and that the collections we care for are a critical scientific resource that is worth protecting. Now, finally, we're being listened to. If we act strategically - if we see ADBC as the beginning and work as a community to build on it and leverage more support - then we have the potential to unlock enormous resources in support of our collections. If we stay silent, then I wonder if we'll ever be listened to again.

Friday, October 1, 2010

O. M. G.

I've always felt ashamed of being an acrachnophobe, but having just finished reading a piece on the Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria nigriventer) I feel that all my fears may have been justified. Not only is its bite excruciatingly painful, but the venom has also been found to cause increased levels of nitric oxide. What does that do? Well, if you're a dude, it can give you an involuntary erection that is both painful and long-lasting. Ouchy! However, unpleasant though this erection might be, you'd better enjoy it while you can because it might be your last; the venom can also leave you impotent. By grateful that humans are big animals. Lab mice injected with Phoneutria venom "experienced intense penile erections before succumbing to the toxin." That is a bad way to go.

I've never encountered a Brazilian wandering spider, thank God, but I already hate them. I plan on contacting Jeff MacMahan to suggest that the whole genus be wiped from the face of the planet for causing intolerable suffering to other species. And especially the males of other species.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Life During Wartime

While we're talking about museums at war, today's Daily Telegraph has a great article on the travails of London's Natural History Museum during WWII. It's a timely reminder when we're worrying about the state of our museums and their collections that there are worse things than having your staff and funding cut....

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Following on from the previous post, it seems that Hermann's Panda is not the least of the Berlin's Panda-related problems. See here for the sad story of Yan Yan, stuck in diplomatic limbo in the Museum's freezer. PS - this was not my pun, but it's been a long day and I'm feeling lazy.


Fans of fluid-preserved specimens need to get themselves over to Berlin's Museum für Naturkunde, which has just celebrated the restoration of its East Wing (destroyed by Allied bombing during WWII) by exhibiting a selection of the nearly 276,000 jars of specimens that are housed in the new storage facility. If you think that number's impressive, consider that according to the collection's curator, Peter Bartsch, they only broke six jars during the move to the new building. Also on display in the exhibit, which celebrates the Museum's 200th Anniversary, is a giant panda stuffed by Hermann Göring. According to the exhibit curator, Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Damaschun, "We don’t know how it came into the collection, but we put it in the exhibition to show the difficulties the museum has had during different eras.” I suspect that deciding what to do with a panda that has been offered to you by Göring, while living in 1930s Germany, is the sort of accessioning conundrum that most of us will not have to face in our professional lifetimes. The exhibit is open from September 14 through February 28, 2011, and you can read more about it in Spiegel International.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


In the UK today, the Daily Telegraph reports that ITV News was embarrassed when reports of a dead polar bear washed up on a Cornish beach turned out to be a dead cow with its hide bleached white by exposure to sea water. American readers will recall the similar incident of the "Montauk Monster," a waterlogged raccoon corpse from Long Island that got far too many people who should have known better very exercised a couple of years ago. Fortunately, there was no cryptozoologist around when the "bear" was discovered; otherwise we would now be inundated with an ever-growing list of candidates culled from the pages of their "Big Book of Prehistoric Life."

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Dumbest Thing I Ever Read

Kudos to Jeff McMahan, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University and a visiting research collaborator at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University, for writing the dumbest essay I ever read, and double-kudos to the New York Times for publishing it. I actually fell off my chair laughing. McMahan's contention is that we should engineer the selective extinction of all carnivores on Earth on the basis that they cause suffering to other animals. I don't know where to start with this, so I'm not even going to try, except to say that if you were ever looking for proof of why one should hesitate before going into press on a subject one knows nothing about, this is it. Meanwhile, I am sitting down to write an opinion piece on Schopenhauer, confident that the Times will publish it.

[PS, I wanted to comment on the piece, but I noted that after 270-odd comments along the lines of "what the f*@k?" the Times has disabled the comment function]

Saturday, September 18, 2010


The problem with having a spectacular collection of fossils is that when it comes time to build your exhibit, there are some hard decisions to be made about what to leave in and what to take out. By the end of our planning process for the Cenozoic Hall, we had several hundred specimens in addition to those that are already in the gallery. Clearly something has to give.

One of the wonders of living in a digital world is the ability to explore whether or not things will fit into a space without actually having to do it in the real world. This is what my colleague, Laura Friedman, has been doing over the past few weeks, generating an entire portfolio of floor-plans. She's quick to point out that these are not actually designs for the gallery; we haven't reached that point yet. This is just an exercise in space planning.

Once we started to look at the floor-plans, it became very apparent that our new hall was in danger of getting crowded. As I've discussed in previous posts, there are some very large specimens that need to be included. We'd like to remove these from behind glass, which means that we have to allow sufficient around the specimen so that little Billy (or, more likely, little Billy's idiot father) can't lean over and touch\grab\pull it. We have to arrange the layout of the gallery so that there are no cul-de-sacs to trap the Billy family. And there has to be enough room to accommodate not just individual visitors and families, but also student groups, classes, and functions.

To make the optimum floor layout work, it was clear that we'd need to remove at least one big mount. Some, like the brontothere and mastodon, are too critical to the design of the hall to be removed. Others, such as the sabertooth cat and the giant ground sloth (complete with skin and hair!) are too cool. But I'd already picked my target and was prepared to argue forcefully for its removal. It was the giant deer.

The giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus) may be better known to you as the Irish elk, one of those typical paleontological misnomers, since it is neither an elk, nor unique to Ireland. The Finish paleomammalogist Björn Kurtén tried to get around this by referring to the giant deer as "shelk" (if you're interested in the reasoning behind this, which has more than a whiff of cryptozoology about it, you can read more here) but this has never really caught on. It lived in Eurasia during the Pleistocene and the last ones died out around 8,000 years ago.

So, what's so special about the giant deer? Well... er.... it's a really big deer. It stood a little under 7 feet tall at the shoulder. It's not actually the biggest deer that ever lived; there are modern Alaskan moose that reach that size. But - and this is what rings most people's bell, as far Megaloceros is concerned - it had super-sized antlers. They can span up to 12 feet from tip to tip and weigh over 80lbs. The Peabody's specimen is a bit smaller than this, more like 9 feet across, but it's still very striking.

As anyone who's ever visited a Scottish Highlands hotel (or, for that matter, a bar in backwoods Montana) will know, people do love a big rack. Of antlers. OK, that was a cheap double entendre but, honestly, I find it very difficult to get excited by Megaloceros. Even when people make up interesting stories about it - they died out because their big antlers got caught in trees! there are references to them in the Song of the Nibelungen! - they almost invariably turn out to be wrong. The coolest thing I ever read about them was that those big antlers sucked so much calcium out of the deer's body when growing that their skeletons developed osteoporosis, and I'm sure someone will come along and prove that to be false as well. Basically giant deer are not interesting.

Also, they are as common as cow poop in Texas. During the 19th Century, when peat was a popular fuel in the more potato-friendly parts of Europe, giant deer skeletons were turned up by the cart load in the bogs. There are very few natural history museums that don't have at least one skull with antlers. They show up in local history societies, rural life museums, and on the walls of baronial halls. The giant deer at the Warwick Museum (UK) even has its own Twitter account; if that isn't proof of mundanity, I don't know what is.

Unfortunately, I seem to be in a minority of two (my fellow mammalogist Eric Sargis agrees with me, God bless him) as far as our project committee is concerned. My suggestion that we removed the head from the skeleton and hang it on the wall was received with the sort of shocked silence I'd get if I said O.C. Marsh was an over-rated bald blow-hard (and of course I don't believe that, readers!). After trying to argue my case it was suggested to me, in a pitying tone of voice, that I was developing a "thing" about the giant deer.

In the end, we decided that we would survey visitors to see what specimens they liked. So if you happen to be visiting the Peabody in the next few weeks and someone asks you what your favorite specimen is, be sure and answer loud and clear "the giant deer!" Or don't. I really don't care.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Field Museum Faces More Cuts

In yet another piece of lousy news, the Field Museum has announced a further round of job cuts due to the ongoing economic downturn. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that the Museum intends to shed almost 10% of its staff - 50 people - through early retirements and buyout incentives. That means that staffing at the Museum will have dropped by aropund 20% since 2007. Spokeswoman Nancy O’Shea says the job cuts “are not going to affect the visitor experience.” Phew - so that's OK then

(see here for the background to my sarcasm).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

New & Improved

To make life easier for those of you who are regular followers of this site (and yes, I know there are at least two of you. I think) I've tagged all of the last year's worth of posts to improve searchability. If you take a look at the tag cloud on the right hand side, you'll find you now have some terms to filter posts with. Never again will you need to trawl back through the last two years in search of one of my trademark rants about Thomas Benton. I now have an app for that.

One of the spin-offs of using a cloud is that my pet peeves and obssessions are quickly evident. "Museum," "collections," and "paleontology," are all to be expected. But who knew I was so fixated on "funding?" Well, maybe you did, but it was a revelation to me.

BTW, if none of this is making any sense to you then you're probably still reading PoH as notes via my Facebook page. Stop it! Click the "original post" link and start following the blog itself. If nothing else, it looks nicer.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Decisions, Decisions

When I last wrote about our planning for the Fossil Hall rennovations, we were about to go into the collections in search of display-worthy material for the Cenozoic hall. The process of selecting specimens is not always straightforward, even in a relatively large collection like that of the Peabody. On the one hand, you want to select specimens that illustrate the story that you're telling. On the other hand, you also want to display the best of what you have, regardless of whether it fits the story. And in the case of our project there is, like some freakish mutant child, a third hand - the Zallinger mural.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of our aims in redesigning the fossil halls was to place the spectacular murals of Rudy Zallinger in the context of present-day science. So as far as possible, we've tried to include specimens of animals and plants that are shown in the murals. In the Cenozoic hall, this presents us with a couple of problems. First, "The Age of Mammals" mural is solidly North American - we do have exceptional collections of North American fossil mammals, but we also have outstanding specimens from South America (see my earlier post on these) and from the Fayum Basin of Egypt - there is no way that we are not displaying our stunning, yard-long skull of the extinct whale Basilosaurus just because it's not in the mural.

The second problem is that sometimes the species that Rudi chose to illustrate in the murals are not represented in our collections by display-worthy specimens. Having hunted high and low through the collection for a decent specimen of Tetraclaenodon, a primitive ungulate from the Paleocene, I can testify to this. The best we had was some fragments of lower jaws, isolated teeth, and random limb bones. However, we have excellent specimens of its close relative, Phenacodus. If we include Phenacodus instead of Tetraclaenodon, is that OK? Well, as it happens it is, because Phenacodus is also in the mural. But there are plenty of cases, such as the early primate Pelycodus, we have only teeth and the alternatives (e.g. the lemur-like Notharctos) are not in the mural. What do we do then?

The answer, of course, is we chill out. We don't have to have all the animals from the mural in the gallery, and neither to we have to only use animals from the mural to tell the story. The rich, subtropical coastline of the Eocene Tethys Ocean, preserved in the desert sediments of the Fayum Basin, provides us with just as powerful image of the hothouse Earth as the rainforests of Eocene Utah and Wyoming. And why should we worry about the absence of a skeleton of the early perissodactyl Hyracotherium in our collection when we have one from its close relative Orohippus? The fact that this Orohippus is as much plaster as it is real bone is a problem, but one that we'll address if and when we remount it for exhibit.

Nonetheless, each of these choices needs to be carefully weighed and discussed between the designer, the exhibit planner, and me. The end result was a list of several hundred fossils, and accompanying photos (some of which I've included here) loosely divided between the three climate periods that I discussed in an earlier post. The challenge then, is to find out whether we could fit all of these into the Hall and still have room for visitors to circulate. Plus, when they circulate through the gallery, they need to do so in such a way that we get our story of across. I'll talk more about this in a future post.

Good News

Congratulations to the Humboldt State University Natural History Museum, which has managed to secure enough grant and donor funding to reopen to the public, after having to close a year ago in response to budget cuts by HSU. You can read more about this in an article from last Thursday's Arcata Eye.  Those of us in university museums would do well to note the comments of HSU Provost Robert Snyder. Praising Humboldt State Professor Jeffrey White and his team, Snyder noted that they derserved special thanks “not only for the fresh grant funding they secured, but also for reinforcing the Museum’s crucial links to our academic programs in math and science." Now more than ever, we need to stay relevant to our parent institutions' mission and keep banging out those grant applications.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Back to the Future

I was greatly depressed to read an article by Rob Sharp in last week's Independent, which discussed the potential impacts of a proposed 25% cut in government spending on research that forms part of the UK government's package of austerity measures. Strangely enough, however, it wasn't the cuts themselves that depressed me - after the events of the past few months, I'm pretty much burnt out on the subject of the Tories and their never-ending assault on public spending. No, what depressed me was Sharp's argument that the cuts would harm the competitiveness of the UK, by choking-off potentially valuable inventions.

I had a ringside seat the last time a Conservative government tried to overhaul research funding. This was back in 1993, when I was working for the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC). As a result of the Government's plans, SERC and the other research councils were broken up and repurposed as "mission-oriented" agencies whose remit was to fund research that would lead to "wealth generation." In other words, we were to give grants to people whose research might ultimately lead to commercial products. Of course, this was a dumb idea; we spent a lot of time talking to industry about what sort of research they thought we should be funding and the answer was unanimous - what they wanted us to fund was "blue skies" research - the sort of work that no company could justify doing in their in-house labs.

The problem in 1993, and what we're seeing again in 2010, is a fundamental misunderstanding of why governments should sponsor research. Spending taxpayer pounds (or dollars) in order to generate "innovation," which Sharp seems to think this is all about, is a waste of money because innovation is so unpredictable - most academic research does not lead to marketable inventions and so there is a negligible return on the amount invested. Focusing on products is unhelpful, because it suggests that research that does not generate a product has failed, or is unworthy of support. Obviously paleontology falls into this category, but so does particle physics, astrophysics, and a host of other disciplines that help us to understand natural processes. This is not to say that they don't have "real world" applications - much of our ability to model the effects of climate change, for example, is based on paleontological data. But they won't let you sell a cloaking device, a hovercar, or a jet pack.

I may be showing my socialist roots here, but I think governments should support research because they have a responsibility to maintain the intellectual health of their country. This may seem like an amorphous concept, but ultimately it determines the standard of education that citizens receive; the accuracy of the information that's available to them; the quality of the life choices that they make; and, yes, the economic health of the nation. From the perspective of history, the size of a country's research base dictates the extent to which it can contribute to the ever-growing global corpus of knowledge. This is the sort of national pride issue that any government should be able to understand, not least the one whose country has given the world Newton, Faraday, Darwin, and Hawking to name but a few.

Government research funding comes from taxation. People don't like paying taxes because they don't have a lot of money (although it's one of life's paradoxes that the people who like taxes the least are often those most able to afford them), they're worried about losing their job at the Piggly Wiggly,  and they don't see why someone should take their money and spend it on something that doesn't directly benefit them. Understandable though this may be, the world turns on bigger issues than these. Focusing on "usefulness" may help assuage angry taxpayers, but it's no basis for making policy decisions.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

8-Track Frame of Mind

Readers who access this blog via my Facebook page will already have lost patience with my new-found obsession with 8-track audio, which came about when I purchased an Electrophonic 8-track player (with quad amp and AM/FM receiver!) for $2.00 at a church jumble sale. In the words of one of my friends "8-tracks were an immediate object of derision when they came out. I'm sorry. They're not even bad enough to be cool." Even those who less dismissive are puzzled as to why, for example, I would make a 5 hour round-trip to Boston today to visit In Your Ear Records (a truly awesome place, BTW) in order to rummage through boxes of dusty 8-track cartridges in search of something that will actually play. So, although it's really no-one else's business, I will endeavour to explain.

As a paleontologist, I spend a lot of time dealing with extinct things. As a curator, I spend a lot of time dealing with artifacts. So it's not really surprising that I have an interest in 8-track, which combines physical artifacts (cartridges, players, etc) with an extinct audio format. There's also something inherently appealing about listening to something that you can't download from i-Tunes or order from Amazon. You can't experience 8-track digitally - you have to have the player and the cartridges. Like vinyl, it produces a deeper, "warmer" sound than digital recordings. Plus you have to love the Rube Goldberg charm of a machine that has a moving play head but which can't fast forward or rewind (you can change tracks, which is the 8-track equivalent of flipping sides, but that's it).

I like the fact that I can get ridiculously excited over getting twenty cardboard outer sleeves and a cleaning cartridge in the mail. I like the fact that I'm typing this blog while listening to a quadraphonic recording of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on a cartridge that's well over 30 years old and still works just fine. Most of all, I love the fact that while we both have a collection of several thousand songs that can fit on a thumb drive, I also have an 8-track player and you probably don't. So there.

An Absence of Courtesy

This week, I unsubscribed from the Vertebrate Paleontology Listserve, having been on it for nearly 10 years. Honestly, it was high time. It clutters up my mailbox with a bunch of inconsequential guff, usually along the lines of "can anyone send me a PDF of this paper?" and "please re-send in plain text" (don't get me started on that one). Lately, however, what's been getting me down could best be described as an absence of professional courtesy. In the past week we've had one respondent level a series of accusations at the current President of the United States, culiminating in the claim that he only got his position because of the color of his skin; a second respondent has likened religious belief to a phenomenon he has observed in dogs; and a third respondent basically telling the second respondent that he didn't known anything because he had never read a paper on creationism written by the third respondent (who, by the way, has no background in theology that I'm aware of). I think it's great that the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of expression - I just wish it carried a rider that citizens think before they exercise that right.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Following on from yesterday's post, those of you wanting the full NSF program solicitation can find it here.

Friday, August 20, 2010

You Heard It First Here.....

NSF has announced a funding opportunity for the creation of a national digital data resource for collections. No program solicitation as yet, but there is a deadline - December 10th of this year. (gulp)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Your Chance to Help

Reposting this request. If you want to know a little more about the background, click here.

"Dear all,

Liverpool Museums are attempting to oppose proposed cuts to their budget that will seriously threaten the service that they provide and could lead to the closure of sections of museums, or whole museums within the city. (This is the same city that was awarded the European Capital of Culture and is designated as a World Heritage Site.) As the government has now shut down the e-petition site for 10 Downing Street, an online petition has been made available at Ipetitions. If you can, please find the time to sign the petition and support their attempt to maintain the public accessibility of understandings of regional and international heritage.

The prompt for a donation from ipetitions can be ignored without affecting the petition.

Best wishes,
Alastair Vannan"

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Matter of Image

As a museum-ite, I was immediately drawn to a post on the Center for the Future of Museums' blog entitled "Librarians. Sheesh." This great title pretty much sums up the relationship between museum workers and librarians. In principal, our fields are very similar - we both spend our time ensuring the long-term preservation of things and making those things more accessible to people who want to experience them. In practice, we're pretty much different species. One sure-fire way to piss off a collection manager is to say, "Oh, I get it; you're like a librarian, right?"

Librarians and collection managers are uneasy allies. At some level, we collection managers have never really forgiven librarians for realizing the importance of information management before we did. I sit in meetings with librarians and sigh as they rattle off references to metadata standards and authorities in a manner suggesting that all confusion and randomness has been removed from their professional lives. I get round this by telling myself that my collections data are much more complex than theirs (it's a book, for chrissakes - how much metadata can it have?), as are the uses that we put them too, and that this makes them resistant to standardization. I don't say this with much conviction, because I can't get over the sneaking suspicion that librarians may just be better information managers.

Anyway, this delightful post by AAM staffer Lauren Silbermann was actually about how librarians have again stolen a march on museum-ites by spreading, virally, across cyberspace with a series of YouTube videos, blogs, etc., all promoting the idea that libraries and their guardians are a hip, trendy, pop-culture phenomenon. She illustrates this with a video produced by students and faculty at the University of Washington's Information School (boy, even the library schools have trendy names these days) in which they parody Lady Gaga's "Poker Face." I think they are supposed to be challenging stereotypes of librarians, although if you asked me to come up with a stereotype for a librarian I'd probably say "mostly female; highly-educated; liberal in outlook (personally, professionally, and politically); and more likely than not to sport some form of body modification (tattoo or piercing)" [see above for evidence]. In other words, not a million miles away from what's on display in this video.

Anyway, Lauren's contention is that it's high time that we museum people got on-line with some museum-orientated fun that would make us more accessible and pop-culture-friendly to Joe Public. It's a compelling argument, if only because of my secret desire to get in the face of librarians, but, with all due respect to Lauren, I'm going to offer a counter opinion.

To start, let me share a conversation I had with my brother some years ago. Pete, who is a physician, was asking me what I actually did at the museum, so I told him about a project we were working on to recurate our bat collection. We had around 125,000 specimens of bat and we were re-jaring fluid specimens, tying on new labels, checking IDs, updating our database records, etc. I remember a look of wonder spreading across his face, and I thought to myself (in the rather pathetic manner typical of younger brothers) "wow, he's really impressed." When I got to the end there was a pause. Then he said "let me get this straight. They actually pay you to do stuff like that?"

There, in a nutshell, is our challenge. I don't think we have a problem with convincing people that what we do in museums is "kooky," "eccentric," or even "fun." But I think we have a big problem convincing them that it's actually useful, let alone important. It's often an uphill battle, even within our own institutions, to argue that funds should be spent on collections care rather than, say, a big new blockbuster exhibit. Now imagine trying to argue that public money should be used for tying labels on pickled bats, rather than paying for a child's MRI. Not so funny anymore, is it?

In a bid to make ourselves more effective advocates for our field, the natural history collections community has spent the last 20-plus years trying to show that we are a group of dedicated and highly trained professionals who make a significant contribution to the scientific and societal well-being of the nation and who are worth listening to. As opposed to a bunch of loveable goofballs that muck around with dead animals. Like I said, it's been an uphill battle, but as I've mentioned in previous posts (e.g. this one) we actually seem to be gaining some traction. Under the circumstances, I'm not sure that parading our "geek chic" should be high on the list of our priorities.

Besides, try doing a Google image search for "sexy librarian." Then do one for "sexy collections manager." We're way behind the eight ball on this one.....

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Study in Contrasts

Two articles in yesterday's New York Times make an interesting study in contrasts. First, Sarah Lyall did a nice review of how government austerity measures in the UK are beginning to bite. As you know, I've been blogging ad nauseum about the impacts of these cuts on the UK museum sector; you can read the most recent of these posts here. It's clear that if you work in a cultural institution in Britain, then there are tough times ahead (unless you're a volunteer, in which case the outlook is really quite rosy).

In the US, by contrast, it seems that the burning issue in the museum world is the whopping tax breaks that certain museum directors get on their exceedingly expensive (and rent-free) apartments. These are discussed by Kevin Flynn and Stephanie Strom in another NYT article. It's hard to imagine any head of a UK museum being paid that much, even prior to the current cost-conscious regime, and the level of housing described in the article would be far beyond the means of even the big national museums.

Ironically enough, however, I think the Tory half of the coalition government would probably sympathize with the argument that, at the rarified levels where museum directors are recruited, market forces dictate generous remuneration packages, including housing. By contrast, the dour, Calvinist, Liberal Democrat contingent would see this as spendthrift nonsense, and wonder why the directors don't live in studio apartments and use their museum's function rooms for official entertaining.

These are the sort of conflicts that will eventually pull the coalition apart, which they are already doing; as this amusing article from yesterday's Independent reports, some Lib Dems "fear the party is acting as a fig leaf for ideologically driven spending cuts by the Tories." Gosh, do you think so?

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Question of Growth

The latest edition of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology contains not one, but two papers on the resolutely unglamorous topic of growth series. This was a sufficiently momentous occasion that I felt a blog post was warranted. No, really, don't stop reading! Because I want to try and convince you that constructing growth series is a critical part of systematic and evolutionary studies that the aspiring paleontologist neglects at their peril.

Although it may seem obvious, it's important to realize that many (if not most) organisms change their morphology dramatically over the course of their lifespan. This causes problems for systematic biologists, who want to compare character states in different types of organisms in order to reconstruct phylogeny. You have to compare like with like. In other words, it's no good comparing the juvenile of one species with an adult of another if the character you're studying changes with age.

Still think this is obvious? Well OK smarty-pants, let's take a look at a published research paper, namely Flannery, Archer, and Maynes (1987)[1], which proposed a radical shake-up of the phylogeny of phalangerid marsupials. One of the critical morphological characters used by the authors was the extent of the exposure of the ectotympanic (the bony tube that forms the floor of the external ear canal in mammals) on the front face of the postglenoid process (a vertical bony "buffer" at the back of the jaw joint that means your lower jaw doesn't end up wrapped round your ears when your temporalis muscle contracts).

The problem is that the extent of the ectotympanic on the postglenoid process is age-related. In young phalangerids, the bone makes up more than half of the process, but as they age it gets rudely shoved aside by another bone, the squamosal; the squamosal grows more than the ectotympanic, which gradually contributes less and less to the postglenoid process, until in the end it is barely visible. This was a problem, because a number of the phalangerid species that were included in the study were very rare in museum collections and were represented by only juvenile or very aged individuals. As a results, some species in the study appeared to have a postglenoid process with an ectotympanic exposure, while others didn't. Based on these apparent differences, the authors tried to define a group of phalangerid possums that were united by the fact that they had no ectotympanic exposure on the postglenoid process. Unfortunately, all phalangerids eventually lack an ectotympanic exposure if they live long enough, so this royally mucked-up their phylogeny.

As a graduate student working on phalangerids, I spent a lot of time reading the Flannery et al paper, and it soon became apparent that I wasn't seeing the same characters in specimens that they were. In the end, the way that I teased apart the mystery of the postglenoid process (not very Hardy Boys, I know) was to build a growth series of phalangerid skulls. I was fortunate that I had a very large museum collection - the Mammal Department of London's Natural History Museum - just down the road from me, with hundreds of specimens covering nearly all the known species of the group. So I could select specimens of different ages from the same species, same sex, and even the same geographic population, thus minimizing the chance that other types of variation could creep in and mess things up for me (this, by the way, is one of the reasons we bother to collect so many specimens of the same animal).

In the end, I was able to untangle this problem because I had access to a larger collection of specimens than the Australian group. The challenge for paleontologists is that we're rarely this lucky. The chances of an animal being preserved as a fossil are almost vanishingly small and the temporal resolution of the fossil record is so low that even when two animals are found in the same site, they may come from populations separated by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years. So it takes a rare set of circumstances to preserve a fossil population at the same level of detail that can be obtained from collecting Recent specimens.

The first of the two JVP papers describes just such a situation. Karen Black, Mike Archer, Suzanne Hand, and Henk Godthelp describe a collection of fossils from the Riversleigh area of Queensland [2]. Over the last 30 or so years Riversleigh has yielded a host of spectacular fossils from the Oligo-Miocene of Australia; the ones described by Black et al belong to an extinct species of herbivorous marsupial called Nimbadon lavarackorum that lived around 15 million years ago. Nimbadon belongs to an extinct group called the diprotodontids, who were the heavyweights of the ancient Australian mammal fauna; some species were the size of rhinos, although Nimbadon was considerably smaller, around the size of a sheep.

What makes the Riversleigh find so important is the nature of the site where the fossils were found, AL90. 15 million years ago, this was a cave with a vertically-positioned entrance, down which from time to time unfortunate individuals of Nimbadon would blunder. In effect, the cave acted like a natural pitfall trap, sampling the local Nimbadon population. As a result of this, Black and her co-workers were able to construct a genuine growth series for this long-vanished animal, which demonstrated that the early growth patterns of the skull are mirror those seen in living marsupials, and which also gave insights into the development of the large air sinuses in the cranium that are a distinctive characteristic of diprotodontids.

The important thing about this paper is that the nature of the site means Black et al can be confident that they are actually sampling the same population. I'm not convinced that the same can be said of the second paper, by John Scannella and Jack Horner [3]. This attracted a fair amount of attention in the national press, and quite a lot more attention here at Yale, by proposing that the ceratopsian dinosaur Torosaurus (very much an icon for the Peabody Museum) is actually the adult form of the much better known Triceratops. By studying a growth series of Triceratops, Scannella and Horner argue, first, that bone histology of skulls of Triceratops originally classified as "adult" suggests that the animals are not fully grown and, second, that the anatomical changes seen in the skull of Triceratops as it ages, if projected forward into an "adult" animal, would produce something that looks suspiciously like Torosaurus. There are no known juvenile specimens of Torosaurus.

Given that Torosaurus is such an iconic presence at the Peabody (a life-size bronze reconstruction of it towers over Whitney Avenue, outside the Museum) you might be expecting me to launch into a searing denunciation of Scanella and Horner's work. If so, I fear you will be disappointed. This sort of reexamination of taxonomic hypotheses is exactly what science is all about and using growth series is exactly how one should go about doing so. The slightly raised eyebrow is because I'm mildly skeptical that the growth series used by Scanella and Horner (which was originally proposed by Horner and Goodwin in 2006 [4]) actually represents a single population of Triceratops - it seems unlikely that specimens drawn from a variety of different localities, of different ages, could constitute a growth series of the consistency seen in Black et al's study. Whether this makes any difference or not remains to be seen.

Both these papers are important because they once again remind us, should any reminder be needed, that fossils were once living animals, and the morphology that today is literally "set in stone" was once plastic and changeable. As we try and piece together evolutionary patterns, the importance of the unglamorous growth series should not be underestimated.

[Accompanying figure is taken from Black et al, 2010. For those of you that want references, here they are:

[1] Flannery, T.F., M. Archer, and G. Maynes. 1987. The phylogenetic relationships of living phalangerids (Phalangeroidea: Marsupialia) with a suggested new taxonomy. pp477-506 in Archer M. (ed) Possums and Opposums: Studies in Evolution. Sydney, Surrey Beatty & Sons and the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales.

[2] Black, K.H., M. Archer, S.J. Hand, and H. Godthelp. 2010. First comprehensive analysis of cranial ontogeny in a fossil marsupial—from a 15-million-year-old cave deposit in Northern Australia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30(4):993-1011.

[3] Scanella, J.B., and J.R. Horner. 2010. Torosaurus Marsh, 1891, is Triceratops Marsh, 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae): synonymy through ontogeny. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30(4):1157-1168.

[4] Horner, J. R., and M. B. Goodwin. 2006. Major cranial changes during Triceratops ontogeny. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 273:2757–2761.]

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Some Rare Good News

Just in case you thought that I'm only ever the prophet of doom and gloom, I wanted to spread a little happness with the news that a couple of weeks ago the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee  recommended that funding for the Save America's Treasures program be “restored” for FY 2011; you may recall from an earlier post that the Obama Administration had proposed that this scheme would be cut in 2011. It's early days yet; before funding can be provided many additional steps will be required. The full Appropriations Committee and full House will have to vote, and the Senate will have to act. Given the difficult environment for funding, anything can happen, and it could be many months before final action is taken. But this is good news. For now.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Populating Our Cenozoic

Some weeks ago, I met with two of my colleagues Laura Friedman and Lowell Dingus, to begin work on selecting mammal fossils for the Cenozoic gallery. Like me, Laura and Lowell are both "alumni" ("refugees" or "survivors" would also be good terms) of a certain well known natural history museum in New York City, where Lowell once managed the renovation of the 4th floor fossil galleries and Laura worked as a designer in the exhibit department. All-in-all, just working with them is privilege; the fact that it's also fun is merely the icing on the cake. Despite what you might think, 'fun' can be quite a rare commodity in museum work - you grab it when you can.

Selecting exhibit materials is a bit of balancing act between the planner (Lowell), the designer (Laura), and the curator (me). The observant among you will have noted the small 'c' under curator, which shows that I'm only acting in that capacity for this part of the project. The exhibit has a Curator (Jacques Gauthier) and also a number of contributing Curators (Derek Briggs, Leo Hickey, and Eric Sargis). But, at least for the purposes of these initial material selections, I'm pretending to be Eric. Which is tricky because, frankly, he looks nothing like me (see here for evidence).

The planner is trying to ensure that whatever we pick fits the general vision for the hall. As you will have seen from the last post on this subject, what we are trying to do in the Cenozoic hall is show the transition from a global greenhouse to a global icehouse, so Lowell is looking for fossils that will demonstrate this. As the designer, Laura has to consider how all of these elements are actually going to fit into the cases that are built for them and how the hall will actually look. And I, of course, want to get as many oreodonts as possible on display, while bearing in mind that my Curatorial colleague Eric will have exactly the same wish for isolated teeth from plesiadapiform primates. And because we're talking about wider environmental changes, we can't just stuff the hall with fossil mammals; we also need to reflect the full glories of the Peabody's Cenozoic fossil collections, which include birds, reptiles, amphibia, fish, insects, molluscs, and plants.

Nonetheless, we're starting with mammals, because they are the biggest elements in the room. The very largest ones are, for the most part, the ones that are already on display. As I mentioned in the earlier post, it's likely that the very largest of these, the brontothere Megacerops and the American mastodon Mammut will form the twin poles of the exhibit, anchoring the hothouse and the icehouse respectively. Around these, we have to fit the other large skeletons from the gallery. The first thing that emerged as we looked at this was that as it currentlyy stands most of the big specimens are going to be concentrated in the icehouse - it's here that you'll find the giant camel, the giant deer, and the chalicothere Moropus, to say nothing of our Smilodon, dire wolf, glyptodon carapace, and ground sloth skeleton. Add to this a mounted skeleton of the pot-bellied Miocene rhino Teleoceras that I really want to get out of storage and back on display, and you can see that things from the Miocene to the Pleistocene are going to be a little crowded.

By contrast, the hothouse and the transitional period are looking a little short of big stuff. The brontothere is enormous (surprisingly so - it'sthe size of a small elephant, a fact that is obscurred by the current glass case, which makes it difficult to get up close to it) but most of the other beasties of the Paleocene to Oligocene are a bit on the small side. The only other large-ish skeleton that might fit this area, a uintathere, is actually a life-sized paper mache model and one of the few specimens that we actively want to remove from the gallery (in order to replace it with a fossil skull from the Peabody's exceptional collection of O.C. Marsh-era uintathere skulls).

So one of the first challenges we have to face is whether or not to try and even-up the size distribution across the hall, which from a practical point of view means retiring large specimens from the icehouse. This is not as straightforward as it might at first seem. Setting aside the fact that many of these are charismatic specimens that the public would want to see, there is a very real practical problem of finding space to store large display mounts in the collection. I might want to retire our specimen of giant deer (I've never been able to get very excited over Megaloceros. It's a very big deer with very big antlers. Wow) but if I do then it's me that has to figure out where to put it and deal with hate mail from the 2.5 Megaloceros fans in the world. Also, one could argue that gigantism was very much a feature of the Pleistocene - hey, they don't call it a "megafauna" for nothing.

The flip side of this is that an accurate portrayal of a typical mammal fauna from the hothouse would be dominated by small animals. Our big titanothere is actually quite atypical of most of the mammals from this period, as it comes from a time when the climate was becoming drier and forests began to open out into woodland. If you want modern-day analogues, you'd probably look at the sort of animals that are typical of closed-canopy tropical rainforests - small herbivores like duikers and chevrotains on the forest floor and the canopy dominated by various fruit-eating rodents and primates. And sure enough, when we get into the Peabody collections we discover plenty of fossils of these sorts of mammal from the rainforests of Paleocene and Eocene  North America. However, finding display-worthy specimens is quite another matter.

To complicate things further, when we come to choose the specimens there's another factor that we have to bear in mind - that large mural that hangs over the gallery. As much as possible, we would like the new exhibits in both the Great Hall and the Cenozoic Hall to reflect what is shown in the Zallinger murals, if only to draw attention to some of the advances in our understanding of paleobiology that have occurred over the 50-plus years since the murals were completed. That means that not only do we have to try and find display-worthy material representative of the environment that we are describing - we also have to find display quality material of the species shown in the mural. This is not as easy a task as one might think, as Laura, Lowell, and I discovered when we went into the collections. More on this in the next post on the fossil hall renovations.