Monday, July 5, 2010

Credit Where Due

In the past, when I’ve written critical things about my former employer in NYC, some of my friends there have accused me of being a “hater.” So it’s nice to have an opportunity to commend AMNH for its new series of videos highlighting the extraordinary wealth of its collections. The first of these, which focuses on the Department of Ichthyology, can be seen by clicking on the link above. This is absolutely the sort of thing that museums should be doing – harnessing new (or at least, new-ish) technologies to show people things that they don’t normally get to see. I wholeheartedly applaud this. This is why I can now offer some constructive criticism.

First, 2½ minutes may be the average attention span of a YouTube viewer, but it’s a very short amount of time in which to cover one of the world’s great fish collections. So why waste half that time talking about two specimens (a grouper skeleton and a coelacanth), especially as the topics of the discussion - teleost feeding and lobe fins - are covered in the Museum’s permanent displays on vertebrate evolution? Melanie Stiassny and her colleagues are doing some amazing work, collecting in the Congo Basin and Madagascar among other places, and it would have been interesting to hear about how these sorts of studies of biodiversity rely on museum collections.

Second, it would be nice if once in a while, when the doors of the collections swing open, we could hear from someone other than a curator. Diversity is important and while picking Melanie – one of only eight women out of more than 60 tenured curators and emeriti – was an inspired choice for the first video, there are many people working behind the scenes who have considerable knowledge of the collections, but who approach them from very different perspectives. No doubt AMNH has this angle covered for the later videos, but it’s an important point, which raises some wider issues.

In the last 20 years or so, museums have become a lot more professional in the way that they present themselves to the outside world. AMNH was in the forefront of this movement and by-and-large it has been a good thing. Museums are now taken seriously when they comment on issues of global significance, such as the environment, biodiversity, and evolution (assuming that they choose to comment, which is a whole other issue). Unfortunately, this approach runs the risk of the institution appearing a little monolithic and, dare I say, corporate.

Clearly there are times when institutions need to speak clearly and with one voice. But museums are also diverse communities of individuals, all with their own expertise and their own differing approaches to their work; this is one of the reasons that they are such great places to work. We should be harnessing the potential of social networking technologies – blogging, Facebook, Flickr photostreams, and YouTube channels - to give these people a voice. Isn’t it interesting to find out, for example, how to preserve a fish in alcohol? Or clean an elephant? Or extract fossils from rock? Or repair an African drum? Or simply to have museum staff pick their favorite object from the collections for an exhibit, as my colleagues at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History are doing for its 150th anniversary.

Museums should have the courage to embrace diversity of opinion, especially when the opinions are as well-informed as those of its own staff. I’m looking forward to seeing what AMNH does with the rest of its collections videos.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that this video is great. Melanie is an accessible and enthusiastic presenter. And for those of us for whom the small impediment of the Atlantic Ocean makes dropping down to AMNH to see the real exhibits a bit difficult, it's no problem that the video repeats some of that material. And yes, it would be great to see all media being used to get across simple messages about why we collect natural history specimens. See my recent post about dung beetles!