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.