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.