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.....]

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