Saturday, December 17, 2011

One for the Laydeez

For all of you out there that love Ryan Gosling, I am delighted to present the blogging genius that is "Hey girl. I love museums." (with thanks to Derya for sharing)

Thursday, December 15, 2011


As a Brit working in America, I realize that my colleagues are often confused by the apparent contradictions between what I say and what I think/do. So here is a helpful translator.


The December edition of Museums Journal contains a depressing article by Gareth Harris on the slow demise of the specialist natural history curator in UK museums. It accompanies an even more depressing letter from Steven Falk, who was recently made redundant from his position as senior  keeper of natural history at the Warwickshire Museum. Falk was, in his own words, the "last surviving keeper of natural history in the West Midlands," a region with a population of over 5 million people. When he started work (in 1990) there were 10 specialist natural history positions in West Midlands museums. Now there are none.

As has been discussed in previous posts, the UK is ploughing the depths of public austerity measures at the moment. Anyone who reads this blog knows what I think about that, so we won't rehash it here. But one result of shrinking budgets is that managers are keen to look for efficiencies in their operations. This is the stock response of various local authority managers that Harris quotes in his article. There's much talk of "integrated approaches," "restructuring," and "realignment of resources."

I have a certain sympathy with this logic. I don't particularly see myself as a paleontologist, a zoologist, or a natural historian. I'm a manager - of people and resources, both financial and fossil (the resources that is - not the people....). But I do have one significant advantage over a non-specialist, which is that having trained and done research in systematic zoology and paleontology, I understand the needs of our users and I can prioritize effectively based on this. I can also interpret the material in my care for a wider audience. And both of these skills, I'd argue, are critical components of responsible collections stewardship.

Could I transfer my skill set to a non-natural history museum? Probably, if I were solely concerned with administration. But I would still be heavily dependent on specialists to guide the decisions that affected their collections. The fact is that natural history collections are different from those covering the arts and humanities. I'm currently working with colleagues from Yale's libraries and art museums on metadata standards for cross-campus collections discovery, and its already very clear that we place different values on different categories of data.

To expand on this, it's frequently said (but worth repeating) that a large part of the value of natural history collections lies in their associated data, something that may be hard to grasp if you look after Rembrandts for a living. So an effective strategy for managing natural history collections might be tilted more towards data management and delivery than, say, object treatment. Or at least, it ought to be. And the quality of those data will be heavily dependent on specialist expertise. There is no amount of experience as a conservator or historian that will equip you to identify insects.

Part of the problem, as anyone who has ever attended an AAM meeting will know, is that natural history forms only a tiny part of the the museum sector. There are far more art museums and many, many more history museums. This is reflected in the output of graduates from museum studies programs. So in simple statistical terms, if local authority managers don't actively defend the need for at least some science expertise on their museum staff, you will end up with "social historians and archaeologists" (in Falk's words) dealing with natural history collections. There are just more of them around.

That managerial decision will be easier if the skill sets of those natural history curators encompass some general management experience, and even easier if the person making the decision was once a natural history curator themselves. I still know too many colleagues who turn their noses up at "administration" or "management-speak" and want to be "left alone to get on with my job." Unfortunately, in a shrinking workforce, flexibility is key. The cost of keeping your job may be doing less of what drew you into the profession in the first place.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Now don't get me wrong - I'm a big fan of taxidermy. I wouldn't be working in a natural history museum if I wasn't. But there's something about this Martha Stewart piece that's deeply creepy. Maybe it's Martha herself. But just for the record, folks, don't use antique taxidermy as a table centerpiece, unless you want to be chowing down on arsenic trioxide and all the other nasties that were used to prepare it.

Big Money

In hot-off-the-press investment news, Bloomberg reports that Standard & Poor’s Global Luxury Index is failing to reflect the escalating demand for dinosaurs. According to Hal Prandi of Two Guys Fossils Inc what the market is waiting for is dinosaur genitalia. "There’s never been a fossilized penis or vagina found on a dinosaur,” he says. “The first person who finds one is going to make bundles of cash, but who knows how much.” I think I'll stop there.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Good News

The good news, according to AAM, is that the Senate Appropriations Committee for the Interior, which funds NEA, NEH and historic preservation programs, has unveiled a funding bill for FY12 that restores $8 million for Save America’s Treasures, which has not received funding since FY10. The bad news is that the bill, which also proposes $155 million each for NEA and NEH, will likely face numerous amendments during Committee consideration. As the happy recipient of an SAT grant I can testify to the importance of this program and would urge American readers to write to their Member of Congress to support restoration of the scheme.


A few days ago, I was hanging around in the great hall of London's Natural History Museum, considering their cast of Dipolodocus carnegii, which is the focus a new fundraising effort to renovate the hall. It's called "I Love Dippy," because apparently that's what generations of visitors to the Museum have affectionately called the skeleton. I've been going there for at least 40 years, and it's the first time I've ever heard it called that, which leads me to believe that the sobriquet was dreamt up by the NHM marketing department, but maybe I'm just an old curmudgeon. However, to its credit, the captioning associated with the appeal made it very clear that "Dippy" (ugh) is not actually a "real" skeleton, but a cast donated by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

Despite the fact that Carnegie's name is on the specimen, I doubt that most visitors to NHM know anything at all about him, despite the fact that he was a major philanthropist, who gave away around $380 million of his personal fortune (which would probably be worth around $5 billion today) and has his name on, among other things, two museums, a university, a medal for children's books, two towns, a street in Belgrade, and a species of cactus. Being a donor is a thankless task.

I had Carnegie in mind after my return to the States, when there was an announcement on Facebook that the Occupy Wall Street movement was about to invade the dinosaur galleries of AMNH. Many gallons of editorial ink have been devoted to discussing the aims of OWS, and frankly I'm still none the wiser. They seem to have a lot in common with the Tea Party (although both movements vehemently deny this) in that they are expressions of volcanic anger directed at everything to do with "The Man." Personally, I think that both the Tea Party and OWS are actually manifestations of the same "Man," who is pulling the strings behind the scenes, but then I'm paranoid and enjoy conspiracy theories. There have been rumbles for a few weeks that OWS was considering targetting New York museums, on the basis that they are "elitist." If that's not evidence of an OWS/Tea Party link, I don't know what is. Teabaggers are notorious for their suspicion/hatred of "elites." The AMNH, which is (at least superficially) the least elitist of the big Manhattan museums, probably thought it was safe. But no.

However, before we get into the whys and wherefores of this, I am pleased to offer you an eyewitness account of the great protest (see above for a picture):

There was only about 12 of them, wearing little dino noses, and they just stood around talking.... At the end they walked over to the ceratopsians and one of them did a bit of a mystical dance. They were a bit late getting there, and I was wondering if they'd been held up by visitor services asking them if they wanted tickets to the IMAX. There were about 25-30 AMNH staff watching and even more Security.

So hardly the storming of the Bastille. But why does OWS have such a downer on dinosaurs? The answer lies in a donation made to the Museum some years ago by David H. Koch. The name may not be familiar, but Koch is the 4th richest man in America (according Forbes Magazine) and a lightning rod for OWS, which sees him (and his brother Charles) as bankrolling the libertarian right, attacking the Obama administration, and generally asserting undue influence on the political process by virtue of their personal wealth. The Kochs have been the targets of much bigger (and more violent) protests than the one at AMNH, but the fact that the dinosaurs live in the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing (named in recognition of Koch's $20 million gift the the Museum) apparently made them a legitimate focus for a discussion of the "evils of Koch" as my source described the protestors' rantings.

All of this made me think again about Andrew Carnegie. Like Carnegie, Koch is a heavyweight philanthropist; his foundation has donated or pledged over $750 million to medical research, science, education, and the arts. Like Carnegie, who devoted much of his wealth to promoting anti-imperialism and world peace, there is much to admire in Koch's views, which have encompassed support for gay marriage and stem cell research, opposition to the Iraq War, and (back in the eighties) decriminalization of recreational drugs. And unlike Carnegie, whose company unleashed the Pinkertons on striking steelworkers, leading to a riot in which ten people died and hundreds were injured, Koch's support of the free market doesn't extend to physical force. When we look at the dinosaurs in the Carnegie Museum, we don't think of the spilled blood of the workers at Homestead. So should we care about the Koch Dinosaur Hall?

Actually, I think we should, and here's why. Unlike Carnegie, whose interest in science didn't really extend beyond a general support of evolution, David Koch has a very definite agenda related to climate change. He has expressed skepticism about anthropogenic global warming; according to a recent article in the New Yorker, the Kochs have donated funding to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, "underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups." The New Yorker article also cited a UMASS Amherst report that identified Koch Industries as one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. The content of the article has not gone unchallenged by Koch Industries and others (see here for a counterview), but in a sense the specific rights and wrongs are not important. It's the mere existence of controversy that's a problem.

Museums like AMNH are in a unique position to address questions of climate change, and to bring the results of this work to the attention of the public. Indeed, AMNH has already produced an exhibit on the subject, online educational material like this kids' activity, and taught courses. So it can hardly be accused of soft-peddling the issue. But in the current, toxic political environment, any association can - and probably will - be placed under intense scrutiny. Was a particular statement slanted a particular way to avoid giving offense? Or was it over-emphasized to avoid a perception of bias? And suddenly, an issue has been created where none actually existed. This has already happened at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, where the human origins exhibit (also named for Koch, in recognition of a $15 million gift) was criticized for downplaying the significance of - you guessed it - human-caused global warming.

All of which goes to demonstrate the extraordinarily narrow and twisting path that museums are forced to tread. On the one hand, as public funding is slashed, they become more and more dependent on the generosity of donors like David Koch to support their research and education programs. At the same time, they have to be protective of their most precious resource, which is public trust. A 2008 survey by IMLS showed that libraries and museums rank higher in trustworthiness than all other information sources including government, commercial, and private Web sites. Trust is more fragile than any artifact in our collections, and once lost is very difficult to get back.

Monday, October 17, 2011

I Read The News Today...

My colleague Jackie Hoff, from the Science Museum of Minnesota, has provided quite a nice description of a typical "day in the life" of someone working with natural history collections. If anything, it's a bit normal - for one thing, there seems to be a complete absence of crazy people. I guess maybe folks are more level-headed in the Midwest. But the paleontologist who can't remember where he wants his specimen to be loaned to? That's totally true to life.


It's not often you see the word "possibly" in a banner headline, which suggests that even the authors of this Yahoo! News item found it a bit far-fetched. There are many reasons why you might find an assemblages of icthyosaur bones, but I'd have to say that "lair of an as-yet-undiscovered giant cephalopod" would be low on my list. Plainly I need to get to the GSA meetings more often. BTW, have you noticed how all giant undescribed marine creatures are "nearly 100 feet long?" Funny that.

Undoubtably this news item will turn up on cryptozoological websites, where it will be linked to misinterpreted whale blubber wash-ups as yet more evidence of "giant octopi."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Million Dollar Shed

It's refreshing to see that the USA is not the only place where people chunter about public spending for museums. In the UK, a minor storm in a teacup is erupting over the fate of Roald Dahl's shed. The Dahl museum wants to move and conserve the shed, a 1950s "temporary" structure in which Dahl wrote most of his classic stories and which has been left untouched since he died in 1990. This comes with a £500K price-tag, which strikes some people, notably Andrew M. Brown of the Daily Telegraph, as a bit steep.

In part, this comes down to the usual problem of people not understanding what's involved in conservation; if you look closely at the film of the hut on the BBC's website, it becomes immediately apparent that many hours of work will be required to stabilise the hut and its contents; it's packed full of archival materials, including papers, photographs, furniture, and other items, all of which will need treatment and most of which appear, even from a distance, to be severely degraded. Conservation is expensive. Get over it.

A bigger issue from Brown et al, is the fact that Dahl's family are asking for help rather funding the project themselves. Dahl's books remain best-sellers world-wide, no-doubt ensuring a dependable revenue stream for his Estate. According to the Museum  the family has made "a very significant financial contribution" to the project. It may seem a little intrusive to them, but if they want the public to pony up funds they may have to come clean about exactly how much that contribution is. That's the world we live in

Million Dollar Attic

I might as well confess right now that I don't listen to National Public Radio, because I have to spend all day listening to other people's opinions and the idea that I might spend my leisure time doing the same thing is, frankly, a real downer. Nonetheless, I *did* listen to this piece from Morning Edition, because it featured my former colleagues Mark Norell and Carl Mehling, and because it included the remarkable claim that Carl actually goes to lectures at SVP before he starts partying (only kidding, Carl!).

However, I came away irritated because, as is usually the case when journalists come to the museum, they kick off with an assenine comment about how museum collections are like "my grandparent's attic, only more exotic." Hahahaha. Well guess what, guys? I'm currently spending about half a million of your taxpayer dollars on my olde curiosity shoppe, so you'd better hope that it's a bit more useful than the contents of grandad's attic.

And, of course, it is. If you want to how we could possibly justify spending all that money on a bunch of dusty old bits of this-n-that, take a look here. For now, I hope Morning Edition sticks to talking about more appropriate, light-hearted topics. Suggestively-shaped vegetables seems more up their street.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Big Ideas

Museums should be places where we celebrate the human experience, rather than dwelling on all the nasty stuff. This is the gist of an op-ed piece by Tiffany Jenkins in The Independent. I'll let you mull over her thesis yourself. It does raise an interesting point, I guess, about why museums preserve stuff; if the sole purpose of the collection is to memorialize, is it really a museum? It also raises questions of balance - how can the moral certainty required for a memorial co-exist with a balanced, dispassionate consideration of history? But I ended up being much more interested by the author's home institution. Dr. Jenkins works for the Institute of Ideas, which is not to be confused with the Ideas Institute. Puts me in mind of the People's Front for Judea and the Judean People's Front. The Ideas Institute shows what happens when Marxists go Libertarian, and the results are predictably hilarious. I had a great deal of fun reading their 21 Pledges for Political Progress - for example #20 says "direct state funding of health to biomedical research into cures, the latest drugs and equipment, rather than punitive campaigns to change individual behaviour, in the interests of public health and good cheer." In the light of my previous post, this is something that I would be all in favor of.

Weighty Matters

A couple of weeks ago a colleague sent me a post from the Center for the Future of Museums blog about a new exhibit that is being planned for the Peabody. It's called "Big Food" and its about the "global obesity epidemic." She wanted me to (1) give the blog post a plug and (2) make it go "viral." This is me doing #1. For #2, I showed her that honey badger clip from YouTube and asked whether she really thought the blog post had the same potential. It's a good post, but frankly I can't see it on a teeshirt. She asked me, rather sniffily, how I would have blogged about this exhibit. And here's what I told her.

I am, not to put to fine a point on it, fat. Not hugely, break the furniture, fat, but I am carrying a few too many pounds. My doctor continually gives me grief about this, along with my cholesterol levels, blood pressure, triglyceride levels, and a bunch of other stuff. She makes me get on a scale and afterwards she plots my weight and height on a BMI chart and tells me I'm overweight, which I already know. I exercise and diet, and it doesn't do a whole lot of good. I once lost over 30lbs, then put it all back on. All of this makes me feel bad. So why would I spend my leisure time going to a museum exhibit that, frankly, sounds like a big fat downer?

This is a challenge for any museum. Consider the statistics. Around 33% of adult Americans are overweight or obese. In some communities, the figures are as high as 45-55%. These communities are often those that, traditionally, have been underserved by museums. We want them to come and visit, but are they really going to be drawn to an exhibit if it lays out, in loving detail, the medical consequences of their "lifestyle choices?" If I go to the exhibit, will skinny visitors point me out to their children as living proof of the effects of too much high fructose corn syrup? Will I become, in a very Nina Simon sort of way, part of the exhibit?

The "Obesity Epidemic" is actually a good fit for a natural history museum - it has both biological and cultural aspects and the Peabody's success in reaching out to diverse audiences means that there is the potential to make a genuine impact in the community. Partnering with the Rudd Center means that there is a good chance that the exhibit will manage to navigate the complex issues associated with obesity - unsurprisingly, effecting major changes in public health is not as easy as banning fast food and making people eat up their greens. I just wonder whether the people that we most need to talk to are the ones who will be least inclined to visit. It will be fascinating to see how the team creating the exhibition addresses this challenge.

Or maybe they could just do something on fat dinosaurs. People love dinosaurs. Even chubby ones.

Excuses, excuses

I must apologize for the relative scarcity of posts over the past couple of weeks. First, I went on vacation. Then, when I returned, I found a tree had fallen on my house, courtesy of Hurricane Irene. I realize that this sounds like the blogging equivalent of "the dog ate my homework" but it's true, as the accompanying image shows. Anyway, cleaning up has absorbed a lot of my time and I haven't been thinking much about museums while I've been doing it. Which is bad, because I work in a museum. Anyway, normal service is now resumed.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

When Dodos Cry

The astute reader of this blog may have noticed that I rarely, if ever, get drawn into blogging about creationism, intelligent design, etc. I did do it once, I think, but that was a long time ago and I regretted it immediately. Maybe it's that, being British, I find it hard to believe that anyone actually cares about this stuff. I mean, didya happen to notice that the global economy is collapsing at the moment? But I do agree with Richard Dawkins (whoa, never thought I'd write that in a blog post!) who recently proposed that acceptance of the theory of evolution is one possible litmus test for the suitability of presidential candidates. If you fail to be convinced by the evidence for natural selection, chances are that you're going to struggle to make sense of complex economic, national security, and societal decisions as well. He then undermined my cozy state of mutual agreement by going off on a rant about why we don't use the same process to select a president as we would to, say, make a new CEO or faculty appointment. My guess is that he's a bit offended that a stupid person's vote is worth the same as his. It is worth remembering, of course, that this principal is one that people are fighting and dying for across the world even as I write. Democracy is no respector of IQ.

The Dawkins article was one of a series of op-ed pieces published by the Washington Post on the subject of religion and evolution. The latest of these, by Paula Kirby, has left me scratching my head somewhat. I've seen many people try to claim that evolution invalidates religious belief, but this is the first time I've seen someone try to argue that evolution is so nasty that no merciful god would have used it as a mechanism of creation. Or, in Kirby's words -

"Evolution produces some wondrously beautiful results; but it happens at the cost of unimaginable suffering on the part of countless billions of individuals and, indeed, whole species, 99 percent of which have so far become extinct. It is irreconcilable with a god of love."

Let's stop for a moment and consider the concept of "species suffering." How, exactly, does a species suffer? Does it have a collective consciousness that is, in some way, aware that it is failing? Is there a sense of unrealized potential - "only 500,000 years? Why, oh Lord? Why?" Perhaps this is leavened by hope for the future; the expiring species takes comfort as it "sees" a closely-related sister taxon thriving and diversifying, much like an old man dying at home, surrounded by children and grandchildren. Was there, perhaps, a point where the last dodo, unable to find a mate, wept bitter tears at the thought that its species might have had an eternity of existence if only those pesky Dutchmen hadn't come along?

No, of course not. This is a silly line of argument and it illustrates why I don't waste my time writing about evolution and religion. It's a debate that is mostly characterized by ignorance. Critiques of evolution tend to be written by people who know little or nothing about evolutionary biology; critiques of religion tend to be written by people who know little or nothing about theology. Consequently the discussion never rises above the level of high school debate team. "Evolution is a 'theory' not a 'fact.'" "There can't be a god, because there are wars and bad things happen to good people." "Humans can't have evolved from apes, because apes are still alive." "If there's a god, why can't I see him?" "Flagellae and eyes are too complex to have evolved without the assistance of a designer." "I know there can't be a god, because of Occam's Razor." Call me an old stick in the mud, but if I was smart enough to be reading op-ed pieces in heavyweight papers like the Washington Post, I'd want something with a bit more academic rigor to go with my cornflakes.

Sorry for the rant, but that "species suffering" business really yanked my chain.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Minnesota Mystery Animal

It's a badger. But well done to Discovery blogger Benjamin Radford for taking the time to unpack the reasons why it's still a badger, even if it looks weird. As he says:

"...if we see a three-legged dog by the side of the road we don’t assume that it must be a previously unknown breed of three-legged dogs that science has not discovered. Instead we logically assume that the dog likely lost its leg through an accident or birth defect. Yet when it comes to other known animals with a strange appearance, people often reach for extraordinary explanations instead of logical ones."


The Smithsonian has launched a new blog called the Department of Innovation. Apparently it will cover “all things innovative, not just in science and technology but how we live, how we learn, and how we entertain ourselves.” Unfortunately, rather than highlighting the exciting new content of the blog, my fellows denizens of the blogosphere have gleefully latched onto its logo. Their amusement lies in the fact that there is apparently no way that the three interlocking gear wheels can move - the whole system is locked-up. Here at PoH, however, we pride ourselves with more detailed analysis, which reveals that there is - just - enough of a gap between wheels 2 and 3 to allow movement. So if this logo is, as some have claimed, a representation of the three branches of the U.S. Government, then perhaps that tiny gap represents compromise. I'll leave you to decide. (with thanks to Sally for sharing).

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A few quick updates...

It's been another lousy month for me where blogging is concerned, but before July fizzles out I wanted to draw your attention to a couple of interesting things. First, there's been another addition to the growing list of natural history collection blogs, in the form of Elee Kirk's 'Stuffed Stuff: Adventures in Natural History Museums and Taxidermy'; it's fun, and if you're at all interested in the weird and wonderful side of our profession, I certainly urge you to go take a look.

Next, Carl Zimmer kindly drew my attention to this excellent conference. Sadly, I shall be attending another meeting in late October, but if you live in Pennsylvania and believe that you share your beautiful state with large, hairy, non-human primates, this is the meeting for you. As a bonus, you get to hear about aliens as well!

While we're on the subject of cryptozoology, it's summertime, which invariably means British big cat sightings. As you may recall, we've discussed this phenomenon in an earlier post; no need to rehash it here, other than to note that the British big cat cryptozoology community was dealt a body blow two weeks ago with the closure of its professional journal, the News of the World. Anyhoo, it's my home state that has been making the running in the puma stakes recently.

First, puma sightings in Greenwich, CT back in May turned out to be - amazingly - a puma! Then, even more amazing, it now seems that it walked here from South Dakota. Apparently young males often disperse long distances in search of mates. This one apparently took a wrong turn, hiking 1,500 miles in search of sex, only to be run down by a car. As my colleague Greg noted, this was the feline equivalent of Spring Break.

There are a few points here that set this apart from a British big cat story, and any readers of a cryptozoological bent might want to take note of them. First, there was "evidence," in the form of 140lbs of dead puma, rather than a blurry photo of next door's cat. Next, "science" (as opposed to the preferred crptozoological methodology of "guess") was used to show that the animal was actually from a known population of cougars, rather than some long-lost population of the Eastern cougar that had survived since the 1930s without anyone noticing.

Third, cougars are actually native to North America and this one walked here, an option not available to any cougar wishing to colonize Britain. Finally, despite the fact that we live in a heavily wooded state, with nearly 60% forest cover and abundant deer, this thing still ended up dead on a highway with an empty stomach. So how long do you think it would have lasted in, say, Gloucestershire?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

But We Should Be Glad We Have It At All

Yesterday I was driving into Niantic, CT, behind a large black SUV. It's always interesting when someone's vehicle provides a comprehensive summary of their socio-political beliefs. In this case, we had military (Maine veteran's plates, USMC sticker, "support our troops" sticker, Vietnam Vet sticker), religion ("Keep Christ in Christmas," "Abortion Stills a Beating Heart," "106.7 The Promise FM," "Knights of Columbus"), 2nd Amendment (NRA sticker, "Just Try and Take It" superimposed over the silhouette of an M-16), and the catch all "I Love The USA!" No Discovery Institute sticker, so I guess there's the faint hope that they're opponents of equal time for ID, but I wouldn't put money on it.

People like this tend be big fans of the sort of "exposé" recently published by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). The Coburn Report pupports to demonstrate how NSF is wasting taxpayer funds on worthless research. Now don't get him wrong. Sen. Coburn is not anti-science; he just wants NSF to fund useful science (my guess is that this encompasses bigger bombs and cures for the various afflications that affect his aging constituency of angry white male voters; lumbago, prostate cancer, and erectile disfunction are biggies, I suspect). NSF does do this, the report grudgingly acknowledges, but it also spends too much money on "indulging the curiosity of scientists."

Setting aside the fact that "the curiosity of scientists" is what has generated all of the useful science that Sen. Coburn claims to be a fan of, the report is an object lesson of some of the challenges faced by agencies like NSF. It is a masterpiece of dissembling. Even assuming that the examples of research cited by the report are "wasteful," they amount to a tiny fraction (<0.01%) of NSF's annual budget. Is everything else "wasteful?" Well, we don't know. What we *do* know is that everything that was funded went through peer review, which is a far more vigorous process of assessment than the review carried out by the wonks in Coburn's office.

That is not to disparage Coburn's staffers because they clearly have considerable talents in the black arts of politics. Note how the report takes NSF's principal strength - the claim that it funds "transformative research" - and turns it into a weapon. OK, the report asks - how much of the research  funded by NSF is genuinely "transformative?" The answer, of course, is not much. By its very nature, transformative research tends to be both rare and difficult to identify in advance. For a funding agency to claim that this is its primary objective is both an ambitious goal and a hostage to fortune, something that Coburn and his staff quickly recognized.

One way to counter arguments like this is to find new ways to talk to the taxpaying public through education and outreach. The risk, of course, in developing rap videos for kids that explain scientific concepts (See Money 4 Drugz) is that it's terriby easy to point to this as a misuse of taxpayer funds for an apparently trivial activity. The fact that the $50,000 quoted by the report didn't actually pay for this video or any others (it was a networking grant looking at novel outreach methods) is by-the-by. It's possible to shoot down pretty much every claim made in the report - see here for a point-by-point rebuttal by one of the researchers cited by Coburn - but it takes time and it's unlikely to be read by the man in the black SUV.

Does this matter? Absolutely. It's likely that in the near future the US House of Representatives will be looking at the fiscal year (FY) 2012 appropriations bill that will fund NSF. Less money for NSF means less money for ADBC, CSBR, and all the other programs that we care about. So if you are a U.S. Citizen (be you Republican, Democrat, or Independent) reading this and you care about any of the things that I've been described in this blog over the past couple of years, follow this link and do something about it.

[OK, that's it with the US-centric stuff. Normal service will be resumed shortly]

.... While the Other Taketh Away?

We're all grateful for ADBC, of course, but what to make of the merging of the Improvements to Biological Research Collections (BRC) and Living Stock Collections for Biological Research (LSCBR) programs into a single, new program, Collections in Support of Biological Research (CSBR). At first sight, it seems like there's nothing too alarming in here. The total funding for the new program is a bit less that the combined total for the two former ones ($6.5M vs $7M) but then cost-cutting is very much the flavor of the hour and it can't really be argued that NSF have robbed Peter to pay Paul by taking funds away from BRC to create ADBC. Or can it?

The solicitation for CSBR makes it absolute clear that, for natural history collections, it "requires that the activities funded through this Program interface with the soon to be announced national Home Uniting Biocollections (HUB) established and supported by the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC) Program." And if that weren't explicit enough - "As a part of the improvements to collections, all specimens handled---if not already digitized--- should be digitized and the data linked to the national resource for digitized biocollections." So the aims of CSBR are very explicitly tied to ADBC.

Is this a bad thing? Yes and no (you can tell I'm Libran, right?). In developing the national strategy for collections digitization, it was always clear that no one program, or agency, would be able to support this process, so maximizing bang for buck by having other, related programs contribute to national digitization objectives is a good thing. On the minus side, BRC was one of the major sources of support for capital upgrades to collections and this role may now be jeopardized.

How so? Well, consider this. There was a ceiling of $500K for single institution BRC grants which has carried over into the new CSBR program. This sounds like a lot of money, but it gets spent surprisingly quickly. With fringe benefits and indirect costs, a single new staff member can eat half of this. While we all hope that new technologies and improvements to collections workflows will make our lives easier, the fact remains that the biggest barrier to large scale collections digitization is the availability of staff. If you spend funds on new staff for the mandated digitization component of your CSBR project, how much money will be left for new cabinets, compact storage systems, etc?

Prioritization is a good thing, and it was important to prioritize digitization as a national objective because of its potential to massively increase the scope and impact of collections as a resource for the support of science. But at the same time, it would be a pity if this were to bring a halt to the great strides that have been made under BRC in improving the physical wellbeing of collections.

One Hand Giveth....

[I apologize to my non-US readers for a flurry of postings that will be of limited interest to them. Rest assured that I will be back to writing about bogus puma sightings in Devon in the very near future]

For the last few months, rather like Britain and France during 1939/40, we've been engaged in a bit of a Phoney War; everyone knows that something big is coming, but nothing has actually happened yet. So it's with a sigh of relief that I can finally report that the first round of grants under NSF's Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC) program has been announced. You can read all about them here, but in a nutshell there are now three large-scale collections digitization networks, focusing on invertebrate collections, insect/plant interactions, and North American lichens and bryophytes. Hopefully these will be the first of many.

The whole program will be coordinated by a national center at the University of Floride, known as iDigBio, under the direction of Larry Page. They have some exciting plans, which you can read all about on their new blog. They were also kind enough to include PoH on their blogroll, which would have earnt them a plug even if this weren't a very important program for all the reasons that I've mentioned over the past year or so (click on the "digitization" tag in the tag-cloud on the right if you want to rehash all of this).

One of the most impressive aspects of this first round is the sheer number of collections that are involved in the first round - 92 institutions in 45 states. This breadth of coverage is important, because from an early stage it's been clear that one of the biggest challenges for a national digitization program is going to be engaging and motivating all those collections who don't get any direct funding under ADBC. So community engagement will need to be a big part of the work of iDigBio.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I was part of an unsuccessful proposal under ADBC, so this has all been something of a bittersweet experience - great satisfaction to see the program up and running in such a short period of time, anticipation for what will be achieved, and regret that I'll be watching it happen from a distance rather than participating directly. On the other hand, I do get to spend more time in my garden....

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Science and Media

This painting from the Optimistic Paintings Blog says it all, as far as paleontology and the media is concerned. Thanks to Christine for sharing...


You have to feel a little sorry for my former boss, Mark. Having spent more than 30 years cultivating a cool persona, he has had it blown to shreds by this, frankly hagiographic, piece in the Wall Street Journal. The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, but there is nothing more uncool than being publicly outed as cool. Unless it's being publicly outed as the second coolest person in the world.....

Friday, June 10, 2011

Yours For a Price

I don't know about you but, while I accept the right of private dealers to make a living, I find natural history auction catalogs deeply depressing. Consider, for example, the catalog for Heritage Auctions June 11, 2011 sale, which is taking place in Dallas, Texas. I would particularly like to draw your attention to Lot #49053, a slice from the Williamette Meteorite. The Williamette, a 15 ton iron/nickel monster from Oregon, is one of the flagship specimens of the American Museum of Natural History. It is also a sacred object for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. This led to various requests for repatriation in the past, culminating in a landmark agreement between the AMNH and the Grand Ronde that allows tribal members to conduct a private ceremony around the meteorite once a year. It also stipulates that ownership of the meteorite will be transferred to Grand Ronde should the Museum cease display it.

So far, so good. But by now you might be wondering what a 30lb chunk of this sacred object is doing sat in an auction house in Dallas. If you want to know the full history, take a look at the auction catalog and this 2007 article from the New York Times. You can draw your own conclusions from them. But what does it say about the private market in natural history that one of the major selling points for this object is the Museum's recognition that the act of sampling is so sacriligious to the Grand Ronde that it should no longer be allowed? And that the Robb Report lists Tomanowos, representative of the Sky People to the Clackamas, as one of the "21 Ultimate Gifts" for 2011?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Ev'rything's Coming Up Dusty

Things have come to a pretty pass when I use a post as an opportunity to namecheck a Dusty Springfield album (even if it happens to be my mother's favorite record). But in this case it helps to highlight a pet peeve of mine, which is the tendency for journalists (some of whom should know better) to refer reflexly to all museum collections as "dusty." The latest one to draw my ire is David Malakoff, who wrote a piece in Conservation Magazine describing how isotopic studies based on museum skins have demonstrated that macaque monkeys in Singapore are now feeding at a lower trophic level as a result of biodiversity losses. A great example of how the historic data stored in collections can be used to address pressing research issues, undermined only by the author's assumption that they are housed in the institutional equivalent of a mad uncle's attic.

Anyway, I was all fired up to comment on this, but my Canadian colleage Judith got there first. Apparently she uses Twitter to track this stuff. So I had to be the third comment, which made me look less than cutting edge.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Sad to say, there's news of another proposed museum cut, in this case the ornithology program at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Natural History, which is part of the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Here's the email from the ornithology curator, John Klicka. Note particularly paragraph 2; admittedly it's not a direct quote from UNLV's VP for Research, but the statement about museum work being "antiquated and no longer relevant in the modern world," if true, is quite extraordinary. Even a cursory glance at this group's publication list shows that they are using a mixture of molecular and morphological techniques to address real issues in conservation, wildlife management, and environmental change; the journals that they are publishing in are indicative of its quality. As a former university administrator, I normally heave a deep sigh when I hear my colleagues go off on the iniquities of their administrations, but even I'd have to admit that this one takes the biscuit.


EMAIL FROM: John Klicka

Dear Colleagues:

As many of you have likely heard, due to a prolonged economic downturn in Nevada the Curator of Birds position at the Marjorie Barrick Museum will likely lose its state funding after July 2011. This decision was ultimately made by the University's Vice President for Research (a long-term administrator, formerly a chair in the Sociology Department). The Director of my academic unit (Dr. Oliver Hemmers [], an expert in X-ray atomic and molecular spectroscopy) has suggested that it might be helpful if I solicited some opinions from outside sources that would argue in support of the continued operation of the Ornithology program at the Barrick Museum.

The immediate problems appear to be two-fold. First, Oliver has told me that the VP for Research believes that museum work is antiquated and no longer relevant in the modern world. He needs to be informed that the type of work being done in the Ornithology program is of critical importance in these days of disappearing habitats and climate change. Second, the VP for Research is apparently under the impression that nearly all we do in this program is collect, prepare, and catalogue specimens. Of course, as specimen-based researchers our group does these things, but the program has also been very productive with respect to student training and original research. Since 2006 we have produced 26 peer-reviewed publications and have given 22 presentations at national or international meetings (see web links below). The single state line associated with this program (the Curator position) thus produces a considerable return for the University. Our VP for Research needs to be informed that we do better than average work here, and that despite its small size, the Barrick Museum Ornithology Program and its collections have put UNLV on the map in the Ornithological world at an international level.

If this sounds like a desperate, last-ditch effort to save yet another museum program from disappearing, it is. It is possible that the VP for Research may not change his mind, but I'd like for him to know that some very qualified people recognize the important contributions that this program makes to UNLV and to science and that they (you) do not approve of his decision. If you choose to help, please expand on the themes mentioned above and send your views to Dr. Oliver Hemmers at (and please CC me). Your support is much appreciated.

Regards, --John Klicka

Publications here:
Students here:

John Klicka
Curator of Birds
Marjorie Barrick Muse.of Natural History
University of Nevada Las Vegas
4505 Maryland Parkway - Box 454012
Las Vegas, NV 89154-4012


Speaking of the challenges of exhibits, here's one that's been bugging me lately. This little guy (see left) is Tremataspis. It's an early vertebrate that lived about 420 million years ago in what's now Estonia. Let's just stop for a moment to consider that number 420 million. That's a long time ago. It's almost 200 million years older than the oldest known dinosaur, six times older than that relative newbie T. rex, and a whopping 235 times older than our own species, Homo sapiens. It inhabited a planet that would have been totally alien to us. The Silurian world had a greenhouse climate, with an atmosphere so rich in carbon dioxide that it would have been almost unbreathable for humans, wracked by huge storms that were driven by warm seas that covered the entire northern hemisphere.

Terrestrial plant and animal life was in its evolutionary infancy and most of the planet's biota was aquatic. Unlike today, vertebrates occupied a relatively lowly position in the food chain, which was dominated by large predatory invertebrates. To compensate for this, early vertebrates often had hard, bony armour covering all or part of their bodies. In Tremataspis this armour was confined to the head, which was completely encased in bone - the animal peered out at a hostile world through a hole on top of its head, the biological equivalent of a view-port in a tank. It's this head shield that gets preserved in the fossil record - if you click on the photo, you can see the view port and imagine a small pair of eyes staring out at you (OK, maybe not the last bit, unless you have a very overactive imagination). On the underside is a small mouth that has no jaws - Tremataspis and its relatives diverged from the "main" path of vertebrate evolution before jaws evolved (from modified gill arches). It is, to our eyes, a deeply weird animal. But it's also a distant relative of ours - part of our (very extended) family tree.

We'd like to use Tremataspis to help show visitors that the world of 420 million years ago was a very different place, as part of the wider story of our changing planet that will be told by the new fossil galleries at the Peabody. And this is a great fossil of Tremataspis. The problem is that it's tiny - not much bigger than my thumbnail. Viewed quickly, it looks - dare I whisper it? - a little unimpressive. When we were first evaluating fossils for the exhibit, working from photos, we discarded all of the Silurian vertebrates as being unworthy of display. It was only when I went back into the collections to look at the fossils myself that I realized just how stunning this little guy is. The challenge is how to get people to appreciate this when Tremataspis has to share a gallery with multi-ton bruisers like Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops.

It's one of the many paradoxes of paleontology that some of the most important material we have is also some of the least impressive to look at. It's easy for the public to understand why someone could spend a lifetime studying T. rex; it's less easy to understand why another paleontologist might spend decades sieving the sediment from around a T. rex in search of microscopic mammal teeth. But I'm guessing that for many paleontologists, the discovery of the first Cretaceous primate would far exceed the importance of another tyrannosaur. Well, I'd think it was more important. The old maxim that size isn't everything is never so true as when it's applied to paleontology and this is another message that we'd like to get across through our displays.

Historically, museums have adopted various strategies to try to get the public interested in visually unimpressive specimens. Models are one possible solution; artwork another. But one needs to be careful. As a child, I was convinced that the Natural History Museum in London was the owner of a stuffed dodo. As I later discovered, of course, the "dodo" was actually a Rowland Ward model made from plaster and goose feathers. The actual "most complete dodo," which resides in Oxford, is an infinitely more important specimen and very moving - when, after some years working there, I finally got to hold the skull with its withered skin and feather stubs I had a "moment" - a rare occurrence for me (as the regular reader will know, I tend to take a very unemotive view of the material I look after). We did eventually add a model (and a composite skeleton) to the Oxford exhibit, but the more I look back on this, the more I wonder whether we didn't end up disrespecting the actual specimen.

One solution that we've discussed is to treat these tiny fossils like the jewels they are - use a combination of spotlighting and a tiny specimen in a large case to draw the visitor in. Another is to use a bigger fossil as a hook. Placing Tremataspis alongside an 8 foot long predatory arthropod from the same period makes a powerful statement about a world that was so different that our distant  ancestors were menaced by something that today we'd probably make into Thermidor.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Conversation

It's always nice when people respond to things I post. As the regular reader will know, over the past couple of years I've written some quite critical things about Thomas H. Benton and his views on natural history museums. After my most recent post on this subject, where I acknowledged that he might have a point where some museums are concerned, he was kind enough to get in touch - you can read his response at the bottom of the post. Anyway, the upshot of all this is that we're going to meet in a month or so to walk around the galleries at ANSP and have a convesation about the challenges of exhibiting natural history, which I hope will be posted here shortly thereafter. I'm looking forward to it.

No, I'm Not Dead...

... and neither have I been Raptured. I've taken up gardening and it's planting season. What can I say? 250 Pachysandra can play hell with your typing skills.

Friday, April 29, 2011

I Was Glad

I came downstairs this morning to find the pink-cheeked and strangely featureless visage of David Cameron bellowing Jerusalem out of my TV screen in hi-def. For a moment I was disconcerted. Then a strange wave of calm washed over me. You may wake up in Britain next week with no job, no healthcare, no police, no museums or libraries, crippling university fees, and the Liberal Democrats demolishing your electoral system so that their odious brand of unprincipled and opportunistic politics will have a stranglehold on power for decades to come. But relax. After years of false Labour egalitarianism, once again you live in a country run by Old Etonians and people called St John and Ffoulkes, where even the daughter of flight attendants can grow up to be a queen, provided they have the gumption to make themselves into millionaires. Rest easy, Britain - all is well.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

An Apology?

The regular reader of this blog will recall that, at regular intervals, I have got myself quite upset over the writings of Thomas H. Benton, a self-described expert on natural history museums who writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Benton's pooterish diatribes on the decline of the natural history museum seemed to me to be little more than an unwarranted assault on modern exhibit design, the principles of which had completely eluded the author.

Or so I thought.

A couple of weeks ago, I paid my first visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Yes, I know, this is quite unforgiveable for one who has lived in the Northeast for years, but honestly, I'm quite a busy person. Founded in 1812, the Academy is the oldest natural history museum in the Americas, a storied research institution with a noble history and a long tradition of public exhibits and educational programs for both schools and the general public.

It is also very dear to Thomas H. Benton's heart; it was a visit to the Academy that sparked the first of his polemics. There have been several since then, but the one that offended me most was his assertion that museums that display casts of fossil specimens are engaging in fraudulent behavior at the expense of their visitors. I took issue with this on a number of grounds, one of which is that reputable museums have a series of safeguards that ensure that the visitor is always aware what is real and what is a cast. So I have to say that I was a little shocked when I took a walk around the fossil gallery in Philadelphia.

As you can see from the photo above, it is packed full of skeletons. Almost all of these are casts. Virtually none of them are labelled as such. There's no information on where the original specimen actually came from - for example, I was pretty sure that their Tylosaurus skeleton was a cast of a specimen from western Kansas, the original of which is in the collections of the University of Kansas, but there's no way of telling that from the exhibit label. This information may seem geeky, but it's actually very important because it links the reproduction to the actual specimen, which is a real occurence of the animal in time and space. Without that data, you might as well just buy a model.

To be fair, some of this information is available on the Academy's website (for an example, see, but there's a bigger issue here. The Academy is the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology, the home institution of Joseph Leidy, with a collection of over 22,000 specimens that includes the first remains of a dinosaur (beyond isolated teeth) from North America. Very little of this is on display. One or two casts would be fine, but is a whole army of reproductions justifiable in a museum that has an actual VP collection (and a very good one) and which continues to do high quality paleontological research? Surely more of this should be accessible to visitors through the displays?

I still believe that my original anti-Bentonian argument holds true - casts have a role to play, not least by generating an appropriate sense of awe in visitors, especially smaller ones. But I can't help thinking that the Academy's fossil gallery has crossed a line.

More Digitization

After spending a lot of time writing about collections digitization on this blog, I'm delighted that someone else has now created a blog dedicated to this topic. So You Think You Can Digitize is a collaboration between a biodiversity scientist, Rob Guralnick, and a data curator, Andrea Thomer. Go read it. They're much funnier than I am.

From a Visitor to MoMA

Says it all, really...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Old Specimens, New Pespectives

Many of you will, I hope, have explored the excellent New Light on Old Bones blog at the Manchester Museum. If you're interested in the wider context of this project then I highly recomend downloading their report (PDF). This was a novel and important effort to look at the broader context of natural history specimens, interpreting them from a social sciences and humanities perspective. It's a timely reminder both of the continuing value of these collections (which is not limited to the support of scientific endeavour), and also of the sort of project that will be difficult to support after the demise of the MLA.

Crowdsourced Fish

At the recent Museums and the Web Conference in Philadelphia, there was much talk about this project at the Smithsonian, which used Facebook to mediate a project to rapidly identify 5,000 fish specimens from Guyana. Within a week, they managed to get genus-level identifications for around 90% of specimens. Admittedly this wasn't Joe Public doing the IDs - the majority of people commenting held a Ph.D. in ichthyology - but the global scope of the respondents was impressive, as was the speed with which the task was accomplished. For those of you who think social networking is a waste of time, perhaps it's time you thought again.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Yet Another Peabody Blog

Ariel Revan, a senior major in the Geology and Geophysics Department, recently retuned from a week long trip to Switzerland, where she was looking at the skeletal anatomy of Stegosaurus. Her work will feed into the remounting of our stegosaur skeleton at the Peabody, which we're hoping to do as part of the fossil hall renovations. You can read about her trip here. Do you think there's nothing more to learn about such a familiar dinosaur? Well, read on....

All The Rest

Here's all the other cool stuff that I might have blogged about if I hadn't been setting up our digitization meeting in Chicago. The Peabody Museum collections were featured in a very nice article by Suzanne Taylor Muzzin for the Yale Daily Bulletin - if you have Flash, you can also take at the slideshow, which features my hands in slides 5 and 6. Speaking of university museums, Sally MacDonald and Jack Ashby talk about the importance of university science collections in this Nature article (pdf), while over at TREE Adrian Lister reports on the importance of natural history collections as sources of long-term datasets (Lister & CCRG, 2011. TREE, 26(4): 153-154), which is a good thing given the growing emphasis on data mining as a source of novel research. A couple of weeks back, an international group of eight research funders, including our old friends IMLS and NSF, announced the second round of the Digging into Data Challenge, which is intended to spur cutting edge research in the humanities and social sciences - you can read more about this here. The Independent published another depressing article on the decline of taxonomy as an academic discipline, which would be welcome if it made a difference (sadly I fear it won't). But the winner as far as this month's news is concerned was the widely reported discovery of Nuralagus rex, a giant rabbit from the Pliocene of Minorca, which is described by Meike Kohler and Salvador Moya-Sola in a paper in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Popular press accounts tend to dwell on the fact that Nuralagus was "six times the size of most rabbits today." Note that they say "most" rabbits - as the proud owner of a 20lb bunny, I can testify that most does not equal all.


Yale's School of Management is situated just across Sachem Avenue from the Peabody. To walk there from my office takes only a few minutes, but I always thought the mental journey would be a lot longer. For me, the gulf between museum and management was perfectly illustrated by the Nissan GT-R that is often parked on Hillhouse outside the SoM. I don't know whether it belongs to a member of the Management faculty, but that is not beyond the bounds of possibility. On the other hand, I can be absolutely sure that it doesn't belong to anyone from Peabody. We're not really a GT-R sort of place.

Having spent some time over the past few weeks talking to management researchers, I'm thinking it's high time I revised my impressions. No doubt there are some aspects of management theory that are quite esoteric, and others that are quite lucrative, but the people I've met seem eminantly sensible and quite down to earth. But that may be because they are also engineers.

Time to back up a little. The regular reader of this blog (and yes, there is one) will be aware of the ongoing efforts to digitize biological collections across the USA. If you're not and you're interested, click on the tag marked "digitization" at the bottom of this post and you'll find out more than you ever wanted to know. One of the major challenges to mobilizing the mountain of collections data is the sheer size of the task. No-one really knows how many natural history specimens there are in American collections, but 1 billion is probably the right order of magnitude. Museum workers have been databasing their collections for over 20 years now and have captured less than 10 percent of this material; there's not much evidence to show that the rate of capture has improved significantly, so clearly some new insights are needed.

Last week, I got to go to a meeting in Chicago where we brought together a group of collection managers, curators, software designers, and - yes - management scientists, to look at what we might do to improve matters. There will, in due course, be a report (which I will post here for those who are interested) but for now I will offer up a simple explanation of why we need help.

Part of the reason for holding the meeting in Chicago last week was the presence of Automate 2011, the largest trade show for industrial robotics. My colleagues and I tend to get quite excited by robotics, because of our touching faith that machines may replace the staff that we can no longer afford to employ. Going to shows like Automate tends to reinforce that impression, as you watch robots manipulate tiny and often very fragile objects at blinding speed, using machine vision to identify, sort, and process. Then you ask the sales guy and find that you can apparently purchase one of these babies for less than a Toyota Camry (I don't know what's going on with the car analogies today - sorry). There were those among us who were already reaching for our checkbooks.

This is why you need to go to tradeshows with an industrial engineer. "Not so fast," says my new friend Brian from MIT. Installing a robot in your collection is not so easy. First, they're not plug and play. Each unit requires a bunch of operating software and support hardware that costs as much, if not more, than the robot itself. Even if you have all of the pieces, setting it up can be a considerable challenge - a whole masters thesis can be written on the process of simply delivering the object to the robot, which is different for each application. Most of these robots are designed for dealing with industrial components, which are generally highly consistent in size, shape, etc. Even the wrinkled corner of a herbarium sheet would be sufficient to shut them down. Robots can deal with variation, but it massively increases the cost. And when they break down (which happens not infrequently) you need a trained operator onsite to deal with the problems. And robot specialists are not cheap.

Consider Amazon. You might assume that a massive company like this, with a pretty standard operating model (they have big warehouses full of books that they need to deliver to buyers) would be highly automated. "Not so," says another new friend, Don from the University of Chicago's School of Management. Amazon has people pushing carts up and down the aisles of its warehouses. The reason why is that books are highly variable - in size, shape, and weight. By the time you've factored all of this into your the design of your robot, it ends up being cheaper to employ people to do the job. If this is a problem for Amazon, how much more of a problem will it be for us.

So what can we do? Well, I'm not going to tell you everything now, otherwise you'll never read the report, but here's one lesson we learnt. In any workflow, including specimen digitization, there are a number of stages. Each of those stages will have a maximum rate - the fastest speed at which an object can pass through it. The stage with the slowest rate is the bottleneck and it will determine the overall speed of the process - however much you increase the speed of the other stages, you can never go faster than the speed of the bottleneck. For this reason, all of the rest of your workflow should be designed to feed the bottleneck - it should never be idle. Bottlenecks are usually the most expensive part of the workflow - in digitization, for example, it might be the camera or a scanner. So in designing any project, the first task is to find the bottleneck.

This is process management 101. But how many of us sit down and model workflows when we start a collections project? And how many of us write these up and publish them so that, as a community, we don't reinvent the wheel for every new project we start? Technology - software and hardware - will undoubtably provide some of the answers to the challenge of collections digitization. But the best start might be to get a more structured understanding of what we actually do.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hot Stuff

It's been a while since I last posted on the subject of the Peabody fossil halls project, which is not to say that we've been doing nothing - architects have been engaged, designers are being interviewed, and generally the planning process grinds ahead. There's still the question of the money of course.... but let's not dwell on that. Neither will I dwell on the seemingly endless process of figuring out where we will store all the specimens involved, or the amount of space that they will take up (currently estimated at over 4 times the floor area of my house). I am heartily sick of spreadsheets.

On the plus side, however, we do get to do a lot fun stuff as well. Some of this involves figuring out the underlying narrative, which as you may recall is one of changing environments through time. For most people, "environmental change" conjures up images of drowning polar bears and a bald Mount Kilimanjaro, or - if you have an alternative political mindset - no-good socialist tree huggers and their mendacious scientific fellow travellers. Trying to get across the point that global climate is a fluid system that has always been changing is a challenge, not least because one side sees this as a reason why they shouldn't lose any sleep over driving to the mall in their Hummer.

This is why we've been talking to a man called Tony Leiserowitz. Tony is the Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Tony and his co-workers developed the concept of the Six Americas for undertsanding public perceptions of climate change, a fascinating study that should be required reading for anyone working in informal science education, especially in a natural history museum. Among the most interesting facts that I gleaned from the study is that climate change skeptics actually have a better understanding of the Greenhouse Effect than people that are passionate activists for change, who tend to get all confused about ozone holes and aerosols.

Plainly the redesign of our fossil halls with an environmental theme represents a teachable moment for public understanding of climate change. But what do we actually tell them. One school of thought within our group is all for pushing anthropogenic climate change hard - cue pictures of drowning polar bears, dried up lake beds, and the bald Mount Kilimanjaro, together with a strong message about sustainability, recycling, reduction of carbon emissions, Toyata Priuses, etc. Another line of thought runs that we are talking about Earth history and we should actively avoid trying to tackle the future, leaving our visitors to draw their own conclusions from what they've seen.

My sense is that we'll probably chart some sort of middle course. There is no way that one could emerge from our planned fossil galleries without a sense that the Earth has changed over time - in a very real sense the world of the Silurian, for example, was a different planet to the one we live on today, with a different atmosphere, different day lengths, and devoid of almost all terrestrial life. It's a sobering thought that, while Homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years, the achievements that make us what we are - agriculture, domestication, civilization, technology - have all occurred in the last 10,000 years, a period of great climatic stability. When the climate does change, the impact on civilization can be dramatic - consider the Maya of Central America, the Pueblo cultures of the American Southwest, or the effects of the Little Ice Age in Europe. On a geological scale these changes are no more than blips, but their effects on us have been profound. This is something that we will need to explore and it naturally leads to the question of what will happen to our world given the global warming trend.

So one way forward might be to have visitors add the last chapter of our story themselves, by exploring their world (as represented by New Haven) under a series of different climate scenarios. Trying to show what the world will look like 100 years from now is a tricky exercise. The Museum of London tried to do this in a recent exhibition and attracted considerable flak from an unlikely coaltion of critics including both climate change skeptics and refugee rights advocates (quite an achievement to unite those guys under the same banner). This was understandable, because they were dumb. Showing the Household Cavalry mounted on camels and paddyfields in Parliament square might look cool, but these visions are not based on scientific projections or rooted in reality and because of this they are unconvincing for the bulk of the population.

Making sensible projections is important, not least because the work by Leiserowitz and his colleagues show that museums are still one of the most trusted sources of information on climate change. If we don't want our audience to decamp to Fox News, we need to be careful not to abuse that trust.

Saving America's Treasures

I'm not one to blow my own horn, but as this was a collaborative project, co-written with my colleague Marilyn Fox and with help from a small army of Peabody and Yale staff - I think I can get away with it. A couple of weeks ago, we found out that we had been awarded a large grant by IMLS under the Save America's Treasures program - you can read more about the project here. The award of this grant sends an important message that O.C. Marsh's fossil collections are a national treasure, part of America's heritage.  

This may seem obvious, but as we seek to emphasize the scientific importance and utility of the collections, it's important not to overlook their historical significance. Yale's scientific expeditions were part of the opening of the American West, with all the good and bad (in some cases very bad) that was attendant on that. The fossil deposits at Como Bluff, Wyoming, the source of some of the Peabody's most spectacular specimens, were discovered by workers on the transcontinental railroad. Without the spread of the railroads, it wouldn't have been possible to transport those huge bones back East.

Marsh was one of the first American scientists to accept Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection and his fossils were acknowledged by Darwin as providing critical support for his ideas. And beyond that, there are the names - Allosaurus, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops - familiar to generations of American children and deeply engrained into popular culture. Those names are anchored to the type specimens in the Yale collections, specimens whose long-term well-being and accessibility has been guaranteed by those IMLS funds.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Further Reading

If you don't have time to write your own blog posts, you might as well highlight great posts by other bloggers. Here are a couple to be going on with: Bruce Quiller writes on the demise of the museum bookstore, while New Light on Old Bones explores the issue of what's real about taxidermy.

Earth Shaking

Two weeks after the disasterous earthquake in Canterbury, NZ, the situation at the Canterbury Museum is still unclear. Various reports floating around the web suggest that the sprinkler system triggered, but that this affected only a small area, although the collections haven't been fully inspected. The director, Anthony Wright, has apparently said that the building is structurally sound, but staff are unlikely to be allowed in for several weeks (if you haven't developed a business continuity plan for your institution yet, take note - things like this do actually happen).

Thankfully, although some lost their homes, none of the Museum's staff were hurt. This was a close run thing - at least one curator avoided being crushed by a large bookshelf only because he'd got up to answer the phone.

Black Hole

Today I realized that it has been an extremely long time since I last posted anything on this blog. 16 days to be precise. I also noticed that I only managed 3 posts last month, a record low. The alert amongst you will recall that back at the beginning of February, I proudly stated that I had emerged from under a big pile of grant applications and was about to start blogging again with a vengeance. How was I to know that I'd have to provide a bunch of supplementary evidence for one of the proposals? And I guess I kinda ignored the fact that the workshop meeting on collections digitization that got funded through one of the earlier proposals wouldn't organize itself. Fortunately some very nice people at the Field Museum's Biodiversity Synthesis Center stepped in to help, which greatly reduced the pain. Anyway, I was going to apologize for the low frequency of posts. Then I thought "who cares?" So I'm not.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Not Going To Say It

It's not like I want to say "I told you so." Really, I don't. But you might recall that back in October I warned you that if you wanted to avoid a barrage of UK-type austerity cuts in Federal government programs, it would probably be better not to vote for the GOP in the mid-term elections. It's not like I needed a crystal ball to make that prediction. Anyway, if any of you were foolish enough to go ahead and do it anyway, here's what we're looking at now. I cherry-picked just a few of the more relevant examples from the long list of cuts proposed by the House Appropriations Committee for the last seven months of this fiscal year, which all-in-all amount to $74 billion. Yeah, that's right - $74 billion. And this only takes us up to July 1st, people:

Office of Science -$1.1B
NSF -$139M
USGS -$27M
Fish and Wildlife Service -$72M
Smithsonian -$7.3M
National Park Service -$51M
Forest Service -$38M
National Endowment for the Arts -$6M
National Endowment for the Humanities -$6M
NIH -$1B

And that's only the start. When the bill went to the House for debate this week there were nearly 600 amendments filed, proposing cuts to numerous agencies and programs. These could be formally offered as the House continues consideration of the bill. As AAM pointed out in a advocacy update on Friday, several of them target museums. Amendment #471, for example, filed by Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-VA) would prohibit the use of funds provided by the bill to fund non-federal museums. Another amendment - #35, filed by Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), would de-fund IMLS for the remainder of FY11. As I just got money from them, I take that one particularly personally.
Still, however lousy things are here you can still comfort yourself that you're not as badly off as my homeland. Over there, the Prime Minister has just realized he's cut so much government funding to charities that they can't take advantage of all the exciting opportunities presented by his Big Society initiative (you'll recall that's the plan to fire people and then make other people do their jobs for free). The solution to this is to use £100m of Government money to create a Big Society Bank, to enable charities to apply for funds that previously they'd have applied to the Government for.

If you're scratching your head over that, you're not the only one - no less a luminary than award-winning science writer Carl Zimmer admitted to me last week that he was "confused by your superior system of govt." And he's smart, he is. There will also be a £200m injection from UK banks. Which will be in the form of loans, which the Government will have to pay interest on, thus enabling the banks to cash in on UK taxpayers' hard earned money.

You remember the banks, right? The ones that got us in this mess in the first place?

Use and Abuse

A friend recently sent me an amusing thread of emails from Mammal-L on the subject of IACUCs. For those of you who don't work on living animals, an IACUC, or Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, is the organization within your institution that  reviews research protocols that involve the use of animal subjects and conducts evaluations of your institution's animal care. The system, which is a key plank of animal welfare legislation in the USA, was developed to deal with laboratory usage of animals, but its provisions also extend to fieldwork, including museum collecting; anyone wanting to collect vertebrates has to submit an animal use protocol for approval by IACUC. The collision of these two worlds provides ample opportunities for field biologists to complain about the lab-based eggheads that they have to deal with on the committee; I have a strong suspicion that the "eggheads" have their own roster of stories concerning bearded and gun-toting yahoos from organismal biology departmens.

What struck me most forcefully when reading the Mammal-L emails was the fact that these people, especially those from museums, should be down on their knees giving thanks for the existence of IACUCs. As I discussed last month, the day will come when someone will decide to take on the big natural history museums over their vertebrate collecting programs. When that day comes, we're going to need ample evidence that we make our collecting policies with certain principles built in - adequate scientific justification, minimization of the number of animals sacrificed, and humane methods. All the hoops, in fact, that those IUCAC eggheads make us jump through before we get our protocols approved. It still may not be enough. But without them, our days of rat and bat trapping are likely to be numbered.

Wah, wah, wah.

OK, I know I said February 1st was my last grant deadline and that after that I'd be back to posting on PoH with a vengeance. But how was I to know that I'd get asked a bunch of questions about the proposal that we submitted in December? Or that the one we submitted last April would get awarded, meaning that we'd have a load of work to do. On top of the work that I'm already doing for the workshop that got funded from the grant we submitted in August. I know I sound like an ass for complaining, but honestly - it would be far easier if I just wrote them and had someone else do the work.

Monday, January 31, 2011

New Blog

Here's another collection-oriented blog to add to the PoH blog-roll. The UCL Museums and Collections Blog features goings-on at the eight museums and collections of University College, London. It's a valuable addition to the growing number of blogs that are lifting the lid on life in collections, although quite what one makes of a post entitled "Poisoning Cats - Week 1" I'll leave you to decide for yourselves.