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.

One Stop Chop Shop

Regular readers of this blog will have been following the impact of government austerity measures on the UK museums community - for those who want a single source for the bad news, the Museum's Association has established this website. I recommend those of a sensitive disposition give it a miss....

Monkey Business

This is one of those posts that you start and stop and start again, until you wonder whether it’s actually worth the bother. It may get me into trouble with some of you. But I'm going to do it anyway.

I'm not a huge fan of the BBC as an organization but I'd be the first to acknowledge the matchless quality of their programming, especially in the field of natural history. As an occasional taxonomist, however, I'm getting a bit leery of their involvement in high-profile efforts to catalog global biodiversity. This is important science, and it's good that the BBC is showing it to the public. But this recent piece, describing the possible discovery of a new species of lemur, got right on my wick.

As you’ll see from the article, the animal in question is a fork-marked lemur (genus Phaner). The process of collection involved darting the lemur, retrieving the tranquilized animal, taking some blood samples (and presumably some photos) and letting it go again. The “type specimen” of the lemur, assuming that it actually is a new species, will be the photos and the blood samples. There will be no voucher specimen.

This is the sort of thing that gets me quite exercised.

There are a number of reasons why the primatologist, Russ Mittermeier, may have chosen to go down this route. Many species of lemurs are rare, and killing one, even for scientific purposes, may have seemed unjustifiable for a Conservation International team. It may have sent the wrong message to local people working with the researchers (“it’s OK for us to hunt and kill them, but not you”). Given that the area where the lemur occurs is protected, they may not have had the necessary permits from the Malagasy government. But the cynic in me says that when you have a TV camera pointed at you, you don’t want to be seen euthanizing something that’s cute and cuddly with big eyes.

Here’s the flipside of this approach. First, any species whose long term viability can be significantly affected by the removal of one individual is already extinct. Natural mortality will far exceed this. Second, by pumping this small animal full of drugs and removing blood samples, you’ve already compromised its fitness. Studies of equivalent procedures in birds suggest that it increases mortality by up to 30%. Chances are that this little guy may have crawled off and died in a hole somewhere. Third, a blood sample and photograph can provide only a very limited amount of information about the species – a fraction of what could be obtained from a full body voucher specimen. No-one will be able to re-examine this type specimen to validate Mittermeier’s observations and if anyone has new questions they’ll have to go and collect another one – compromising the fitness of yet another individual.

The BBC piece notes breathlessly that “A strange structure under the lemur's tongue could also distinguish it from its closest relatives.” However, no-one will be able to investigate the anatomy of this structure, because they don’t have a specimen to dissect or scan. Even if they’d brought the thing back to a zoo and waited for it to die of old age, it would have been better. But no, we had to have the money shot of the sleepy lemur clambering back up the tree so that all those BBC watchers could feel warm and fuzzy in their living rooms.

I really hate to break this to people, but natural history museums are full of dead animals. And they didn’t get there by people going out and looking under bushes for ones that had died of old age. There are lively debates within the profession about the ethics of collecting; the ornithologists in particular have spent a considerable amount of time discussing the pros and cons as they relate to birds. But the fact remains that mortality due to scientific collection represents a tiny and non-additive fraction of natural mortality and is arguably the only form of death that has a positive outcome for the organism in terms of knowledge gained.

Perhaps I shouldn’t beat on the BBC about this. Fearing PETA-style direct action, many natural history museums are keen to soft-pedal the issue of what it is that we actually do behind those locked doors. I recall with amusement a discussion I had with a rather Orwellian public affairs office (of a museum that will remain nameless) over a press profile of one of my staff who worked in an osteology lab. Explaining why they wanted the piece spiked, our press officer informed me that “dead things and bones is not the message that we want to get across.” Safer to concentrate on things that are long dead (“Dinosaurs!”) or never alive (“Diamonds!”).

Compared to vivisection, the annual death toll from the activities of museums is vanishingly small and it's usually controlled by the same set of rigorous approval procedures for animal use; certainly there is no way that we could go out and collect vertebrates without having made a very strong justification first. But natural history museums are seen as “friendly” places, where kids go to marvel at nature, rather than scientific research institutions. Many of the best museums are both these things, but there is a major disconnect between what we show and what we do.

As we seek to break down the barriers between exhibits and collections – which, let’s remember, is a good thing – we will increasingly confront questions that make us uncomfortable. Is what we do cruel? How do our activities differ from lab-based animal research? How do we justify it? What mechanisms do we use to figure out if collection is justified? No-one wants to have to rehearse these issues in public, but we shouldn’t avoid them just for the sake of a quiet life. Or do weaker science because we don’t want to upset our audience.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Shameless Plug: AAM MAP Program

I don't often do shameless plugs on this blog, but AAM's Museum Assessment Program (MAP) is such a good thing that it merited a post all of its own. MAP is an affordable way to strengthen your museum and achieve excellence. Within a year you get to conduct a self-study, consult with a museum professional and gain the tools to become a stronger institution. The program is open to small and mid-sized museums of all types, including zoos, aquariums, public gardens, history museums, art museums and children's museums. You can apply for one of three MAP assessments: Organizational, Collections Stewardship, or Community Engagement. If you want to do one this year, then you'd better get your skates on - the deadline for proposals is Feb 18. Click here to apply - and if you have any questions, MAP staff will be only too happy to answer them by phone (202-289-9118) or email ( What are you waiting for?

Modern Life is Rubbish

I've really tried hard this month not to moan about workload. As a good friend of mine always says when I try to share my troubles, "nobody wants to hear it" (as you can tell, she must be a very good friend of mine if she says stuff like that). Anyway after submitting the last of the four grant applications that I've done in the past 6 months, it's high time we got back to the business of moaning about natural history collections and the people that work in them.

Some time ago, I made the decision to come off the Vertpaleo listserve because I was tired of inane "debates" cluttering up my in-box. Since then, I have been enjoying the relative peace that comes from subscribing only to listserves that deal with practical, work-related stuff. Like NHCOLL-L for example (typical post - "I have noticed a white precipitate at the bottom of a jar full of carp - does anyone know what it is?"). Over the last couple of weeks, however, NHCOLL has been hijacked (in a very polite way) by people who want to discuss "the extinction of natural history."

Digging around in the various posts, it became clear that what people really meant was the decline in the sort of integrative organismal biology that formed the backbone of undergraduate zoology and botany degrees for much of the last century, a frequent hobbyhorse for the sort of people that end up working in natural history museums. You might expect me to sympathize with these concerns. I went through one of the last of the classic organismal biology undergraduate degree courses in the UK, the old Zoology course at Oxford. I spent three terms dissecting my way through the animal kingdom from coelenterates to rats; did an ecology course that featured lectures on the role of giant tortoises on Aldabra Atoll; endlessly sampled the insect fauna of Wytham Woods, and spent hours recording the behavior of parasite-infested sticklebacks. It was enormous fun.

It also left me signally ill-equipped for life as a 21st Century biologist. I was so busy cutting up sea urchins and crawling around in the woods and fields of Oxfordshire brandishing my pooter that I managed to avoid any training in physiology, cell biology, genetics, molecular biology, or quantitative methods (which is how I ended up as a paleontologist, readers!). If the purpose of an undergraduate degree is to give you a grounding in the basics of your discipline, then mine failed me completely. I'm happy to say that the current generation of Oxford biologists fare rather better. If the new Biology degree curriculum seems a little bloodless, it does at least provide students with a broad foundation from which they can go on to pursue more specialized interests if they wish.

Moaning about the demise of organismal biology is a bit like complaining that we don't use steam trains any more, or lamenting the decline in fine penmanship. When we laud the insights achieved by 19th century naturalists like Darwin or Wallace it's easy to get forget that this was cutting edge science for its time, as much as sequencing robots and genomics are cutting edge today. Science moves on; new discoveries and new techniques have to be incorporated into packed curricula. Subjects that could once be covered adequately in a lecture or two now require whole courses. Things change - get over it.

There is, of course, a legitimate case to be made that in concentrating too much on teaching the nuts of bolts of life we lose sight of the wider context, turning out academically short-sighted graduates who are incapable of making meaningful observations in the field. This is an area where natural history museums have an important role to play, by engaging with K-12 students and feeding a fascination with the natural world before they reach university; providing a different perspective for undergraduate teaching; and supplying information and materials to support postgraduate research.  Saying that natural history, as a discipline, belongs in a museum is no insult. In a crowded world of science education, it's probably the best thing that could have happened.

(PS - the title of this post, aside from capturing some of the tone of the listserve debate, was picked solely as an opportunity to highlight Blur's magnificent album of the same title. Released in 1993, it features a splendid picture of The Mallard on its cover and is (as Amazon says), "the weirdest and most endearing head-rock album since the Flaming Lips' Transmissions from the Satellite Heart." It's much better than Parklife. Download a copy and listen to it now!)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

"It's Not About You"

I'm a big fan of the dinner-party level of political and cultural analysis practised by Huffington Post, which is basically a series of random opinions offered by those who have no relevant qualifications whatsoever other than wealth and/or celebrity. There is no finer practioner of this form of cultural discourse than the site's founder, so when she decided to take aim at new media in museums I could barely contain my excitement. A self-declared "complete evangelist for new media," Arianna Huffington finds herself conflicted by the risk that social media will screw with people's "Fourth Instinct" a little known philosophical concept developed by.... Arianna Huffington.

I'm more of a First-to-Third Instincts kinda guy, so Arianna's carefully constructed arguments, involving quotes from Susan Sontag and the dude that runs USC's Brain and Creativity Institute, tended to go over my head. But in essence, her article forms part of a social media backlash, typified by Ed Rothstein's NYT piece on museum i-Phone apps in October of last year, which basically suggested that object tagging was a waste of time because the plebs that do it are all stupid (for evidence that this isn't actually true, take a look at this). In natural history museums we have our own version of this in the form of "Thomas H. Benton," a professor of English from Michigan whose vision of the ideal museum seems to have been taken from the pages of Titus Groan. What I love about all of them is the utter confidence with which they offer their expert opinions based, as far as I can tell, on the sole qualification of having visited a few museums. I travel on planes a lot, but (and call me chicken if you want) I don't feel that makes me a pilot.

Anyway, I was all fired up to go and write something along the lines of "you know nothing about this, so why don't you either 1) go and learn about it or 2) shut up." Then I found that Nina Simon had published the perfect riposte over on Museum 2.0, so I'm going to suggest that you go and read that instead.

Just Another Year

So PoH makes it into a third year, to my great surprise. Events over the last 12 months have consprired to keep the number of posts down, and I've spent too much time highlighting other people's articles for my own liking. But you can't have everything.

Those of you that have read this blog for a while (and there are about two of you by my reckoning) will know that my view of the museum world tends to involves looking back at where I came from (i.e the UK) or looking around at where I am now (the USA). This year the contrast between the two has been stark.

In America, for example, we achieved the extraordinary goal of taking a national strategy for the digitization of biological collections from discussion to a $100 million (hopefully) NSF program in a mere 12 months. In truth this is the end result of years of lobbying by a host of people in the natural science collections community (especially the late Terry Yates), but my colleague Rob Guralnick from the University of Colorado deserves a particular shout-out for wrangling a very diverse (and sometimes quite fractious) cast of characters to achieve this reamarkable outcome.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic... well, I've exhausted myself blogging on this over the course of the year. Over the last decade, when I and my American colleagues have visited Britain, we've been blown away by the achievements of the UK natural history collections community and their European colleagues. Sadly, it looks like 2010 may be the year that this all came to a grinding halt.

The austerity drive being undertaken by the Cameron government has already resulted in the abolition of the Museums, Libraries, and Archives Council, a series of sweeping departmental budget cuts at a national level, and the perversion of the volunteer culture in UK museums in order to plug the gaps caused by staff losses. In the year to come, colleagues in local authority museums can look forward to their own round of funding cuts as the austerity measures begin to bite at a regional level.

In the USA, by contrast, the president has just signed into law the renewal of the IMLS for another 5 years. Before everyone starts patting themselves on the back, however, this was one of the last acts of the Democrat-led House of Representatives. Its Republican successor is unlikely to look so kindly on museums and museum collections - we've already seen what conservatives think about collection improvement, and the recent You Cut initiative puts a marker out for the fun and games we can expect over the next couple of years. And after that it may get worse.

But enough of this Debbie Downer stuff. There is one unarguable source for celebration in this cold, dark January. Primeval has returned from the TV grave! Connor and Abbie have returned from exile in the Cretaceous!! Jason Flemying has been banished to the Pliocene version of Hollywood!!! I'm still digesting the first episode, but rest assured that a full breakdown is coming in a future post. Then, if that wasn't enough, in the Fall of 2011 we will have Terra Nova. I would like to say that this show offers more prospects for bad paleontology but as its star, Jason O'Mara, was kind enough to come visit our collections a few months ago, I might only have myself to blame. Come on Jason, I'm counting on you...