I come from a museum background, and therefore recognize the inherent bias in this post. However I also feel that coming from that background, but now working outside of a museum, has provided me a unique perspective into the value of collections. I hadn’t planned on blogging today, but the recent cuts at The Field Museum in Chicago, my former home institution, strike me as rather personal. While a postdoc there I published an article on the value of natural history collections, which you can see here. Today I’d like to expand those themes a little.
First some background. When I talk about collections (or collections based research) I mean using the samples that are held in a museum. They are usually collected by a museum and they are housed in temperature-controlled holdings. There they are the basis of many different kinds of biodiversity research. Curators at museums are analogous to professors at universities, and the collections are organized and maintained by collections managers. The latter are typically individuals who often have a shockingly large taxonomic knowledge, and an intimate familiarity with the literally hundreds of thousands of samples within the collections.
These samples represent an invaluable source of data because they are spatially and temporally explicit. This means that every sample in a museum has a known place and time when it was collected. Because we know that we can do comparative research either across time or space. Moving across time would allow us to compare, for example, the reefs in Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Similarly moving across time would allow us to compare how reefs have changed over time by sampling the same area over multiple decades. The collections we made in Papua New Guinea in 2011 (as a joint Field Museum and University of Papua New Guinea expedition), are directly comparable to the collections the Field Museum made in the 1928 Crane Pacific expedition.
Because there are few institutions that have the ability to pull off collections at this scale, and even fewer who have the dedicated resources to house, maintain and curate these collections, natural history museums are cornerstones of biodiversity research. There are simply no other places equipped to serve as these libraries of biodiversity, and when a culture closes its libraries it closes off its desire to remember the past and envision the future.
UPDATE: There is a petition going around to voice your concern about these cuts. Please consider signing it: