Why museums need science staff

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OPINION: Before Sir Richard Owen – that brilliant but cantankerous and controversial anatomist – established the Natural History Museum in London in 1881, museums were the mysterious domain of specialists. Specimens were preserved and catalogued exclusively for scientific study or teaching, and considered far too valuable to be made accessible to the hoi polloi.

Owen’s vision changed all that, and created the model for what museums are considered to be today. Type “museum” into Wikipedia, and you find: “The purpose of modern museums is to collect, preserve, interpret, and display items of artistic, cultural, or scientific significance for the education of the public.”

As definitions go, that is not too bad, although it could be argued the rationale for these activities extends well beyond the education of the public. Natural history collections in museums around the world maintain specimens that not only include the “type” specimens for described species (the ones upon which the original species descriptions were based), but hold examples from different parts of a species range, collected at different times.

These are incredibly valuable to scientists, providing biological snapshots in time that add important historical context to many contemporary studies.

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For example, chemical analysis of animal or plant material preserved for decades or more can provide insight into historical environments. A recent field trip by scientists into the southern New Zealand fiords caught a new species of fish on camera. Investigation of museum specimens revealed that the same “new” species has been in the collections for some time – the Challenger Expedition had collected it in 1874 and mixed the specimens with a more common species. The new one awaits formal description.

Preservation of museum specimens, biological in nature or not, is the job of curators and collection managers. These professionals know how to maintain material so that it does not degrade, and remains available for exhibit or study. They train in the latest conservation techniques, maintain databases that catalogue collections, and are responsible for the  lending of museum specimens to other institutions or researchers. In natural history departments, these staff are usually accomplished taxonomists.

Taxonomy (the science of naming things) is no longer especially fashionable for scientists, although the media does still give attention to the discovery of new species. It is easy to forget that the origin of many modern museums stemmed from a Victorian obsession with collecting and describing new species.

The field of taxonomy underpins everything that all biologists do, but it suffers from the metric-isation of modern science. Scientific outputs are often judged by the number of times they are cited in subsequent publications, but descriptive papers are not widely cited by others.

This has nothing to do with their quality – it just reflects the number of experts working on a particular group of species at any given time. This relative lack of glamour, and indeed, frequent lack of recognition by the management of scientific institutions, means that it takes a particular degree of commitment to pursue a career in taxonomic biology.

Taxonomy is painstaking work requiring a high level of familiarity and expertise with, necessarily, a limited number of groups. Such expertise takes years to obtain. If you are working on a group of small worms living in marine sediments that can be separated mainly by counting the number of hairs on their appendages, well, that requires a level of dedication.

This expertise may be crucial for detecting environmental impacts. A source of pollution, for example, may affect the worms with three hairs and not those with four. Most of us will not notice the difference. A species of sea squirt invading our ports from elsewhere in the world may look just like the native species to an untrained eye. Climate change may change the composition of plankton critical for supporting an important fishery. These are real-world problems that have social and economic impacts, and that require taxonomic specialists to understand and deal with effectively.

Every ecological study (indeed, anything done by biologists) is underpinned by taxonomic expertise.

All of which makes the decision of the New Zealand National Museum (Te Papa) to make redundant some of the few remaining scientific staff it still possesses all the more incomprehensible.

It is not the first time that Te Papa has shed scientific staff, in a drawn-out journey that has gradually marginalised the museum’s science capacity. What is unclear is how presentation of the aforementioned items of artistic, cultural, or scientific significance can be achieved without the research base that provides the informed context. People who visit museums have expectations of the quality of the information they receive.

Perhaps of even greater concern, the loss of collection management capability may lead to gradual deterioration in the museum’s collections.

This is not a one-off event unique to New Zealand. Recently, Leicester’s museums handed redundancy notices to curatorial staff.

Museums without scientific expertise deceive the public. Worse, they are abdicating responsibility for the irreplaceable legacy inherited from previous generations, and robbing future generations of that knowledge.

It remains to be seen how much time will pass before such errors are understood, how much damage is done in that time, and whether other national institutions will also make financial decisions that undermine their core purpose.

* Dr Trevor J Willis is a senior lecturer in marine biology at the Institute of Marine Sciences, University of Portsmouth, England.
 

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