National disgrace ...
"Due to the care of past curators, we can (for example) still handle specimens actually from Linnaeus's personal cabinets, as well as others collected and prepared by later giants in the history of biology, Raffles, Darwin and Wallace among them. Ownership of these collections in trust carries an obligation to maintain them in good state and to make them accessible to enquirers and research workers at home and abroad".
Earl of Cranbrook, 1991. Standards in the Museum Care of Biological Collections, 2, 1992. Museums & Galleries Commission.
In early November 2012, The Museums Association (MA) held their annual Conference and Exhibition at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC). Reported to be the largest gathering of museums and heritage professionals in Europe, it showcases suppliers, hosts workshops and various meetings. Darren Mann of the Hope Entomological Collections (HEC) was there as a speaker to present a talk entitled ‘The Elephant in the Room’ which tackled some of the difficult questions that are currently being raised about the future of natural history collections in the UK.
What questions are those?
Well, here is the background in a nutshell:
"Natural history collections are under threat but are vital for taxonomic research, environmental monitoring and education. The number of specialist curators is declining, so should collections be redistributed to centres of excellence or are there other solutions for orphaned collections?"
The main question that is raised by this is - How do we prevent the loss of these collections? and it is one that is very much on the minds of all natural history curators at the moment as we hear of more collections being 'moth-balled' (put away into storage) and the loss of curators through redundancies or down-sizing, leaving many collections without people to care for them, interpret them or make them available for research. The biggest threat of course, comes to the collections themselves, which may become damaged or lost altogether through poor storage and lack of care. For example, any item with fur, feather or chitin (e.g. taxidermy mounts or insect specimens) are open to attack from a host of pests including the one most reviled by curators, Anthrenus, which, whilst being a rather pretty little beetle, views an insect collection as an assemblage of tasty snacks (see image below). In a round up of the problems associated with deciding the future of these collections, Darren Mann pointed out that despite their huge popularity with the general public there has been a movement in the museums sector away from natural history and towards the arts and social sciences. To put some perspective on this, the Ashmolean Museum recently spent £7.83 million on Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus; a single painting! For the same amount of money the entire UK entomological collections held outside the Nationals and University Museums, of over 10 million specimens, could have been re-housed (including salary costs) and systematically arranged in modern pest proof storage.
One curator recently wrote "There are now more pandas living in Edinburgh than there are natural history curators employed in the whole of East Midlands, West Midlands and South Yorkshire put together".
This surely can't be right?
Images copyright OUMNH. Photographed by Katherine Child, Hope Department of Entomology.