Sunday, November 27, 2011

Surprise, you have acquisitions!: Specimens in cigar box limbo.

While working and volunteering in the Clemson University Arthropod Collection (CUAC) during my master's program, I stumbled across many surprising (sometimes alarming) finds lost to decades in dark corners and cabinets. These included items such as:

  • Holotype specimens from a museum that no longer exists (found while cleaning my office out in the first week)
  • 30 year old loans
  • Boxes full of vials with code labeled specimens linked to notebooks, left by a former graduate student
  • Drawers of damaged (yet mostly salvageable) tropical insects for display
  • A folder containing 40 years of notes and other items of the great late entomologist Herbert H. Ross (more on that in a later post)

These things just happen in a collection too large for its space, with too little staff for it's size (and this is true at even the biggest museums now). Things are left there, loaned and shelved, acquired and forgotten. Some curators are proactive, but when the collection manager, who is responsible for the day to day care of the collection, leaves or changes some things will inevitably become purposeless and other things stacked on top. And the CUAC is not a large collection by any means, only about 1 million specimens housed in 2 rooms too small for the collection. If the above was found in such a small collection rebuilt after a fire in 1925, you can imagine the large amount of surprise "acquisitions" associated with larger or older institutions.

Cigar boxes full of papered specimens from SDNHM (© Nelvin C. Cepeda)

The San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM) has a collection comparable in size to the CUAC, but is about 75 years older. You would expect a collection of this size and age, including it's past space problems, to have specimens in limbo, and this is exactly the case. Twenty thousand insects papered in 75 cigar boxes is a huge project, which is probably why a portion has been put off for over 100 years. The insects not only have to be identified, but mounted, labeled, repaired, and placed in the greater collection; in other words, they need to be fully curated. The project received a 275 thousand dollar grant to do this and more, which is reasonable. It means that, factoring out other costs, the museum can afford to pay several people for several years to make things happen, depending on whether they use sla-, I mean, grad student workers or full professionals (the former will work for less).

Some of the commenters on the article question the use of grant money to complete this project, but I don't think they understand the scale and scope of "specimen limbo" projects. Assuming the people working on these are doing this full time, I'm not even sure the project can get done in a couple years. Every specimen will require individual care, and while the mounting, identification, and labeling may take only an hour per specimen, the relaxing time is hours to days, and only so many specimens can be relaxed at once. We're talking maybe several hours work for 20,000 specimens, which is at least 500 weeks or over nine and a half years of work for a single person. Assuming, of course, that they are working full time on this project, 40 hours a week, year round. This is a massive task, and like I said, every collection has at least one of these specimen limbo projects. There is no quick fix, only long tedious work.

ETA: It really burns me when people question funding to already underfunded, understaffed natural history collections. So I left a longer, more ranty, uh, rant over at the article. Since it is more ranty and less coherent I'll let it stay there.

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