Monday, February 6, 2012

Entomological Museums: Little progress in 60 years.

At the 1949 meeting of the Pacific Coast Entomological Society, retiring president Edward S. Ross gave an address on the role of entomological museums. He outlined six major functions which can be applied to natural history collections in general.

1. To preserve specimens: "In thus preserving and making available for use the specimens upon which the literature is is based the museum performs one of its most important functions; namely, that of being a place where collections can be received curated, and preserved for future reference."

2. To serve as gathering point for newly collected and unstudied specimens: "When a museum fails to gather new material it is as dead and as unproductive as a machine without fuel."

3. To provide facilities and loan material for specialists:
All museums, of course, attempt to have table space and equipment for visiting scientists...Obviously, however, it is impossible for a specialist personally to visit each museum in the course of a given taxonomic project...Curators, because of pressure of other work, or a fewar of losing specimens, unfortunately are not always eager to fill loan requests. They should realize, however, that it is one of their primary duties to honor any loan request made by a worker in good standing, or who is properly recommended. Unstudied specimens lying idle in museums at a time when revisionary work is being done might just as well be back in the field if they are not utilized during such fleeting periods of activity.
4. To specialize (to some extent) in a particular group or region: "The resultant development of outstanding collections in a taxonomic group is a desirable and an essential step towards making real published conclusions."

5. To provide representative sets of specimens for major groups around the world: "In many orders higher categories have been very incompletely correlated from a world standpoint. There is a need for first hand examination, not a mere literature knowledge, of the type species upon which these categories are based."

6. To educate the public: "Very often [the museum] is the only place where youth, the post-university-age amateur, and the professional entomologist can find the means for pursuing his work...Avocational entomology can add to the fullness of many a life and this fact alone could well justify the place of museums in our society."

The major problem with meeting these functions, he said, "is financial support of the activity is more in proportion to the size of the organisms, than to the size of the job." Charismatic megafauna such as birds and mammals often receive greater funding, despite smaller amounts of taxonomic work needed in those groups. And in the eyes of the public, these tasks lack the shiny, new appeal of other sciences based in high technology. Shortages in staffing, space and organizing materials are due to museum work being "like that of a library...very unspectacular."

To Dr. Ross, the single most important progressive change needed was freer loaning of type specimens between institutions, with a central filing system containing information on the types for all names of insects worldwide. The most controversial aspect of his proposal was a central type depository, perhaps at the Smithsonian, where all holotype specimens collected in the United States would be located.

I am sure the immediate reaction of many curators to this proposal will be one of horror, but most of this horror I believe would be based on unscientific selfish reasons. it is not the purpose of types to make an institutional or private collection valuable or indispensable. Admittedly it would mean that some museums would give up more than others. As matters stand, however, no institution is self-sufficient in regard to types and all stand to gain in the long run. What is really important is that our ponderous science would advance more rapidly with unwavering, steady steps. [emphasis his]
It is clear after 60 years that this dream is far from being realized. The problems of staff and funding shortages are the same today as they were then, if not worse. And central type depositories aside, there is still no central database of names and types for insects. This is in spite of the ubiquity of Internet, and many independent attempts by taxonomists in their groups of specialization. Many museums are digitizing their collections, but these catalogs are institutional and seldom connected to each other. Despite technological progress, natural history collections have a long way to go before name and type information is completely available. The problems of today are the same as then.

Thanks to Doug Yanega of the Entomological Collections Network listserv for the tip-up to this article.

Ross, E. 1950. The Role of the Entomological Museum. Pan-Pacific Entomologist 26: 1-10.


Morgan Jackson said...

This is both very good and exceedingly sad at the same time Kai! I'd say that times are much worse today than they were 60 years ago, with even the Smithsonian being forced to mothball entire groups (more so than normal), without the budget to curate or provide specimen loans from those groups! I've hoped that funding agencies and governments will wake up and realize the damage they are doing to our understanding of the natural world by not funding natural history collections, but they continue to be distracted by shiny new molecular toys and pipe-dream promises! Looks like we have plenty more work to do to convince them and the public otherwise!

ZL "Kai" Burington said...


I wasn't aware that the Smithsonian had "mothballed" entire groups. Are they even accessible? How about the types? If I were to go to Washington, would I be able to investigate, say, Sciaroidea? Please let me know where I can learn more about this!

I really am worried about this tendency to see the new technology as the be-all, end-all for systematics and biology in general. It may be that people are pining for the tricorder they saw Captain Kirk use in their youth. Eventually the problem solving limits of the technology will be made clear, but I hope we will not have done away with our natural history collections before that point!

My question is, what do I need to do to convince the public of the importance of natural history collections? How can I make Ross's vision of the function of entomological museums come to reality?