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Sold out of science: embracing private collectors in natural history museums.

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Is there such a thing as déjà prevu—the feeling of seeing something that you intended to write, but haven’t, yet? This feeling swept over me recently when I read a piece by Mark Carnall, curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in London. Mark’s post on fossil specimens, private collectors, and museums, did a great job kicking off a long-needed debate on the whether it is possible OR desirable for museums to remain aloof from the marketplace, and I invited him to expand on his thoughts in today’s guest post. Thank you, Mark.

In a recent blog post, natural history under the hammer, over on UCL Museums and Collections blog I reflected on the differences between natural history museums’ relationship with collectors, auctions and the ethics of treating specimens as commercial commodities and how other types of museums embrace private and amateur collectors as part of the wider community. In the ‘art world’, you’re likely to find curators, collectors, patrons and donors mingling, networking and collaborating at auctions, through subject specialist networks, international professional networks and academic conferences. In the natural history context, private collectors in general are labelled as being unethical and criticized for taking important specimens away from science.

Fossils, taxidermy, entomology specimens and other natural history specimens have inspired or been a part of art from still life studies from the great masters through to Jan Fabre’s works composed of millions of beetle elytra and the Chapman brother’s puerile inter-species copulation dioramas. However, recently the high profile sales of what in a museum context would be considered natural history specimens have provoked a communal slow shaking of the head and tutting from the scientific community—for good reasons, too. Specimens that command a high price for their rarity are normally of huge potential scientific interest. The perception is that if these specimens pass into the hands of private collectors—who can afford to easily out-bid museums—the specimens are lost to science. Because they aren’t in a public institution, there is no guarantee that studies can be repeated on them to confirm or refute hypotheses. In addition, the provenance and legality of these sales is often questionable in the first place.

However, an important question raised by this response by the scientific community to private collecting is why is it ‘us vs. them’ in the first place? Other disciplines not only tolerate but are enriched by private collectors and enthusiasts. Art auctions and art conferences are attended by curators from all over the world, artists and private collectors. Art and art history specialist networks are subscribed to both by collectors, practitioners and museum professionals. Furthermore, many private collectors are patrons, donors and lobbyists that support art museums and galleries. By contrast, it’s doubtful you’ll find a natural history curator at an auction and in order to join a natural history-related professional network you have to have an institutional affiliation.

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I would like to propose that natural history museums stand to gain a great deal by embracing rather than shunning private collectors. First off there are obvious benefits to networking with multi-millionaires who are passionate about natural history. (I think it’s a bit reductive to suggest that someone who splashes millions of dollars on a fossil is always going to be a trophy hunter who couldn’t care less about science). Secondly, sitting on the sidelines and tutting about these auctions after the fact isn’t as constructive as working with auction houses and private collectors. By engaging with the commercial realm, museums can help clean up a notoriously ill-regulated and sparsely policed trade in illegal specimens.

There’s much less robust legislation and awareness of issues around illicitly, illegally and unethically collected material in the realm of natural history than in the world of art. From where I work in central London if you gave me $1000 I could go out and be back in a couple of hours having bought illicitly imported fossils, coral specimens and specimens of wild caught insects and spiders both dead and alive with no questions asked. As recent auctions have highlighted there’s a very poor safety net when it comes to investigating the due diligence and provenance of natural history specimens.(In one recent case covered even by the tabloids, Nicholas Cage’s purchase of a Tyrannosaurus skull was investigated.) The scientific community also falls foul of illicit specimens, resulting in papers on specimens which turn out to be forgeries or illicitly acquired, papers that are then retracted from journals or deliberately ignored by the wider community.

By working with private collectors and amateur collectors, museums are uniquely placed to raise the awareness of ethical collecting and hopefully to increase the patronage and support of natural history museums at the same time. In the UK this exact same issue in archaeology has been tackled with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) a reporting and recording scheme now a department of the British Museum. With thousands of amateur collectors, enthusiasts and metal dectectorists regularly finding archaeological material a scheme was needed to record these finds, flag up important finds to the wider community and ensure that key context information isn’t lost. The genius of the scheme is that registering finds generates prestige and collectors are properly credited. The data associated with finds, which is collected and edited by volunteer contributors, is uploaded to the web, the finds digitised, located on a map and the history and context fully recorded and made accessible in a way that puts most museum online catalogues to shame. Furthermore, the finds can then be returned to the collector rather than find its way to an already packed museum store to be discovered in 200 years’ time with a note ‘to be documented’ on it. The scheme only works with the combined effort of professional archaeologists, museums, collectors and volunteers. It builds trust between museums and collectors, raises the awareness of ethical and scientific collection and records all the important data almost at the point of collecting. There is a planned pilot project for fossil finds in the UK.

For natural history museums to thrive and remain relevant we need to shed some of the unfortunate downsides to working as scientists. For too long natural history museums have operated somewhere in the space between the museum and the science sectors and now risk finding themselves seated at  the “kid’s table” in both– increasingly more distant from modern science and all but absence from discussions shaping the future of the museum sector. Natural history museums have a lot to learn from other kinds of museums when it comes to patronage, and working with private collectors and amateur enthusiasts they have a lot to share, too.

Mark Carnall is the curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL. You can follow the musings of Mark and his colleagues at the UCL Museums and Collections Blog.

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1 Comment

  1. Mark holds up PAS as an exemplar for other heritage communities to follow, but PAS is still very controversial. A few blogs regular discuss the value of PAS,, and While PAS does encourage greater public engagement with cultural heritage, it also privileges the object over the context. To me, the value of museum is recreating and displaying the context, not only an artifact divorced from the world it was born in.

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