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Monday Musing: Orphan Collections

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
A Facebook post the week before last from staff at the natural history museum at the University of Louisiana in Monroe caused a stir in the museum world. The post shared a directive from university administrators announcing that if an alternate location for the collection could not be found within 48 hours, it would be given away to a new institution, and if the collection wasn’t removed from campus by the end of July, it would be “destroyed.” (After having been displaced from several campus locations, the collections were being stored in an athletic facility, and the July deadline was triggered by plans to expand the running track.)
An update in Science magazine last week shared good news: the Monroe collections have been issued as a reprieve because “dozens and dozens” of other museum and academic institutions have offered to adopt the orphaned collections (details to be worked out). Cue cheers for our field, ever ready to find a good home for an orphaned collection.
But I’m troubled by the long term implications of this situation, which is only the latest example of university research collections at risk of being abandoned or destroyed. In the Science article Robert Gropp, policy director at the Natural Science Collections Alliance and interim director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, observed that “[this] speaks to a broader problem of this country. We are not investing in research infrastructure in a coordinated or thoughtful way.” I agree, and we need to think long and hard about what that investment might look like, and where the money will come from.
One fundamental question we need to ask is what kind of institution will be most committed to the long-term success of the collection? It often seems that university museums and collections of any kind are inherently vulnerable. All too often administrators make decisions they feel are in the best interest of their academic institutions but are destructive to the museum or the collection. Museum standards are supposed to put a check on actions like selling a collection to pay operating expenses, or destroying a collection outright without regard for its value to the public. But presidents and provosts often argue they need to look at the greater good of the university, pointing out that they are not primarily in the business of running a museum or caring for collections. Research collections are particularly at risk. Often they were created as an integral part of the work of the faculty, and were seen as part and parcel of the business of being a university of a certain type. But research and funding has shifted away from traditional taxonomy, and institutions of higher education across the country are questioning just what purpose these collections serve. In fact, that question was explicitly raised at ULM, where the directive said staff could keep one room of “teaching collections.” (Don’t get me started on what that statement says about the writer’s understanding of teaching, taxonomy, and training researchers.)
I am profoundly relieved that other museums have stepped forward to save the ULM collections. However, over time, if situations like this continue to occur (and I fear they will), we will see the gradual consolidation of research collections into fewer, larger holdings. Maybe that scenario promises some benefits. Large, centralized collections might be more efficient to manage and make accessible. (The relocation of the ULM collection will interrupt an NSF-funded digitization project scheduled for completion in 2019.) Creating a few, national centers for research collections might magnify the impact of federal funding by alleviating the need to replicate infrastructure.
But centralization comes with significant disadvantages too. For one, this scenario would limit the opportunity for students to train in research collections. Many already fear that we are already losing the science of taxonomy just when it is more important than ever that we be able to identify species and document the effects of rapid ecological change. Consolidating collections also concentrates risk. Terrible as it is to lose relatively small research collections (LSU Monroes collection is reported to consist of 3-6 million fish specimens and 500,000 herbarium specimens), distributing collections among many institutions also partitions the risk. If we cultivate a future in which there are only a handful of major repositories for collections of a given type, the damage will be that much greater if one center is struck by natural or man-made disasters (including budget cuts).
Whether we support distributed research collections or choose to consolidate in a thoughtful manner, it will be more important than ever to help research collections create income streams that buffer them from the vagaries of support from other sources. Universities will always have competing priorities, and are themselves in a time of rapid economic and cultural change. Government funding is always vulnerable to the overall economy and to policy changes. Biological research collections have not generally attracted major individual philanthropic gifts or private foundations support. Earned income from membership, space rental, travelling exhibits etc. can always be directed to other uses.
To help build a sustainable future for research collections, the Alliance is exploring how such collections can develop income streams tied to their inherent strengths: the specimens themselves, associated data, expertise of their staff and the facilities created to house and use the collections. In an earlier post I blogged about a NSF-funded workshop that I helped teach last December. FutureProofing Natural History Collections: Creating Sustainable Models for Research Resources, co-organized by the Alliance, the Ecological Society of America and Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History was the beginning of what I am sure will be a long process of inventing new income streams for research collections that will help ensure that they do not become economic orphans. The May/June issue of Museum will feature my write-up of the workshop, and I’m working with ESA, staff at the Peabody and others to create more opportunities to explore this topic in depth. The need for stable financial models for biological research collections is real, urgent and growing. I’d love to hear about how you are finding new ways to fund your work.  

Entomology collection at NMNH. Now THAT’S
a research collection.  

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1 Comment

  1. Museums, even those with large collections are not always a safe option for collections either. They are non-profits whose governing board and directors are increasingly more worried about driving attendance with Disneyland like exhibits than they are about investing in their most important assets, and the thing that actually MAKES them a museum rather than a theme park – their collections

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