Yesterday evening I had a very interesting chat with The Horniman Museum’s Paolo Viscardi about collections under threat of damage or destruction. I expected the primary contributor to be human civil unrest but, as it turns out, our Natural History collections have far more to fear from a budget cut than from an angry mob with pitchforks. Paolo said that I would be surprised how often people end up rummaging through skips to retrieve type specimens in the aftermath of a closure. I was horrified that it has happened even once!
There are two things a collection needs to be safe: space and a person to care for it. If the owner of the property they are housed in decides to evict the collection, the collection faces homelessness. Without temperature-regulated storage, there is a high risk of a pest infestation and there are few things as edible as a Natural History collection.
If the museum manager decides to make the curator redundant, or makes cut-backs that result in people being responsible for multiple collections, again the collection runs the risk of predation but also of abject under-appreciation. With the best will in the world a geology curator with a geology collection already in his care will not be able to give an entomology collection the same amount of care and attention as a dedicated entomology curator could. It’s not just the division of time or the conflicting priorities, it’s also the nature of the challenges faced by the respective curators: an entomologist doesn’t have to worry about pyrite decay; a geologist doesn’t have to worry about live larvae in the specimen boxes.
Why is there a problem?
Firstly, we are culturally unused to thinking of a bunch of dead things having needs. We are good at recognising at-risk populations of living creatures even if we aren’t as good at doing something about it. Once those at-risk creatures die, we tend to think of that being the end of the story. For the people trying to preserve our continued understanding of those animals, this is only the beginning.
Secondly this government’s “bonfire of the quangos” resulted in the dissolution of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council – their responsibilities being placed upon the Arts Council. In the same way that a museum collection deteriorates with improper care and divided priorities, so too will museums and libraries if we aren’t careful. The Arts Council have taken their new responsibilities very seriously and credit to them but there is still the issue of time, skill sets, and priorities. Public interest have a role to play in the priorities too: it’s a lot easier to give the all-clear to the acquisition of a £5m Turner piece (which will make front page news) than it is to drum up £800 for new cabinets (which won’t even make the gossip column).
What can we do?
If you are a curator working in a collection that is under threat, or you have taken on responsibility for a collection outside of your comfort zone, you can join organisations like NatSCA which is a community of like-minded professionals willing to share their knowledge, skills, and resources.
If you are in the political sphere you can try and convince this government of the importance of the collections and push some money their way.
If you are entrepreneurially minded, take a look at your local museum and, if you spot some areas where they could ethically raise revenue, let them know.
If you are in education, impress upon the next generation how valuable these collections are so that, when they grow up and become curators, politicians, entrepreneurs, and teachers, they will be in a better position to protect their natural history than we are in today.
This isn’t one of those guilt-laden adverts with a crying Brachiosaurus skeleton begging you to donate or drop the charade of being a decent human being. All I want to do is get you thinking about the issue and what we can do to help.