The Elephant in the Room

The Museums Association (MA) recently held their annual Conference and Exhibition at the EICC. Reported to be the largest gathering of museums and heritage professionals in Europe, it showcases  suppliers, hosts workshops and various meetings. Darren Mann of the HEC was there as a speaker to present a talk entitled ‘The Elephant in the Room‘ which tackles some of the difficult questions that are currently being raised about the future of natural history collections in the UK.

Elephant hawkmoth, Lepidoptera, Sphingidae, Deilephila elpenor
Elephant hawkmoth, Deilephila elpenor

What questions are those? Well, here is the background in a nutshell :

“Natural history collections are under threat but are vital for taxonomic research, environmental monitoring and education.
The number of specialist curators is declining, so should collections be redistributed to centres of excellence or are there other solutions for orphaned collections?”

The main question that is raised by this is- How do we prevent the loss of these collections? and it is one that is very much on the minds of all natural history curators at the moment as we hear of more collections being ‘moth-balled’ (put away into storage) and the loss of curators through redundancies or down-sizing, leaving many collections without people to care for them, interpret them or make them available for research.

The biggest threat of course, comes to the collections themselves which may become damaged or lost altogether through poor storage and lack of care. For example, any item with fur, feather or chitin (e.g. taxidermy mounts or insect specimens) are open to attack from a host of pests including the one most reviled by curators, Anthrenus, which whilst being a rather pretty little beetle, views an insect collection as an assemblage of tasty snacks.

Anthrenus verbasci, Coleoptera, Dermestidae, beetle, insect
The Varigated Carpet Beetle, Anthrenus verbasci (Linnaeus, 1767).
Anthrenus, Coleoptera, Dermestidae, beetle, insect, damage
An example of the damage that Anthrenus can cause to an insect collection. This level of damage can occur within 2-4 years of a collection being ‘moth-balled’ if it is not in secure pest-proof storage or being regularly checked by a trained curator.

In a round up of the problems associated with deciding the future of these collections, Darren Mann pointed out that despite their huge popularity with the general public there has been a movement in the museums sector away from natural history and towards the arts and social sciences. To put some perspective on this, the Ashmolean Museum recently spent £7.83 million on Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus. For the same amount of money the entire UK entomological collections* of over 10 million specimens could have been re-housed and systematically arranged in modern pest proof storage.
The Museums Association will be holding a ‘Vox Pop’ later this week to try and gain some insight into this situation. See the Museums Journal on-line for more information.
See here for a wider view on museum closures across the sector.
*Outside of National and University Museums. 

One response to “The Elephant in the Room

  1. It is disgusting that the Billionaires of the world will still shell out an (affordable) fortune for a dusty old painting in order to show how cultured they are (or to ameliorate the guilt that they feel for having exploited the rest of the world through arms dealing or social and economic fragmentation and environmental 'rape' in the name of the markets) but will not fund the essential care of the collections that underpin our understanding of life on earth. Society needs a shift in morality where philanthropy is not merely a reflection of what is wrong with society (e.g. conspicuous consumption) but an attempt to be part of the solution to fixing environmental problems (e.g. funding the curation of valuable environmental data). YoursTitanus

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