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University Museums and Collections of Natural History

Karl L. Hutterer
Executive Director
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Over the last two years, great concerns have arisen over the future of natural history museums and collections at a number of American universities. Investigation has shown that the situation is by no means uniform but varies from case to case. In some instances, museums and collections have faced, and continue to face, threats of outright closure; in other cases, they are affected by severe budgetary cutbacks by their parent organization, leading to the elimination of all public programs or the termination of curatorial positions, entailing drastically reduced collections care and curtailment of access to the collections; in yet other instances, budgetary reductions of operating funds are relatively minor, without serious overall impact.

Several factors affect the relative well being of individual institutions. These factors do not include the size or quality of a given museum, but rather the museum's structural position within the university organization, and the degree to which a museum derives a significant portion of its operating funds from dedicated endowments. On the whole, however, there is no doubt that an increasing number of university-based natural history museums and collections are currently at risk, to such an extent that many members of the natural history community speak of a crisis.

The pressures university-based natural history museums find themselves under are by no means new. The position of natural history museums at universities has been in steady decline over the past 30 years, punctuated by the closure of museums and divestiture of collections during times of budgetary difficulties, particularly those caused by cyclical recessionary economies. While the internal allocation of scarce resources within university enterprises is always a highly politically charged issue, even during good times, politically weak university units are even more at risk during difficult times. With the continuously increasing cost of operating our vast university systems, the long-term forecast is that the erosion of university-based natural history museums will continue and may eventually make these institutions an endangered species, unless concerted strategic actions are taken to address the underlying problems. It would be a grave mistake to simply blame the secular trend on the ill will of poorly informed university administrators, while failing to recognize and address the deeper causes of the issue.

Summarizing a complex situation, there are, in essence, three basic challenges. The first is the continuously increasing cost of the human and material resources needed to care for our collections and the research associated with them. This continuous cost increase is caused, in part, by the fact that the collections themselves continue to grow, as they should, if the institution is healthy, active, and dynamic. However, even if the size of collections were to be kept constant, costs would continue to increase, because of the growing demands for better conservation measures, innovations in scientific technology, and general inflationary pressures in the economies in which our institutions are embedded.

A second challenge rests very simply in the fact that university systems themselves faced ever increasing economic challenges. Expectations in what universities deliver in the form of education, research, and public services have expanded greatly in recent decades while, at the same time, public funding as measured as a percentage contribution to overall operating budgets has continuously decreased. This has led publicly funded universities to compete aggressively for private support. The battle for the dollar is fierce, within and between institutions, and the spoils are likely to go those university departments that have the strongest alumni support, that can generate attention through spectacular research, and that have strong linkages to business and industry. Natural history museums are not always well situated in this battle.

The situation is made worse by the third challenge: taxonomy and systematics, fields that have long been the foundation of scientific research in natural history museums (as well as material culture studies in anthropology) have long ago lost the interest of the academic departments related to the museums. With this, museums have not simply lost their most important allies within the university structures, but these one-time allies have turned into fierce competitors for scarce resources, and their appeal is strong because of the student credit hours they deliver and the cutting-edge research they produce.

Given this background, three interrelated questions arise: (a) How can we ensure continued support for the maintenance of university-based natural history museums, their collections, and research associated with these collections? (b) How can we create opportunities for future growth and long-term vitality? (c) How can we overcome the see-saw effect of cycles of crippling budget cuts followed by arduous rebuilding?

These questions assume, of course, that university-based natural history museums, and natural history museums in general, continue to be of intrinsic intellectual value and continue to be of value to society. Without examining this issue further, it is obvious that there is no compelling need for any university to have a natural history museum (indeed, many universities do not), nor for any particular museum to be part of a university. I am convinced, however, that the university context has the potential to make a unique, and highly valuable, contribution to the natural history museum enterprise (far more so than is generally realized) and that the museum, in turn, has the potential of making great contributions to the academic enterprise (again, far more so than is generally realized).

It would be naïve to think that the difficulties university-based natural history museums are facing are solely the result of uninformed and uncaring, or perhaps even hostile, university administrators and that they could be resolved simply by increasing political pressure on university decision makers. I believe that three broad sets of actions are necessary.

1. Communication

For far too long, the existence and value of vast natural history collections on university campuses has been a well-kept secret, known only to museums staffs and a few chosen students who elected a curator as an academic advisor and who were consequently led into collections-based research for their undergraduate honors thesis or their graduate work. For many administrators, the existence of the collections has come on their radar screen mostly in the context of requests for support.

It is absolutely critical that natural history museums, their leaders, and their staffs communicate the existence, nature, scope, importance, and use of their collections to the whole university community. This communication has to be effective, continuous, and consistent.

Fortunately, this communication is relatively easy. As experience has shown over and over again, the objects contained in the collections have the power to exercise endless fascination not only on unschooled laypersons but also on sophisticated academics. Each object is capable of telling dozens of captivating stories that link together the most diverse aspects of the human experience of academic interests. Because the objects collections are so powerful, the best communication by far is not only to talk about them but to make them visible and physically accessible.

2. Research

While far from the only goal of research in natural history museums, taxonomy and systematics have traditionally been the staple and foundation of collections-based research. Given how little we know about the physical world we live in—with only 10-15% of all living organisms taxonomically assessed - and global concerns over rapid losses of biodiversity, the pursuit of taxonomy and systematics continue to be of undiminished importance. Indeed, they are more important and urgent today than they were ever before. The importance of this component of the mission of natural history museums is further stressed by the fact that these institutions are currently essentially alone in pressing forward with this neglected, yet vitally essential, enterprise. Natural history museums bear a heavy responsibility that has been abandoned by others. Recognizing this fact should impart a newfound sense of value to the scientific work we carry out in museums that is unaffected by the disinterest in taxonomy amongst our academic colleagues.

Recognizing the value and importance of taxonomic work does not mean that we can carry on business as usual. It has taken the scientific community to classify and describe only 10-15% of living things; we do not have 1,000 years or more to classify the rest. We must retool the taxonomic enterprise and fully engage new methods, techniques, and technologies to vastly speed up the process and disseminate and share information. Several international organizations have formed to promote and support these goals.

It is also clear that the gigantic amount of both manifest and latent information contained in our collections is relevant and pertinent to a vast range of interests in both basic and applied research, often topics and fields of great societal interest. Stressing the importance of taxonomy should not limit our research; on the contrary, we need to continuously connect taxonomy as well as the vast range of data that can be extracted from our collections with the full domain of contemporary science.

3. Collections Management

The vast collections held by natural history museums constitute at once a precious patrimony, a huge resource, a great obligation, and an enormous burden. Unfortunately, policies, techniques, and technologies to manage the ever-growing collections effectively as well as efficiently have been slow to evolve. Far much of their history, our museums have considered collections the sole responsibility of individual curators and have established and exercised exclusive institutional territorial rights. This is no longer defensible. We must stop treating collections as sacred cows under the control of individuals and institutions but rather approach them as the public resources they are.

The first and most obvious step must be to provide much wider information access to the collections by electronically data basing the collections. Many institutions have already taken important steps in that direction, but much remains yet to be done.

Beyond information access lies a wide domain of collections management policies that needs to be reformed but has, so far, barely been touched. We need to develop defensible and broadly shared rationales for what we collect and why, what we keep, and what we do not need to keep. Too many specimen and lots in our collections take up valuable space and other resources only because we simply hate to dispose of them or because they increase the counts of our holdings, creating an inflated sense of the importance and rank of the collection. We also need to eliminate unnecessary duplication and competition between institutions and consolidate collecting activities as well as collections holdings within collaborative networks, giving institutions the opportunity to focus on particular biological groups or geographic areas. Such coordination alone has the potential of significantly decreasing costs while strategically building on existing strengths, fostering networks, and increasing the quality and efficiency of collections care and research.

4. Collections Use

The traditional tendency has been to restrict access to, and use of, collections in the interest of conservation (as well as the convenience of curators and collections managers). This conservative attitude has been detrimental to the interest of our institutions and, indirectly, to the well being of the collections. Rather than restricting access, curators and collection mangers should seize every realistic opportunity to promote the use of collections in research, collegiate teaching, K-12 education, exhibits, and public programs.

This does not mean that the demand for expanded access to collections has to abandon reasonable conservation concerns. Expanded use can be achieved while safeguarding the well being of collections and individual objects, albeit probably at the cost of some additional effort and cost. Such effort and cost will be more than repaid, however, through the goodwill and support generated for the collections and the institution as a whole.

5. Building Constituencies

In spite of much-vaunted ideals of academic collegiality, universities are deeply fractured organizations, divided by competing interests between academic units, polarized between principles of hierarchy and democracy in leadership, and saddled with ever-increasing bureaucracies. University museums must build constituencies that reach across these and other fracture lines; they must engage administrators, faculty, students, and staff. Fortunately, natural history museums are uniquely positioned to do that, because they potentially have something to offer to any campus group or constituency.

Equally as important as internal constituencies, however, are constituencies outside the campus boundaries. Of all the things on a university campus, the natural history museum has the largest potential for popular appeal, with the possible exception of the football program. Because of this popular appeal, natural history museums can be most effective portals between academic communities and the communities on which their support depends. Natural history museums must seize this opportunity to prove themselves as vital assets to the university's efforts to explain the essence and importance of the academic enterprise to society at large and, by doing so, build public support.

In the long term, the survival of natural history museums on university campuses and as integral parts of university systems can be assured only, if universities can be convinced that natural history museums are not simply useful and worthy institutions but that they are making a vital contribution to the mission of the university. Ultimately, such value has to be demonstrated rather than asserted.


© September 2003
Karl L. Hutterer
Executive Director
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History