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How To Valorize A Scientific Heritage Unrecognized?
the case of the University of Liège zoological collections, Belgium.

Dr Michèle LONEUX
Assistant acting as Curator 1991-2003
Zoology Museum of Liège, University, Zoological Institute,
Quai Van Beneden 22, B-4020 Liège, Belgium
Phone +32 4 366 5002
Fax +32 4 366 5010


This paper presents the nature and value of the zoological collections conserved in the University of Liège zoological museum. The 'hidden' collections are scientific heritage of former and even famous researchers (Edouard Van Beneden and his pupils), ignored by most of the actual scientists and administrators of the university and thus under exploited. Since war II and public mutation, the museum is not seen any more as the central place to conserve the material of study. The collection management of these last twelve years has been oriented to develop scientific valorization of the collections. It has led to the creation of computerized databases of collection holding, web-site of the museum, collection care workshops for volunteers, thematic exhibitions, and to publications and conference attendance. Despite the realizations and success of the volunteer activities, the university does not care about scientific value, only about didactical value and public attraction. The museum and the aquarium are actually merged and the collection management of both is given to the aquarium curator. The total activities, accomplishments and effort needed to preserve the collections are simply considered not important enough to justify the confirmation of a separated museum curator. The future of the scientific hidden collections is really unknown.

Origin of This Scientific Heritage

The preservation of collections began at the University of Liège, with the creation of the University in 1817, by official decree of the King Guillaume d'Orange. The decree imposed to all newly created universities to collect specimens and hold collections to support and illustrate the courses and lectures given to the students (cf 'learned cabinets', De Clercq, Umac 2003). Liège is one of the Belgian oldest universities, as well as Leuven and Ghent (cf Verschelde, Umac 2003). In 1835, another official decree, by the first Belgian King Leopold I, imposed to register the collections. The specimens in collection have been firstly inventoried in 1836 and the recording catalogue created in 1837. This first official register and the following have been preserved up to now and constitute the oldest track of collections contents in that time.

The successive professors in charge of the zoological collections have each contributed to the enrichment of the collections. The first professor of natural sciences at Liège University, from 1818 till 1835, was Henri-Maurice Gaede from Kiel. However, his successor Jean-Theodore Lacordaire was the significant developer of the collections as a worldwide illustration of the animal biodiversity.

Lacordaire, from France, traveled in South America before arriving at Liège. Entomologist and systematician (Lacordaire 1834, 1838) knew the scientific value of a reference collections and worked for the growth and worldwide diversification of the collections. A tireless man, he twice accepted the Rector charge (Le Roy 1869, Morren 1871). He bought many mammals, birds and fish specimens from Australia, South East Asia and South America to Francis Laporte Comte de Castelnau. His purchase contained also Castelnau's diary on Fish from South America, fully illustrated by original color paintings taken in the field.

When Lacordaire died in 1871, the young Belgian Edouard Van Beneden was called to follow him and became the third professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy. Van Beneden refused the Rector charge twice to devote himself fully to research and teaching. He organized an expedition in Brazil (Van Beneden 1873) and several campaigns to collect marine material in the Belgian cost (Van Beneden 1883a, 1883b, 1884, 1887). He succeed in getting construction of a Zoological Institute, in which collections and some research units in zoology are still reside more than 100 years later. He developed a Belgian Fauna section among the collections. With him, the collections were closely related to research and served as study material also for his pupils (Van Beneden 1891, Van Beneden & Julin 1884, 1886, Cerfontaine 1891, 1909). His innovative works and discoveries made him famous worldwide. When he died in 1910, many unpublished or unachieved works remained to be exploited (Damas 1936a, Brien 1968, Hamoir 1999). The fourth Professor in charge of the zoological collections was Dèsirè Damas, pupil of Van Beneden, interested in marine biology (Damas 1904, 1905, 1922, 1936b). He assumed the courses and faced two wars, during which he saved the collections from havoc and destruction. The zoological institute itself was not completely destroyed by bombing, and the collections were relatively preserved. A lot of marine samples were collected during his Atlantic Expedition in 1922.

After War II: Evolution of collection use and management.

The first change in the role of the zoological collections and museum happened after the war II, with the nomination of Marcel Dubuisson as fifth professor of Zoology. He also became quickly the Rector of the University, wanted to valorize the collections for the large public as well as for the students, and intended to renovate and increase the museum area and to create an aquarium. During the 1950s, two museum curators (Fritz Carpentier and Fernande Kraentzel) and four technicians were involved in the moving and preparation of the specimens for the new museum exhibition rooms. Many research programs, conducted by the university in the Belgian colony, led to the integration of numerous African animals in collection. November 1962 is the celebration of the official public opening of the new created 'Marcel Dubuisson' Aquarium and the renovated Museum, both in the old Zoological Institute, called afterwards Van Beneden Institute. During that period too, the courses of the License in zoology became more diversified and split among several professors. With the ongoing splitting of the charges, the Museum progressively lost its role as a central depository and storage location for the study material. Each small research unit holds material, until the principal researcher leaves the unit. Then all is stored and forgotten in boxes or cellars. Curiously in 1972, following Dubuisson, the sixth professor getting academic Direction of the zoological collections of the museum and the new aquarium is not a professor of Zoology, Systematic, Morphology or Comparative Anatomy, but the professor of the new course 'Ethology and Animal Psychology'. Fernande Kraentzel (1908-2002), last ancient curator, retires in 1971 and is replaced in 1972 by Noel Magis, who begins to develop a reference collection in entomology and introduces temporary exhibitions in the Museum. Since the 1980s, major reductions in staff and money have occurred in University. Retired persons are not replaced. The museum lost its technicians and among them the taxidermist, and when the last curator retired in 1991, the University opened only one temporary half-time assistant job for the zoological museum. Moreover, collections care management was separated from public management, due to the creation of a special association devoted to public opening and financial resources management. My mission for 12 years, acting as half-time curator in the zoological museum for the professor of Ethology, has been to valorize the scientific collections.

How to Valorize the Scientific Part of This Heritage?

By contrast with the collections exhibited as didactic part in the public rooms, all specimens conserved in the museum depositories are 'hidden', unknown or forgotten by the local researchers for any purpose. However, the ancient curators had organized them by systematic in the different depository rooms and cabinets, and they can be easily found. I also tried to collect the old study material forgotten in the different research units or cellars. I often saved materials just before they were going to be thrown away. From the strict scientific point a view, the first step to valorization is to find out what we have. The second step is to diffuse the knowledge among the scientific community, by all existing ways. A third step is to welcome scientists to study the material. From the curator point of view, in a small regional museum, to welcome any people interested in collections is as important as to care on specimens. The museum serves as identification and information office about animals, welcomes volunteers and collaborators, presents temporary exhibitions and develops public as well as scientific relations.

1) To establish the state of the art in museum holding.

To optimize this purpose and easily update the information in an actual way, I initiated computer programming and began the creation of databases with all information copied from the old catalogues (FILEMAKER Pro software on Mac computer). I received help from the last technician still attached to the museum. Four years were needed to encode the strict information available in the hand written registers (1992-1996). New fields of information were of course added, like systematic taxa, geographic and management fields about location, accessibility, condition... Of course most are still in an ongoing process to be completed and we created new single entries for card attributed to multiple specimens. This also should be created for entomological collections recorded with one numbered card for several thousands of specimens, but we need more staff help for this to be achieved. Actually the file contains 21,778 cards.

(Fig 1: Example of the fields used in the entry sheet for one specimen in the database, situation on 31st July 2003).

This reference list of what we should have in collection allows us to sort the data by any key and to look for some particular characteristics (any field of the file such as taxonomic). When we make inventories in storage and exhibition rooms we compare what we find with the database. And we find some specimens not yet recorded at all, mainly among the 1872 Brazilian and 1922 Atlantic samples. This database constitutes our best tool and makes the museum a leader compared to the other museums in Belgium, where computerization of collections is in beginning phase. Recently, the government of our French-speaking Community published a 'Museum' decree in December 2002 requiring computerization of the collections.

2) To diffuse information worldwide

We use the world-wide-web, international meetings, and journals to disseminate information. The museum web site was created at the end of 1996 by a student group, as a practical exercise for training in multimedia matter. The site address is accessible on the net since January 1997. It presents introduction to public exhibition rooms and collections, historical information, and is periodically enriched by new information pages ( One of the goals of the site is to provide information on collection content, but a database access is not yet operating. To attend national and international conferences and present posters or communications on our collections is also a major goal, really effective since 2000 (good improvement of the database), but few conferences are organized with topic on collections. Some papers were published on specimens or taxa revision through these conferences (Loneux 2002a, b, c, d, e, Loneux & Thiery 1998, Loneux & Walravens 1998, 2002).

3) To welcome specialists for studies on the material

All people interested in collections are welcome. We are not able to pay for the travel of researchers, thus we are visited by few foreign specialists. We do loan material for study if feasible. However, we succeed once by helping a Russian specialist get a grant from our Belgian Commissariat for International Relations. Tina Molodtsova came and stayed 2 months during autumn 1999 to review the Cerianthida type material studied by Van Beneden. In the other cases, the specimens are sent to researchers, or they come to borrow them. The researchers publishing results are invited to send a copy of their paper to the museum (d'Udekem 1997, Lays 1997, Molodtsova 2001, Reiling 1998, 2000, 2002, Thièry 1996, Tomasovic 2000, Wasson 1996).

Regarding the UMAC 2003 Theme: 'Engaging the Community'

We welcome students from 'high' schools (­university) for practical exercise in Museum collection. Future multimedia graduates (5) and future librarians (7) contributed to the enrichment of the web site, and of the digital documentation of specimens. For example, the temporary exhibitions that we realized have been put on the web after the exhibition: presents the common or curious spiders from West Europe (in French only) and presents the common arthropods (among which insects) found in houses (in French only). We have many ideas for further development. I applied the practical part of my lectures in Entomology (15h + 15h) on the entomology collections. Five students in 2003 have worked either to prepare an exhibition box about a group of insects or a theme, or to encode in a database information on single insect specimens from an entomological donation. I organized weekly free practical workshops in osteology and in entomology, every Friday evening from January 2001, for any student or adult volunteers interested to work on the collections. To work means really to wash specimens, to mount skeletons, to mount insects on pins, to encode data in database, to fill up alcohol in jars etc. The regular participants were veterinarian students and children 8-15y, and they came also more often during holidays. Their work allowed us to prepare some specimens requested for exhibitions outside the Museum, or simply to preserve and care on specimens already exhibited or stored in depositories. Since 2000 we engaged 'scientific collaborators' for the Museum. This official status without any salary is recognized yearly by the University to outside people introduced and recommended by a head of unit. These collaborators agree to help the preparation of public exhibitions, the restoration of specimens or to share their expertise in specimen identification, mainly in Entomology. Although we engaged student community, but we did not obtain any engagement from our own colleagues in the Institute. They don't care about scientific value and use of the specimens. The requests for study material come from more foreign researchers than Belgian ones. Most of the Belgian requests come from external people rather than from Liège, University. Actually, the requests are asked more by e-mail than by post mail or direct visit.

Zoological Collections in Liège: Present and Future

Despite these accomplishments, the second millennium marks another change in collection use and management. The Museum's role as a showpiece is kept in mind, but only through the permanent exhibition rooms. In 2000, the last academic director retired and a reorganization of the departments and research units occurred. The administrative direction of the museum remained in suspense. In 2002, the university merged the museum with the aquarium. As a result, the separate university funding for collection care and scientific valorization has been taken away from the museum. Since 2001, two sources of revenue are renting of specimens requested for exhibitions outside, and my entomological identifications and expert appraisals. The income is large enough this year to cover the costs of alcohol and care against insect pests, and the costs to attend the UMAC conference in Norman and the European Bird Collections Conference in Leiden. However, participation in previous UMAC conferences was out of the question. In the future, one lone curator will be appointed from January 2004, for both the Aquarium and the zoological Museum. Even the kind of job is completely different. This is a substantial saving for the University, which has considered that: 'the died collections would not need someone to care about them and could wait'. As the living fish and public opening have been judged more important than the old scientific heritage, the unique curator will be the actual Aquarium curator. The last museum technician is encouraged to go into pre-retirement and my job is eliminated. It seems clearly that I have not succeeded in engaging the community, even if I have good support of the ones I have engaged. The actions and accomplishments presented have not come to enough attention to the community of decision-makers. I did engage communities, but not the strategic ones and definitively not enough, even if I spent more than a half-time job in that aims. As a lesson and to answer the question 'how to valorize the heritage...?', the answer ought to be 'by promoting yourself your job to the decision-makers and scientific community within your own university'. The real future of collection management and scientific valorization is still unknown.


I thank the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research, which allocated me a travel grant for the flight to Norman, and Jean-Claude Ruwet for his confidence in my work all these years.

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© 2003 Michèle Loneux