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What It Is and What Isn't: a personal account of natural history collections in European universities today

Marta C. Lourenço
Museum of Science
University of Lisbon
Rua da Escola Politecnica 56
1250-102 Lisboa, Portugal


For the past three years I have been visiting university museums and collections in Europe. So far, I have visited a total of 118, of which 44 natural history museums and collections (see Annex). Here, I will present a 15-minute personal account of my visits to these museums.

I will not discuss scientific trends. I am not a biologist and to be honest I do not understand these very well. I have been told over and over that collections are no longer used, but also that they are still relevant to contemporary science. To an outsider, this is paradoxical and I think that among biologists there are a number of different points of view. To reach a common platform would perhaps be an important step to start with. As a physicist, I think that Biology looks pretty much like Physics at the end of the 19th century, before the great unification around the nature of light. I am unaware if the unification between the micro and macro levels in Biology is on its way soon - or if indeed it has already happened - but it seems logical to me that this unification at the theoretical level and subsequent incorporation into what Kuhn designated 'normal science' will make collections busier than the London underground. But enough of the ins and outs of science for now.

I should like to say a few words about the current mood at European universities, because this is relevant to understand the choices they have recently been made regarding their museums.

Traditionally, European universities are more dependent on political will than their American counterparts. European governments have intervened in universities and not so long ago this intervention even went as far as decision-making in curricular matters. For example, most natural history cabinets, chemistry laboratories and astronomical observatories in European universities were created through the initiatives of governments. Scientific and pedagogical autonomy - currently an important banner of European universities - is a comparatively recent development and in France, for example, universities only acquired scientific and pedagogical autonomy in 1968 (Loi Faure). This strong presence of the State also translates into funding policies: European universities are basically paid for by the government. There are student fees, but these have been kept between 10 to 20 times lower than in America for political reasons that do not concern us here. For several years now, European universities have been financially pushed against the wall. On the one hand they are asked to compete aggressively in the international arena, particularly with American universities, but on the other hand government funding per student has been decreasing - in some countries, like the UK, it has almost halved in the past 20 years. At the same time, the number of students is decreasing due to demographic factors. Therefore, the challenge is how to perform better with ever-decreasing funds. This may shock us, but money dictates everything, from research to staff policies, to the management of buildings and infrastructure, and indeed to museums and collections.

Basically due to these reasons, for the past 20 years European universities have been restructuring the position of their museums without clearly stating what they want and expect from them. From the strict point of view of the use of collections for teaching and research the impact of consecutive restructuring was severe and frequently involved major de-accessions1.. A concrete example from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) - over the past 20 years the following took place:

a) 1983: Geology was abolished as a discipline (collections were orphaned)2.

b) 1988: the Botanical Garden was 'sold' to the municipality (it came into the hands of a foundation, allowing the university to get rid of the expenses and of most of botany research and teaching as well)

c) 1993: the decision was made to donate one-third of the geology collections to the Amsterdam Zoo

d) 1998: the Pinetum Blijdenstein (pine tree arboretum) was also 'sold' to the Botanical Garden Foundation

e) 2002: one-third of the geology collections effectively came into the hands of the Amsterdam Zoo

f) 2002 (November): a letter of intentions between UvA and Naturalis (Leiden) was signed foreseeing the de-accessioning of 90% of the Museum of Zoology (13 million specimens) to Naturalis in 2006

g) 2003 (April): the remaining two-thirds of the geology collections was re-distributed among Naturalis, Bandung (Indonesia), and the local museums of Maastricht and Nijmegen

Today, it is frequently said that natural history collections and museums are at a crossroads and it is a pity that for a large part their recent history remains unwritten. Nonetheless, I believe that natural history museums at European universities are now facing the greatest challenge to their identity in their 400-year history.

The first major blow was "the mother of all exodus": their separation from departments. Of course this did not happen at the same time and in the same way everywhere in Europe, but I will try to paint the broader pattern. In doing so, I will speak in general terms and then refer to the exceptions towards the end of my talk. For the past 30 years laboratories, lecturers, researchers, students, equipment etc. moved to modern facilities, in state-of-the-art campuses, generally on the outskirts of towns and cities. The museums, most likely because they were museums, stayed in their old buildings. Apart from a few exceptions, the separation was both physical and institutional. Were museums pushed out of departments? In many cases they were indeed, though staff initially hoped that leaving the departments might enhance and broaden their activities, increase their working conditions and bolster regard among colleagues (FC, CA, FGC, CR, JT). In practice, the separation meant that the museum and collections, a) were transferred into a non-academic or administrative department (the Marischal at Aberdeen [fig. 1] or the Bell Pettigrew at St. Andrews); b) joined other natural history museums and collections to form an independent structure, usually under the jurisdiction of a Dean, a Rector, or Vice-Rector (Lisbon, Coimbra, Porto, Pavia), or c) joined other already existing museums (Utrecht).

Fig. 1 - The Marischal Museum (Anthropology) current positioning within the structure of the University of Aberdeen. We should remember that museums were already in a long and continuous crisis when they broke the umbilical cord with departments. Throughout most of the 20th century, and in general, universities have been poor parents and this has been a history of neglect. The picture as it is portrayed in public papers, websites etc. may seem more positive, but when we dig into the archives for internal documents such as yearly reports, correspondence, etc., what we often read is not jubilant: complains about a chronic lack of resources, accusations aimed at former directors, and in general a sense of poor leadership arises. I mention this just for the record, because we often tend to have a short memory.

Despite the great expectations, the separation of departments and museums was distressing. Once a natural history museum leaves an academic department with which it was embedded in its daily life and activities and is transferred to a Public Relations Division, a Communication Department or a historical museum, a substantial void is created. The staff I have interviewed has remained generally positive about it, but we sense that these museums are orphans and are still searching for their purpose and audience. As one museum director told me "All of a sudden there we were - alone and empty. Devoid of life, of our main purpose, of everything" (FC, pers. comm. 12/4/2000). Students do not seem to be interested in or encouraged to use the collections and in house researchers seem to have other things to do, even when the distances are short. Another director said: "We upgraded, but the price has been too high. We used to be fully integrated in the research of the department, now research is fragmented, on a project basis and frequently not collection-based." (FGC, pers. comm. 24/4/2000). Even worse is the feeling of loss of accountability: "In the department, we were obliged to do research. Today, nobody cares - if we crossed our arms and sat doing nothing the whole day, nobody would ask us why we aren't producing any science - as long, of course, as we keep the doors open to the public. It's a whole different way of thinking and it's costing us a lot to adapt". (FGC, pers. comm. 24/4/2000).

The staff crisis also started here because staff of the Museum was staff of the Department - and when the Museum moved to a non-academic unit, people were asked to choose whether they would stay or leave. Many chose to continue in departments, fearing consequences for their research and teaching careers and in some situations they were indeed encouraged to do so. The Director of a botanical garden explained the dilemma as follows: "I felt very much divided between the Department [of Botany] and the Garden when the time came to separate the waters. I took active part in the decline of all this because in the 1980s, I encouraged my staff to stay in the department. Moreover, I discouraged my most brilliant students from systematics. I told them: plant systematics is difficult, painful, go to molecular studies, go to bioinformatics - that's where the future is. I recognise that 20 years ago I felt profoundly divided between the long-term need to have bright minds doing state-of-the-art research and the needs of the Garden and collections. The life of universities is in colleges and departments: it's the students, it's the lectures, and it's the research. I wanted my faculty to progress, I wanted theses, and I wanted good researchers. This [the Garden] is important, but I felt it didn't count anymore for the university. And besides, why would I need laboratory researchers if I no longer had laboratories?" FC, 12/04/2000).

For the past two decades, scientific staff retired and was not replaced or was replaced by technicians or museologists. I have found one herbarium in an Italian university where staff equals one - the curator - who will retire in two years and the university already told her that she will not be replaced. In her own words: "They told me that they will close the Herbarium and throw away the key" (GF, pers. comm. 2/4/2003). This was severely worsened by the end of museum-oriented careers in universities, such as naturalists and curators3., and by the introduction of tightly rationalised staff policies, such as short-term contracts and flexible working hours. Furthermore, in non-academic departments some positions are harder to justify. In the words of another director "Now I do not know who to talk to when I need a taxidermist, nobody seems to know what it means". All these problems contribute in a significant way to the current crisis in staff resources that these museums are going through.

The second major blow for the identity of natural history museums and collections in European universities was the 1990s merging trend and subsequent "migration to Culture".

For reasons I have summarised at the beginning, the trend in Europe is to integrate in order to rationalise. If we wished to come up with a single word summarising European universities' current policy towards their museums and collections - natural history or others - this word would be merging: merging collections, merging staff, merging buildings, merging everything. Merging, merging, merging. Almost half of the museums studied were merged (or re-merged) in the 1990s or are in the process of doing so.

Frequently the merging fury puts everything in the same "bag" - archaeological artefacts, paintings and sculptures, medical instruments, bird-skins and fossils. This is a good thing for the universities' general strategy of efficiency and external image, and is certainly much better for the public at large. With the argument that they can no longer afford museums and that their mission is not to "take care of collections", universities are putting a lot of pressure on governments to fund their museums and collections directly via Heritage and Culture Ministries, just like general museums (national and local).4.

Heritage and Culture money requires a completely different mentality than Teaching and Research money and many changes had to take place in order to make museums eligible. First of all, they had to modernise, become more attractive and increase public service and visibility. Secondly, a common umbrella for all museums and collections is more likely to receive funds than smaller, separated institutions hidden somewhere in the campus - therefore the need to merge. In Italy, the merging trend reached its highest official level in the 1990s, with the creation of a "sistema museale" (museum system) per university, a superstructure directly under the jurisdiction of Rectors and integrating all the historical collections of a given university. This has been encouraged by the Conference of Rectors of Italian Universities, who even created a National University Museum System for Italy5. . Universities gain twice in this manoeuvre: they get rid of the financial burden and they get a free marketing tool - a public display 'showcase'. There are in my view several positive aspects to this 'migration to Culture'. Many things could be said about this 'showcase concept' and about how u-museums are increasingly looking at general museums as role models in order to survive.

However, if it's true that the 'migration to Culture' happens smoothly in the case of history of science, medicine, art and archaeology - and museums may greatly benefit from it - this does not appear to be the case with natural history collections, particularly for herbaria and research collections. In general, I found that natural history museums dislike their collections being considered as mere heritage assets. The idea of 'historical' natural history collection is problematic at the least because unlike a scientific instrument, a natural history specimen does not lose its original purpose. In the words of a curator of a 400 year old herbarium: "contemporary research is our priority, we are not a historical herbarium; being a historical herbarium would mean death" (BG, pers. comm. 29/4/03). And another seemed to agree "Historical value is secondary to taxonomic value - even when the specimen is hundreds of years old" (SU, 11/05/2003).

Concluding Remarks

Let's summarise the situation as it stands: first, some departments are closed (like geology and mineralogy), others change name6. , then the ties between museums and departments are weakened and in some cases broken, Systematics is abolished from graduate courses or becomes optional7. , then collection-based careers become extinct and research positions seem to be as endangered as the last Siberian tiger, collections are de-accessioned or sold, many of those that remain - orphaned for teaching and research for the most part - are put under non-academic or administrative departments and are asked to become eligible for heritage funds and simultaneously to become showcases for the university.

There are exceptions. From my visits I could point out at least two: the Zoology Museum at Cambridge and the Herbarium at Leiden. But these do not happen by chance and, in general, it's a paradise lost. We should bare in mind that apart from the financial constraints, universities are constantly changing their nature - courses taught in the early 20th century are no longer the same as today and rightfully so. For a researcher or a student it really does not matter whether the collections are in a university department or a national or local museum. If the researcher needs to measure sparrows he or she goes where the sparrows are, particularly in Europe, where countries are small and distances short. We should accept as a fact that unfortunately we cannot save everything and collections will need to be reassessed and eventually de-accessioned. However, this must be done with clear and pre-established criteria and the process must be conducted by teams of professionals from all parts involved. A comprehensive plan is urgently needed and UMAC has a role to play here, together with the appropriate partners.

Furthermore and apart from traditional or contemporary uses, natural history collections are also the material evidence of the history of teaching and research at a given university. Aldrovandi's Herbarium is intrinsic to the University of Bologna, Aldrovandi taught all his life at the University of Bologna, he collected the specimens for his students and for his own study collections and he died at Bologna. Clearly, it's at the University of Bologna that his collections belong. The same goes for smaller, more recent, lesser known or anonymous collections. Often, heritage is only seen as heritage when it is 200 or 300 years old, but that is wrong. Where would we draw the line? Universities should acknowledge more vehemently that they also have a cultural mission apart from teaching and research - they should acknowledge university heritage. UMAC also has a role to play in this respect. Ironically, the 'third mission' of universities - Culture - exists on paper for centuries and it is even stressed in international declarations on higher education, but in practice - due to the persistent under-funding - this does not work out as intended.

However, I want to finish my talk with the question that intrigues me most - what is this future we are creating now? When we go through the latest issues of the two top-world Systematics journals - Systematic Biology and Cladistics - we see that the world's biggest museums are publishing. University museums are not publishing much, that's true, with one or two exceptions (mostly American). But could it be simply because they no longer have the collections or researchers?

In any case, the American Museum of Natural History (New York) is publishing, the Australian Museum (Sydney) is publishing, the Muséum in Paris is publishing. Moreover, the sheer number of submitted papers made these two journals increase the number of issues per year from 4 to 6 in 2001 (Systematic Biology) and 2002 (Cladistics). Although these are not university museums, their researchers received palaeontology and systematics training in universities - they learned from university collections, they handled specimens in Amsterdam, Harvard, Oklahoma, Cambridge, Canberra or Lisbon.

However, if things go on like this, where will the palaeontologists, taxonomists or systematists of the future receive their training? Or are we doomed to transform these highly specialised professions into practical apprenticeships? Will they have to learn their metier in practice, by doing, just like Renaissance painters learned their craft in the atelier of their masters?


1. Like at the University of Turin, where all Zoology collections were de-accessioned and given to the city in 1979 (PP, pers. comm. 4/4/2003).

2. For a full and detailed account of the process of re-organising the Dutch geology collections, including Amsterdam's see Clercq (2003).

3. The career of 'naturalist' was eliminated in the 1970s in Portuguese universities. At the time, naturalists were given the choice to be integrated in research careers, which many did as it was financially advantageous. The same happened in most Italian universities with the career of 'conservatore'. A few naturalists and conservatores still exist but they are near retirement.

4. This has been achieved for example in the UK with the so-called non-formula funding and the Designation Fund. Of course, the latter only applies for those which were considered "Designated museum with an outstanding collection", obviously a tiny minority of the total.

5. Fausto Pugnaloni told us about this last year in Sydney.

6. Zoology or Botany for example seem to be taboo terms today and were Europe-wide replaced by Animal Evolution, Plant Sciences or even odder terms.

7. At the University of Lisbon, Systematics was abolished in the 1980s and in several other European universities it has become optional in Biology degrees (such as Pavia). Palaeontology is no longer taught in the Netherlands as a degree, Mineralogy is today practically extinct from higher education curricula, the majority of mineralogy university collections are today orphaned.


I am grateful to Dominique Ferriot and to Steven de Clercq for their constant encouragement, inspiration and guidance. Thank you to Aldona Jonaitis, C. J. Hazevoet, Pietro Corsi, and Sue-Anne Wallace for commenting an earlier version of the manuscript. Discussions with Paul Lambers and Marian Schilder proved very fruitful. A final word to Peter Stanbury - I am grateful for his continuous inspiration. The Gulbenkian Foundation partly supported this research. The Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (Lisbon) partly supported the travel to Norman OK.


Fig. 2 - Universities with natural history museums and collections visited between 2000 and 2003.

Botanical Gardens (12) Coimbra, Lisbon (2), Porto, Montpellier, Oxford, Pavia, Bologna, Turin, Leiden, Utrecht, Delft
Herbaria (5) Lisbon (2), Montpellier, Turin, Leiden
Botanical Museums (4) Lisbon, Coimbra, Porto, Bologna
Anthropology & Ethnography Museums (2) Aberdeen (Marischal), Oxford (Pitt Rivers)
Zoology Museums (4) St. Andrews (Bell Pettigrew), Cambridge, Turin, Amsterdam
Mineralogy & Geology Museums (3) Paris (École des Mines), Cambridge (Sedgwick), Vila Real
Museums of Natural History (7) Coimbra, Lisbon, Porto, Oxford, Paris, Pavia, Bologna
Museums of academic history with
collections of natural history (mostly "historical") (1)
Utrecht Research collections
Research collections (1) Turin
Non institutionalised collections of natural history (2) Montpellier II (part), St Andrews (part).
Table 1 - Number of university museums and collections visited (by type and by university).
Some interviews were conducted by phone.

  Institutionalised single-discipline museums, gardens, etc: Creation Date
1 Botanical Garden, Coimbra (merged 1991) 1772
2 Ajuda Botanical Garden, Higher Institute of Agronomy, Lisbon 1768
3 Botanical Garden, Porto (merged officially 1996, but not in practice) 1863
4 Botanical Garden, Lisbon (merged 1985) 1837
5 Jardin des Plantes, Montpellier (in the process of merging) 1495? Doubtful
6 Botanical Garden, Oxford 1621
7 Botanical Garden, Pavia 1773
8 Botanical Garden, Bologna 1566
9 Botanical Garden, Turin  
10 Botanical Garden, Leiden 1593
11 Botanical Garden (Oude Hortus), Utrecht (merged 1996) 1639
12 Botanical Garden, Delft 1917
13 Herbarium, Lisbon (merged 1985) Late 1800s
14 Herbarium, Higher Institute of Agronomy, Lisbon 1910
15 Herbier, Montpellier (in the process of merging) Early 1800s
16 Herbarium, Bologna 1500s
17 Herbarium, Turin Early 1800s
18 Herbarium, Leiden (merged 1999) &nsbp;
19 Botanical Museum, Lisbon (merged 1985)  
20 Botanical Museum, Coimbra (merged 1991)  
21 Botanical Museum, Porto Porto (merged officially 1996, but not in practice)  
22 Botanical Museum, Bologna
23 Marischal Museum, Aberdeen (Anthropology, Ethnography) 1833
24 Pitt Rivers, Oxford (Anthropology, Ethnography) 1883
25 Bell Pettigrew Museum St. Andrews (Zoology)
26 Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 1814
27 Museum of Zoology, Turin (de-accessioned in 1979) 1979
28 Museum of Zoology, Amsterdam (to be de-accessioned in principle in 2006) 1838; 2006?
29 Museum of Mineralogy & Geology, Vila Real
30 Musée de l'École des Mines, Paris (Mineralogy, Geology & Palaeontology)
31 Segdwick Museum, Cambridge (Mineralogy, Geology & Palaeontology) 1841 (1904)
  Museums of Natural History:
32 Museum Natural History, Coimbra (Anthropology, Ethnography, Zoology, Mineralogy, Geology) (merged 1991) 1772
33 [National] Museum Natural History, Lisbon (Anthropology, Zoology, Mineralogy, Geology, Palaeontology) (re-merged 1985) 1837
34 Museum Natural History, Porto (Archaeology, Zoology, Mineralogy, Geology, Palaeontology) (merged 1991) 1911
35 University Museum, Oxford (Entomology, Geology, Mineralogy, Petrology, Zoology, Palaeontology) 1860
36 Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris (Geology, Mineralogy, Petrology, Zoology, Palaeontology, Botany) 1793
37 Natural History Museum, Pavia (Zoology, Palaeontology) (merged 1995) 1771
Geology not merged
38 Museum of Animal Evolution, Bologna (Zoology, Anthropology, Comparative Anatomy)  
  Museums of University History with collections of natural history:
39 University Museum, Utrecht (Zoology, Palaeontology, Mineralogy, Geology) (NH collections integrated in 1989) 1936
  Research Collections (not integrated in museums):
40 Laboratorio di Paleontologia Umana, Turin
41 Hubrecht Embryology Collection, Hubrecht Laboratorium, Utrecht
"Historical" Collections of Natural History (not integrated in museums)
42 Montpellier II (in the process of merging)
43 St Andrews (in the process of merging)
44 Delft (in the process of merging)
Table 2 - Full list of museums visited & studied. In blue, museums & collections physically or institutionally separated from departments and integrated in non-academic units (or about to).

© 2003 Marta C. Lourenço