One of my favourite museum quotes is, “museums are organisms that ingest but do not excrete”, and is from noted museum professional Suzanne Keene. The implication is that museums are actively gobbling up specimens to the collection vaults and are stricken by constipation. It should be said that natural history museums excrete on a regular basis…when it comes to the things they collect. Many museum facilities sometimes look cluttered but it is more likely a function of outgrowing a facility rather than an inability to sort the treasure from the dross.
Natural history professionals obtain specimens in a number of ways going to great lengths to ensure they know what they are and if it makes sense to be part of the collection. These great lengths involve research. Once something is admitted into the collection it is usually watched over for a long, long time, and is a candidate for use in research and a variety of outreach and educational programs at our museum, or loaned out to others for their activities.
Science researchers at museums are experts at many things, including field work. These qualifications include the skills to organize research camps in remote locations, places where roads usually do not go to and where the most common neighbors are biting insects, thick vegetation and bears. Unless they are working in the high Arctic, where a researcher’s life is controlled by icebreaker captains and helicopter pilots and the most common neighbors are seabirds and bears.
After negotiating logistics for months before an expedition, these researchers use their keen sense and knowledge of how to find things. These missions of discovery bring back thousands of plants, animals, fossils and minerals. Each year there are many new species discovered, things that have never been described by scientists before. With the discovery process come answers to many questions about how these life forms make a living. Not only do museums keep an example of each species in a collection for all time, they develop and share valuable information about its form and function. Like how big does it get, what does it eat, what habitats does it prefer to live in, how does it reproduce, how old does it get, and on an on. The same is true for our mineral experts, who describe new minerals each year and try to understand where they can be found and the Earth processes that are responsible.
None of this is done alone. Researchers at the museum work with colleagues from across the globe, they assist in our work and us in theirs. Specimens that come in from a field season of 2-6 weeks are rigorously sorted, a process that can take the rest of the year and longer. The useful part of the field collection is used in laboratory research by us and others; parts of the field collection are routinely shared amongst the science community. The parts that are most representative of the research being done are included into the national collection and referred to as a voucher collection. What isn’t useful in any of our programs is discarded.
Almost as soon as the bags are unpacked and the specimen sorting begins, thoughts and plans germinate for the next field season. With so much natural history to uncover and so few experts to do it, there is a constant demand for field work.