Museums and Science Go Hand-in-Hand

Think about the word “museum” for a moment; what does it draw to your mind? Fascinating exhibits? Monumental architecture? Hushed awe? An exciting trip? Rows and rows of specimens?

Now, think about the word “science” … what is brought to mind then? Flashy experiments? Bubbling test tubes? Microscopes? Field notes? Gizmos and tech-y toys? Museums?

In addition to the research sector – businesses who’s work is research – and colleges and universities, museums are where science and research happen. And not just at the biggest and most well known museums. Even medium-sized museums, like Burpee, and smaller museums like our friends at the Dinosaur Journey Museum, part of the Museum of Western Colorado, in Fruita, CO, collect, preserve, research, and publish on specimens from their collection to add to our overall understanding of the past.

Collecting, preserving, researching, collaborating and publishing on specimens are goals at the heart of a museum’s collection. To achieve these goals museums need curators, collections managers, and researchers (among so many other people) to organize, maintain, care for and research the specimens in the collection. This is often the unseen work that happens at a museum, behind the scenes and out of the public eye. However, the benefits of the work are more easily seen in the quality of specimens on display, the amount of information known about the specimens on display, and the prestige the museum’s name carries in the public. This work does not necessarily directly cause money to flow into the museum’s coffers – in many cases it is an instance of needing to “spend money to make money.”

We’ve already covered that collecting, preserving, researching, collaborating and publishing on specimens are part of a museum’s goals, but they are also part of a museum’s responsibility as a repository. Specimens, particularly those collected from public lands and those donated to a museum, are reposited at museums for a reason. The museum assumes the care (including preparation) and curation of those specimens. With that care comes cost; salaries must be paid, proper storage space maintained, supplies purchased. However, without specimens – or the people to care for and research them – what is a museum? A building with stuff. Over time and with out care, a building with stuff that is falling apart.

So, why should you care about all of this? The Field Museum of Natural History, a close neighbor and sometimes collaborator of Burpee Museum, has announced plans to cut their budget by $5 million dollars – with a substantial portion of the cuts ($3 million) coming from the science departments. The field museum employs world renowned scientists and researchers from a myriad of disciplines and houses a phenomenal collection of artifacts and specimens – what will happen to those specimens? What research opportunities will be lost because of these cuts?  No one knows yet, the specifics of the cuts have yet to be announced.

If you are interested in learning more visit: Science Insider – Budget Cuts Hit Chicago’s Field Museum

If you’d like to do something about it visit: Protect Research at Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago




2 thoughts on “Museums and Science Go Hand-in-Hand

  1. Right. After all, where do all those specimens on display come from? But i feel museums suffer a bit of an image problem. Because most of the collections and science is unseen, people don’t know this stuff even goes on, or worse, that museums are greedily hoarding the treasures of the earth! Hell, I’m sympathetic to the museum cause and even i feel that way in certain regards! Something’s gotta give.

    My latest article discusses online collections databases and how they may help with this. Not many museums seem to have them and even the best leave room for improvement. Basically, these databases need photos. Sure a picture on a website isn’t the same as the real thing, but at least people could see what’s behind the closed doors, actually see what may very well be a part of their heritage. I’m trying to work with the Raymond Alf Museum in this regard. In fact, i’m going down next week for what i hope to be the first of many such visits to photograph their collections. But even the little Alf has ~140,000 specimens in their collections, so it will obviously take awhile.

    This is also one of the reasons i am working towards starting my own museum. I want to try to right some of these issues. Like having a rotating exhibit that allows us to display rarely seen stuff from the collections*. Maybe lead small tours of the collections from time to time or have an open house (or many) each year. Stuff like that. But for the museums already established, they need to try and figure out how to be more transparent. It’s the only way to really show people what’s at stake.

    *(So far the only museum i have been to to do this effectively is the Raymond Alf. They have some temporary cases which they display new finds in. This means it gets updated regularly and that there is always something new to see. The LA Museum claimed they were going to have rotating displays in their rotunda “to showcase rarely seen specimens from the museum’s spectacular collections”. In two and a half years they still have the same specimens in the cases).

  2. Excellent points, Doug. These issues are definitely things that the Burpee is working to address as well (potentially, more news on that to come soon). I think that many museums face a conundrum between keeping the items in their collection safe (stored in the proper conditions, often behind closed doors) when they are not on display and conveying to the public what exactly the collection consists of, what it is used for, and why it is important.

    One museum that has tackled this issue in an interesting, and beautiful, way is the new Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City. Their collections are separated from the main museum by a glass wall so that the public can see into the collections. This also means that the public can see the collections staff and researchers as they work in the collections, which helps to increase their understanding of why the collection is there and what it is used for when those items are not out on display. Overall, I think it helps to combat the idea that the items in a museum’s collection just sit and collect dust when they are not on display.

    The number of museums featuring “viewing labs” also seems to be increasing. I think this is also a step in the right direction as it allows the public a window into what goes on in the research and preservation spheres of a museum.

    Overall, I hope that as more and more collections are digitized we will see more online, freely accessible, museum collections that anyone can use to learn from. That, in conjunction with increased physical visibility of museum collections and the work that goes on there, will not only help to educate the public about what goes on in there but also show why they are important, even if they do have to be behind closed doors sometimes.

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