Best Science Books of 2017: Museums!

As a worker in a natural history museum, most people view me as a glorified tour guide at best, a waste of a degree at worst. This underlines the profound misunderstandings that exist about the role of natural history museums. We are first and foremost research institutions, funded in large part by the same scientific grants that university academics get. A natural history museum may not even have an exhibition – we don’t have one, and you can’t even get into our building without two separate keycard swipes, pretty much the antithesis of wanting the public to visit.

Depending on what your field is, you may be working with specimens collected two hundred years ago, identifying new species in some dusty drawer unopened in decades, or you may be doing cutting-edge gene sequencing research or using a synchrotron to view the insides of your specimens without destroying them. The days of simple “stamp collecting” are long gone (probably because funding for expeditions is impossible to come by…), and museum research is as modern as any other field.

Given the deep misconceptions about natural history museums, I was very surprised and pleased to see four books this year about museums and what goes on in them. I consider this very important, because natural history museums are the only institutions equipped to handle our evidence about biodiversity (and other diversities!) – but ignorance of what we do has caused drastic reductions in funding, causing collections to get mothballed, experts to be let go, and potential knowledge to simply be lost for decades. Hopefully these efforts at popularising our work will lead to renewed interest and calls for refunding, especially in these times of catastrophic environmental change.

The first book is The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums by Christopher Kemp. Kemp deftly illustrates all the issues highlighted in my introduction by telling stories of over 20 new species discoveries – when the specimens were first collected, how they were rediscovered decades later, and the importance of each discovery. They’re mostly biological specimens (vertebrates, arthropods, one plant), but there are also two welcome chapters on fossils and archaeology. Given that there are tens of thousands of new species described every year, the selection is curated to exciting stories that showcase a larger point. Crenicichla monicae, a cichlid fish captured and illustrated by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1852 but lost when the ship it was on sank, was rediscovered in 2015 in a separate collection from the 1920s at the Swedish Museum of Natural History. A beetle collected in 1907 in Borneo gets named and described in 2014 at the National Museum of Natural History. An isopod collected in 1873 gets described in 2015. In no other scientific field will you have anything close to these chains of evidence, and this longevity of data (except history). With biodiversity disappearing at rates faster than we can document it, the role of the natural history museums has never been more important, and every chapter in Kemp’s book drives this point further and further home. And, as the last chapters points out, it’s not just biodiversity, but also geodiversity that is at stake, including evidence of our ancestors and what they were up to.

The second book on the list takes a different, more biographical tack. Written by Lance Grande of the Fields Museum (Chicago), Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums does as the title promises, taking you backstage through the life of a curator. Grande uses his and others’ career to discuss the sheer variety of the work involved in curating and in general museum work. Of course, given that 95% of museum work is spent cooped up in a storage room or lab or library, Grande tends to concentrate on the more exciting aspects of specimen collection – whether through fieldwork or through haggling. While it can be seen as a bit extravagant at points, maybe causing a reaction similar to that of archaeologists bristling at Indiana Jones, it’s an engaging book that doesn’t shy away from the less glamourous parts of the job – there is a chapter on being in executive management, for example. Legal and T-Rex buffs will also find the discussion on Sue refreshing. In all, a recommended book to get a taste of the day-to-day work that goes on in a major museum. Just don’t expect to be going on many field trips anymore (unless you pay for them yourself, then do whatever you want!).

Science in the Archives: Pasts, Presents, Futures, edited by Lorraine Daston, isn’t strictly about museums. It’s a collection of twelve essays from as many fields of science on the concept of the archive. The great palaeontologist David Sepkoski writes about how eighteenth century fossil collections are helping us with our current biodiversity crisis; there are other essays from an astronomer, a climate scientist, and a geneticist, among others. I include the book here because of the philosophical link to the purpose of the museum as an archive, both for science and for diversity. The main takeaway from this book is the importance of history to all the sciences. We are working with collective knowledge that, at its core, must be traced back to an archive – e.g. a species name is linked to a single specimen housed somewhere on the planet; every specimen ever collected was done so by a person in some year in some locality, and that’s where our current collective knowledge on biodiversity ultimately comes from, after a lot of data mining and interpretation. This book gives us perspectives on this critical process from many different vantage points. Museums in this context are the same as libraries or the Earth itself, repositories of primary data that needs to be stored for centuries and accessible at any time. It’s a much more philosophical book than the rest, but I consider it an important read for any scientist, so we can remember the grand picture of what we’re doing, and maybe remember to do more regular backups.

The final book, Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present by Steven Lubar, has elements of all the previous ones on the list, but focuses on the public obligations of a museum – exhibition, education, cultural preservation. It’s a dissection f a curator’s decision-making process: which specimens deserve to be collected and stored, why, what will they achieve for my particular museum? Contrary to the other books on this list, there is a considerable view to non-research use of specimens, how exhibits are set up and the pitfalls that may come up along the way. The book is framed around a now-defunct museum (the eponymous lost museum) and its somewhat eccentric founder, and Lubar offers much advice for how museums can avoid meeting the same fate. It’s an interesting, dense read, for anyone with an interest in museums, their history, and their role in society, whether they are research museums or exhibition museums. If you are considering going into a museum or any kind of career where you have to take care of a collection, you should read this book.

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