The conversation

Why are many natural history museums still actively collecting more than other kinds of museum?
Mark Carnall, Jack Ashby
Dear Jack: In recent discussions around contemporary collecting in the museum sector, there’s a general assumption that most museums aren’t actively collecting, or at least aren’t actively collecting large numbers of objects. However, some – although not all – natural history museums do still collect specimens and in vast numbers, through active fieldwork, and collecting large personal collections and vouchered biological specimens (those deposited in a museum linked to research and naming new species). Why is this kind of collecting apparently overlooked, and are there wider lessons for contemporary collecting? Best wishes, Mark

Dear Mark: You’re right. The attention on contemporary collecting focuses on representing societal issues in the news – like migration and protest movements – but this is not new, nor is it the most representative slice of contemporary collecting. Natural history and archaeology collections grow at a rate that outstrips other disciplines (but for different reasons). Are the social and scientific ultimately two different collection modes? I suspect the scale of natural history collecting relates to the ways in which they have become critical to understanding world-changing processes such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Is it the age-old problem of science not being seen as culture? Best wishes, Jack

Dear Jack: The problem of science not being seen as culture comes from within natural history, as well as from without. Museums do lots of biological collecting but perhaps not natural history collecting. Should we be collecting animal gifs, pets abused for YouTube likes and jars of marine plastic? “Storied” animals, such as charismatic zoo animals and circus celebrities, are some of the most popular historic specimens, but also the single specimens we promote the most. What are the 21st-century versions of these? Active collecting suggests relevance, but there are huge societal and scientific biases in the organisms being studied. Best wishes, Mark

Dear Mark: We spend a lot of time convincing people that natural history is part of cultural heritage, but not that cultural heritage can be a subset of natural history. When it comes to scientific research, museums are just starting to find success in using their galleries to share what’s happening behind the scenes. I get the sense that contemporary collecting in other disciplines is more likely to make it into a display case. Regarding relevance and bias, natural history and other disciplines respond to the issues of the day. But perhaps less so when it comes to vouchering? Best wishes, Jack

Dear Jack: I guess vouchered biological specimens are slightly more honest brokers than cultural objects. There are still biases in the act of collecting – the who, where, what, how and why – but a bivalve, bee or bird can always tell us something novel beyond the context of how it was collected. Can this ever be the case with artefacts, as it’s the stories they represent that we’re increasingly told are important, not the objects themselves? Best wishes, Mark

Dear Mark: We should probably answer the question. A museum might take every roadkill buzzard it is offered from its region, as it’s the time-series that’s as valuable as the object. In social history, collecting two superficially identical objects two years apart (probably) wouldn’t happen. It’s more complex than that, but perhaps natural history has a different definition of “duplicate”. For the time being, we’ll have to carry on poking our heads up in meetings and saying: “Don’t forget about natural history.” Best wishes, Jack

Mark Carnall is the collections manager (life collections) at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Jack Ashby is the museum manager at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

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