The Perils of Posterity

Formaldehyde spill response kit
Formaldehyde spill response kit
Rot your lungs, make you choke,
See that pension go up in smoke,
but the boss don’t give a shit
Formaldehyde spill response kit

Natural history collections are treasure troves, cabinets of curiosity containing a world of magical delights. But museums have a dark side. Rickety ladders, broken glass, and hazardous chemicals; these are the perils of posterity.

As a rule, natural history collections should be housed in windowless basements. This prevents solar damage to specimens, reduces temperature fluctuations, and minimizes the available entrances for insect pests. Such an environment however, poses many innumerable threats to the safety of curators and museum staff. Here we have the crux of the issue, namely the safety of the collection cannot always be reconciled with the safety of the employees. Historically to solve this conundrum, spaces were designed solely with the safety of the collection in mind…

In modern practices, more of a balance is struck. For example, reptiles and amphibians are typically stored in fluid. Formaldehyde is by far the better preservative, but the fumes of ethanol are not nearly as toxic. Hence it is common to ‘fix’ a specimen first using formalin, before transferring it into ethanol for long term storage. As I write, the vast majority of fluid collections are now housed in ethanol. Confined spaces and vast quantities of alcohol however, is a disaster waiting to happen. Indeed, with the increasing strictness of modern health and safety policies, particularly with regard to fire, many older collections are no longer up to code. Add crumbling infrastructure to this volatile mixture and disasters are almost inevitable. Small natural history collections exist in a catch-22 situation, whereby they rely on public support to stay afloat, but too much publicity could spell disaster if it attracts the attention of the wrong people.

So much for the fluid collections, what about the dry stuff?

Insects pose one of the greatest threats to bird and mammal skins. To deter would be pests, many older specimens are laced with arsenic. Arsenic does a great job but the practice has stopped for obvious reasons. Much like in agriculture, as we strip back the use of chemicals, insect infestations become more common. If caught early, insect pests can be dealt with by heat treating or freezing specimens. Fumigation is still employed in extreme cases. As is often the case however, prevention is the best approach; cabinets with tighter seals and more formalized pest management plans can be as effective as a cocktail of deadly reagents. It can be considerably more expensive (again like organic farming), but that is price we pay for health.

Moths and dermestid beetles are top of the museum’s most wanted list. Both can eat their way through an entire collection in a staggeringly short amount of time. Moths will destroy a wolf pelt quicker than your favorite sweater and the beetles will munch down a carcass to the bone like something out of a cartoon. Ironically in the case of the beetles, most dermestid outbreaks originate from the museums themselves; curators often maintain their own dermestid colonies precisely because of their voracious appetites. The beetles work wonders to clean skeletal material and prepare specimens before they are accessioned into the collection. From personal experience however, I can say with great confidence that dermestid colonies should be housed in a separate building to the main collection. In hindsight that seems rather obvious.

Every preservation technique or restoration procedure has the potential to destroy biological information, thereby reducing the utility of the object for future scientific enquiry. Every preservation technique also has the potential to jeopardize the health of collections managers and curators. The balance is still being sought to make institutions as safe as possible whilst also being effective in the preservation of housed materials. For the safety of staff and specimens alike, we must err on the side of caution with our preservation techniques. Natural history collections are young enough that such techniques are still improving and methods are constantly being developed. Without public support and constant funding sources however, many museums are falling behind, with staff and specimens suffering as a result.

At present, natural history collections are more hazardous working environments than they ought to be. Money is really the only thing that would improve the situation. Unfortunately, the public side of museums, the main revenue source, has been hit hard by COVID19; it seems likely that funds to manage and maintain these invaluable collections must be sought from somewhere else. Even before the pandemic money was tight; many small collections have no full time staff and large collections are often afforded only one or two curators to oversee millions of fragile specimens. If we do not address our financial problems, the situation will only get worse – existing perils will be exacerbated and new perils will emerge.

Formaldehyde spill response kit
Formaldehyde spill response kit
Or a bag of sawdust and an oven mitt,
Don’t budge on the budget, the budget’s plenty,
We’ve only got so much for 2020,
Ask for more and they throw a fit,
If not now, then maybe in a bit.
Formaldehyde spill response kit

The History of Natural History Collections

Hypotheses about past events are not susceptible to scientific proofs, and the historian can never hope to have a hypothesis certified as anything better than reasonable. They must lope along where scientists fear to tread.

~Alfred Crosby, 1972

Museums are fascinating. Cultural libraries; treasure troves of wonder.  They have a dark and checkered history, dominated by imperialism, and yet they have provided educational and cultural value untold. Since the pharaohs, important cultural artifacts have been collected and displayed, and since the pharaohs, access to such institutions has been largely restricted to high society. The Greeks loved a museum. That’s where we get the word. ‘House of the Muses’ is the literal translation. History, astronomy, dance, music, sacred poetry, epic poetry, love poetry, comedy, and tragedy. Sounds like my kind of place.

Education empowers people, and museums, like libraries, prevent the covering up of history. Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. The Christians knew this, and hence tried to put a stop to museums. The only history worth knowing was the Word. Desecrating cultural objects is a classic move of religious fanatics, and this is a testament of the power these objects hold, and the threat museums pose to authoritarian rule. As DuBois notes, there is always an element of revolution in education. An afternoon in a museum can be more revealing than a decade’s worth of schooling, but before we start fawning over these things, we should spare a thought for how museum collections typically arise.

In the awkwardly named ‘Age of Discovery’ indigenous histories were eradicated as a matter of course. A lot of theft was going on too. Artifacts were pillaged from all over the world and hoarded in private collections. Cabinets of curiosities emerged across Europe during the renaissance and flourished for centuries. Oxford University holds apocryphal claims to the first public museum; the collection of Elias Ashmole was donated to the institution and put on display in 1683. As I write, the collection is alive and well, receiving almost a million visitors a year. European expansionism went unabated throughout the ensuing centuries; during the enlightenment period vast holdings began to be amassed in public and museums and private collections across Europe. With the advent of the 19th century, colonialism ushered in a new era of collecting, and only now do natural history museums enter the fray.

Natural history collections are comparatively young simply because preservation of organic material is far more challenging than the preservation of paintings or sculptures. Preservation techniques have only blossomed in the last few centuries, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that advances coincide with European overseas expansion. Necessity is the mother of invention after all. We have been fermenting alcohol since ancient Mesopotamia, but concentrates specifically distilled to preserve animals have much more recent origins. William Croone of the Royal Society pickled two puppies in 1662 to demonstrate proof of concept. Formaldehyde did not emerge as a commercial preserving agent until the 1890s. Modern methods typically dictate that the specimen is first fixed in formaldehyde, before a step up procedure to gradually transfer to stronger ethanol dilutions, but best practices regarding storage environments, dilution strengths, and buffer solutions are still being argued. Moreover, best practices will likely be context specific: delicate specimens, like fish eggs or frog tadpoles are permanently kept in formalin because it is the better preservative, whereas tissue samples that will be used for genetic analyses are placed directly into ethanol because formalin would degrade the DNA.

Reptiles are much easier to preserve than either fish fry or amphibian larvae. In a time when circumnavigating the globe took months, the ability of reptiles to go long periods without water proved extremely useful. As a result, reptile collections housed in museums are often extensive. Lizards in particular are a seafaring bunch.  Anoles and geckos now have pan global distributions because they make such good stowaways. Museum collections of anoles from various islands have helped to reveal some of the foundational principles of evolutionary theory and shape the laws of biogeography.

Giant tortoises in contrast, proved too delicious to survive long journeys at sea. Hapless individuals stored on their backs provided fresh meat for homeward bound voyages. Indeed it took several trips before even a shell survived the journey to be formally accessioned into a collection. Giant tortoises used to occur on many more islands than the Galapagos, and over-harvesting is largely implicated in their decline. With predicted sea level rise, giant tortoise may one day be driven to extinction in the wild, and specimens housed in collections will be all that remains. Let us hope that history proves me wrong.

History is very important. It tells us that we are not always the good guys. Libraries have been burned, and cultural collections have been ransacked, but sometimes this is matched by the vicious means by which such collections are amassed. Although museums have suffered with a PR problem for time immemorial, their value is incalculable and grows exponentially. These institutions hold immense educational power, but we must acknowledge their roots, and understand the public stake in museum collections. Natural history collections are the foundation of the biological sciences. Darwin’s and Wallace’s generation was the age of exploration, and therefore the age of collecting. Good old fashioned `smash and grab` imperialism. We have assembled these tremendous collections largely by force, the very least we can do is take care of the stuff we nicked.

Curators in Crisis

Welcome to the blog series Plight of the Museum!

Without natural history museums, the biological sciences would still be in their infancy. With the help of museum collections, we have identified and described 1 million of the potential 10 million species on Earth, laying the foundations for all subsequent scientific inquiry.

Dwindling public support and chronic under-funding however, make the future of museums far from certain. If we are to safeguard these precious institutions, we must extol the incalculable value of such collections and the myriad wonders they harbor.

In this series of essays, we will explore the history of natural history collections, threats to their continued survival, and the drastic measures that some have taken to stay current in the modern world.

As always, strap in!