Archiving the Exponential

The importance of keeping past works accessible, whether or not they are attractive to crowds or palatable to current taste, ought certainly to be the first concern of any museum, as it is of a library. Everything must be available, or it is as good as dead.

~Anne Hollander, 1972

Old museum tags are some of the most fantastical things I have ever seen. It is hard to describe the feeling to gaze upon a yellow-stained scrap of paper from the 1800s – the immaculate calligraphy, impossibly small, with a charming description of the weather on that particular morning of trapping. The tag is tied to the hind leg of an ermine (stoat), snow white in its winter colors. To ponder on the life of the animal and the collector both is all in all a delight.

More than a joy to behold, this information concerning the date the animal was collected, the location, the weather conditions, etc., are perhaps more valuable than the physical specimen itself. Modern collections that cover centuries of collecting provide an unparalleled opportunity to understand the spatial distribution of animals and how that changes through time. Particularly in recent years, now that tag data is being digitized and hosted on public online repositories, research with museum data is flourishing. In the 21st century, tag data has been used to describe range shifts in response to climate change and accurately track the spread of invasive species across the globe.

Digitization is also good simply for posterity’s sake. As witnessed in tragic news scenes, physical collections are all too at risk of being lost to fire or flood, and thus many museums are pushing to digitize specimen data without further incentives. Museums have not been in the digital data management game long, and as you might expect from such a burgeoning field, the competition is hot and things are a tad messy. Much like the early days of social media, companies are vying for poll position, offering basically the same service under a different logo. The ALA, GBIF, IDiGBIO, VertNet, SeitNet, SIB, BISON. They are all hosting sites, digital repositories for museum data of various types and specificities. Conglomerates are starting to form; Arnie will come back from the future before too long. I am not particularly one for cut throat capitalism, but the standardization a monopoly would bring seems appealing and necessary in this instance.

In the digital age, many specimens can be tied to more than just the tag. Recordings of bird calls, or videos of an animal’s behavior in its natural environment, are commonplace in the 21st century. One-off multi-million dollar grants have been used to procure expensive CT scanners, and efforts are underway at the University of Florida to digitize the tree of life. Some of the results of soft tissue scanning are truly spectacular. The scans also reveal stomach contents, various parasites, and past injuries. The aspects of a specimen’s broader natural history that can be revealed using these methods we would consider a characterization of the extended phenotype, and all of this must be cataloged and curated along with the physical specimen.

Digital data is fabulously interesting and valuable, but ruinously expensive to curate. Who’s responsible for this new financial burden? Whose job is it to make sure the subsidiary data stays associated with the original specimen? Server space is not free. Data management is time consuming. Museums have been chronically underfunded and understaffed for at least 50 years. The deficit between required and allocated funds grows with each passing year. Museums are in the hole; they need a bailout like the banks if they are to perform their duties. With so much data from natural history museums being digitized, some will argue original collections will have been rendered obsolete, and ultimately less funding should be allocated to curation of physical specimens. But more money is needed! Collections are continually being added to – that is the nature of collections, and the data we can obtain from specimens increases with each advance in research techniques. Archiving the exponential is not cheap.

In the last century, natural history museums have been concerned with the challenges of preserving a specimen’s genotype. Whilst natural history collections are new kids on the block as far as museums are concerned, they have still been around a lot longer than we have known about DNA. How do you minimize DNA degradation before you’ve discovered DNA? What could’ve been done differently in the 1700s to better prepare specimens for modern isotope analyses? Mistakes are unavoidable. The genetic material of many specimens collected over the 20th century has been lost as a result of fixation in formalin. Entire collections of fish, frogs, and salamanders – DNA-less. The potential harm we are doing to specimens is impossible to quantify or predict. Common sense leads us to minimize a specimen’s exposure to chemicals or extremes in temperature, but in other instances we store seeds and animal tissue at sub-zero temperatures in cryogenic facilities. Time will tell if we acted with due prudence.

Curators are extreme hoarders, never throwing anything away, yet constantly adding to their collections. Many modern collections are overflowing, becoming increasingly expensive to maintain with each acquisition. Despite their need for more money, funding for natural history museums has been cut. Staffing issues are salient in the 21st century, and many collections are falling into disrepair. This tragedy is juxtaposed with the scientific advances in sequencing methods and CT scanning that has added untold value to specimens housed in collections. We have known for a long time that the objects in natural history museums are more than the physical objects. We must take the same exacting approach to the storage and preservation of digital materials as we do our physical collections. Archiving living things provides literally unimaginable rewards, but also presents the greatest challenge to the museum curator. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. A bird in the natural history collection is worth at least a hundred, so long as it still has its tag.

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