Where have all the scientists gone?

From the collection of Auckland Museum


Once, when searching for a particular object on a high up shelf in the midst of a collection store, I came across an object that was mysterious to me. Its round amber body and darker outer ring made me think it was some sort of stone. Curiosity got the better of me and I took it with me back to my desk to look further, discovering that it was a swordfish eye – not at all what I’d expected it to be! This sense of discovery and wonder through collections (combined with a small dose of revulsion) is one of the best things about working in museums, both as something for us ‘behind the scenes’ to experience but also for us to bring to our visitors.  Museum collections in New Zealand are incredibly diverse, with wide ranging approaches from swordfish eyes to Pacific spears, fish specimens to uniforms, medals to taxidermy and all sorts in between. This breadth of collection areas throughout the country means that, hypothetically, the range of collections available for research and exhibition purposes is vast, with diversity across collection types, origins and condition.

However, with ongoing funding changes and challenges to museum operational budgets, and a current heavy focus around the country on World War One collections, I frequently wonder about the real diversity New Zealand collections hold, and whether this diversity is being eroded. In particular, natural sciences collections for primarily research purposes are, according to the Royal Society, in danger of being damaged through neglect and lack of specific funding. In New Zealand the Royal Society has identified a notable lack of taxonomic specialists in New Zealand, including in museums. As I learnt when managing a natural science collection as part of my role as a history curator, taxonomy is the branch of science concerned with classifying specimens, identifying new species and updating the body of scientific knowledge  with species information. Taxonomy is “how we understand New Zealand’s living things, allowing us to identify native and non-native species as well as pests, weeds and toxic organisms[i].” There are 29 institutions in New Zealand, both museums and otherwise, which hold taxonomic collections, used for researching the classification. However it’s suggested that it takes 10 to 15 years for an individual to develop in-depth taxonomic expertise, and there is currently less focus on taxonomy in universities, creating a growing gap in this specialised knowledge. This gap is particularly noticeable in museum natural science collections.

Auckland Museum, Te Papa, Canterbury Museum and Otago Museum all hold identified taxonomic collections. In an ideal world, these would be receiving more funding and support than they are currently getting, but they do have dedicated scientific staff managing and maintaining their collections. Less positively, important natural science collections are held outside of these larger museums, and (rather unscientifically) I suspect many of these collections are being overlooked due to a lack of resources. My opinion of this stems from my time as Social History Curator at Puke Ariki in New Plymouth, which also included managing the Natural Sciences collection. My experience of natural sciences collection management was quite literally nil, so like many in my position before me, I approached this part of the collection by trying to pretend it wasn’t there. Luckily, Puke Ariki received funding from the Taranaki Regional Council to hire a scientist to catalogue the collection, and with her expert assistance (as well as wonderful advice from scientists at Auckland Museum and Te Papa) the neglect the collection had suffered over decades was at least partly ameliorated.  It also means that the majority of Puke Ariki’s natural science collection is correctly identified and accessible to researchers, something sorely lacking previously. This experience made me worry about what other natural sciences treasures are in a similar state throughout New Zealand’s smaller museums, and what loss in collection diversity is occurring because of this. Mike Dickison, Natural Sciences curator in Whanganui, cares for a nationally significant collection including a number of type specimens, but he is one of only a very small handful of natural science specialists in New Zealand’s regional museums. With a lack of staff trained in the sciences, I suspect that many regional museums are unable (or unwilling) to collect natural science materials in the same way that they would collect social history or taonga Maori objects. Instead, focus remains on maintenance of the current collection and preparation for exhibition, rather than expansion. Although it is obviously fundamentally important to care for current collections, an inability to continue collection can lead to a large gap in knowledge about an area or region as the human history of the region is recorded, but the changing natural environment is not quite so well documented. Having staff on a smaller museum’s team with natural science knowledge means that not only are current collections more likely to be correctly identified and stored, but that active collecting to better represent the natural world is more likely to happen effectively.

Related to this, the hiring decisions in regional museums for science collections are problematic. The thought of having someone with no background in history or art being acceptable in a fine art or human history role seems ridiculous, but this happens frequently in smaller museums in regional New Zealand. This lack of skill and understanding of current natural history collections then leads in to a dearth of active collecting, and when specimens are accepted into the collection, more often than not information is not well captured and can be badly mishoused. Regional New Zealand’s collection diversity when it comes to natural sciences is potentially in a bad way.  As New Zealand’s environment is increasingly threatened, I think museums can do more to support robust scientific (and taxonomic) research, collecting and inspiring awe into future generations. How we do this is, of course, the million dollar question.

With thanks to Mike Dickison, Natural Sciences Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.


[i] http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/expert-advice/papers/yr2015/national-taxonomic-collections-in-new-zealand/ [accessed 4 May 2016]