Private collections of museum curators

Entomology: Namibian Museum insects at NATMUS.CUL.NA
Tue Oct 1 10:02:55 CDT 2002

Dear All

Anita stated this to be an issue of ethics. Ken mentioned in a different
thread that there is a lot of gray between black and white. Most curators
are probably quite, but is that a valid presumption for institutional
policy? Some examples regarding private collections in the hands of curators
in darkest Africa (perpetuated by enlightened specialists recruited from the

Case 1: Curator resigned, institution found the drawers of marketable
insects stripped, presumably incorporated in private collection, exchanged,
or sold.

Case 2: Curator with private collection appointed. Policy requires that the
collection needs to be discontinued, curator selects to deposit it in the
institution on gentleman's agreement. Curator resigns, claims collection was
not officially deposited and departs with it. Later transpires that long
series of in other groups outside the curator's interest are missing,
including paratypes, no official record. Material presumed to be exchanged
or sold.

Taxacomers should consider what effect this would have on institutional
policies, given that museums have a public responsibility and accountability
that individuals don't have. Should ethics be a presumption or a

So people may say - Nah, Africa obviously has problems, we just look at
headlines/read the book/saw the film/got the T-shirt.

Case 3: Curators from a major northern institution come collecting (on
official permit because of institutional affiliation), partly funded by
themselves. Transpires later that because of private investment, all
material collected during office hours are conscientiously split. Part for
the Museum, part for the private collection. Collection after hours is
strictly private. Guess what? The group being collected is nocturnal.

Listers can again reflect for themselves on the implications. A likely
response would be OK, obviously conflicts of interest should be addressed.
But then what is a conflict of interest?

Case 4: Curator has private stamp collection (outside discipline and
interest of institution). Does extensively archival research. Years later
archivists found that stamps and envelopes have been neatly removed from
files that were examined.

The conclusion (and dilemma for most museums/herbaria) is that how to
expect/impose/require ethics. However, it is not as simple as pointing
fingers and claim bad/good policy. Accountability in public collections
partly implies having transparent policies as part of their operational
procedures. Those policies are often based on experiences, unfortunately
usually negative, and may lead to progressively more restrictions. In that
sense institutional policies simply reflect responses to individual actions,
i.e. some crazy individual mails spores and subsequently all mail gets
nuked. If institutions accept the responsibility of public accountability
then the public (us) should accept that there may be reason for the madness.

Will be interesting to see the response to this.

Eugene Marais

National Museum of Namibia
P.O. Box 1203, Windhoek, Namibia
Tel: + 264 61 276835/4
Fax: + 264 61 22 86 36
E-mail: insects at

More information about the Taxacom mailing list