Private collections of museum curators

Alexander Riedel ariedel at UNLSERVE.UNL.EDU
Mon Sep 30 14:50:38 CDT 2002

In response to Anita F. Cholewa:

After reading the earlier message suggesting that private collections should
not be encouraged anymore I could not stop myself from getting into the
discussion. By advocating restrictions on private collections for Curators
and Collection Managers, Anita has pushed me to the point where I feel I
should add my point of view.

Fortunately, I am working at an institution that allows private collections.
I am aware of some institutions (in Germany) that do not. I hold a large
collection of weevils (Curculionidae) and I am currently the only specialist
for the attelabid genus Euops. Euops are generally underrepresented in
collections, probably due to their small body size ranging from 2 - 6 mm.
None of these species are protected by law or threatened by collecting. I
have managed to encourage a number of amateurs to collect these critters for
me (which requires some specific techniques), by offering them generous
payment for the specimens they send me. I just got news from one of them and
I am expecting that I will need to pay him about $ 1000,-- from my private
funds. I have informed the head of the division about it. There is no
conflict of interest since the museum does not have funds for the purchase
of collections anyway. I wonder if I would do the same if I was not able to
retain a private collection. Thus, the chance to hold a private collection
results in a direct scientific yield.

The collection of Euops I have accumulated within the last ten years is
probably more comprehensive than the material of this genus stored in museum
collections worldwide. Naturally, I need this material to carry on with my
research. What would happen if I were required to hand my collection over to
my institution, and then laid off the next week? The collection would need
to stay - I would leave. That would be a nice way for the institutions to
enlarge their collections at a minimal cost. However, no one would work on
my specimens - so little good would come out of it.

As I said earlier there are institutions that do not allow private
collections by their employees. But I know of a case in Germany where the
employee sued his employer - and won. You know why ? This regulation is
against constitutional law in Germany that allows private property. I expect
that similar laws exist in many countries.

I agree that there may be unethical curators that exploit their position to
enrich their private collections. But then it is up to the department to
rectify this - clearly abusing museum resources is tantamount to stealing
and should be a cause for dismissal. But, do you want to punish everybody at
the mere suspicion that there may be some conflict of interest somewhere,
sometime ?

Another aspect: If I am Entomology Collection Manager - am I allowed to have
a private collection of stamps ? There is no conflict there. How about a
private collection of shells ? I imagine some eyebrows are being raised now.
And how about if I spend most of my time during my duties on a scarab
collection and I wish to work on my weevil collection in the evenings ? Of
course my point is that you can not draw a clear line. Any such restrictions
will affect your fundamental rights.

I am wondering why someone would demand abandonment of legal private
property - at first for all private persons, then for all museum employees.
To me this appears as a pure form of communism in a restricted field. The
fundamental ideas of Marx were quite reasonable - but we all know that they
did not work out well in practice. Maybe, as a German I see this aspect more
clearly than others.

On 9/29/02 9:21 PM, "Anita F. Cholewa" <chole001 at UMN.EDU> wrote:

> In response to Jerry Bricker ...
> Actually, discouraging or actually prohibiting staff from collecting is
> something that is brought up in various discussions of ethics for museum
> professionals.  I believe it originated with art or human artifact museums
> as a means of preventing competition for pieces on the open market and to
> prevent "insider trading" when estates were going to release items.  Further
> I believe if I dig in the literature I can come up with examples were this
> very sort of thing (competition for specimens/artifacts) has happened and
> the item went into the private collection and unavailable for public use.
> I have never seen any discussion of preventing or prohibiting staff from
> listening to "devil's music", drinking alcohol, or any of the other
> activities Jerry brought up for their private lives.  Ridiculous.
> Cheers,
> Anita
> ___________________
> Anita F. Cholewa, Ph.D.
> Curator of Plants
> Bell Museum of Natural History
> University of Minnesota
> St Paul MN 55108 USA

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