[Taxacom] What A Great Time to be a Young Systematist

Frank.Krell at dmns.org Frank.Krell at dmns.org
Sat Nov 1 15:10:59 CDT 2014

It is a general pattern in the current natural history museum "industry"  that scientific research is considered low priority and visitor experience and visitor expectations determine priorities and developments. This is understandable and probably necessary for securing the financial health of an institution. The big problem is that scientific research and visitor experience are seen as unconnected. The big failure of many natural history museums is that they do not make the connection, with the result that scientific research and scholarship are degrading in those institutions.

Pleasing visitors is a crucial, but short term investment in the institution. Maintaining scholarship is a long term investment that secures the reputation of an institution as a center of scientific trustworthiness and reputation, of discovery and creation of knowledge. Funding is traditionally easier to obtain for short term than for long term investments.

To reverse the trend of degrading museum research we need to connect scientific research with visitor experience much more efficiently. The excitement of scientific discovery that happens right here and can be experienced by YOU first hand needs to be conveyed. Which museum really sells its own discoveries efficiently and visibly to its visitors, or customers as they are called now?

To achieve this we need research scientists who are skilled in communicating their discoveries to various sorts of audiences, AND we need higher administrations who see or even share the excitement of discovery, of creating new knowledge, of seeing something that nobody in the world has seen before. Currently I see the former as less of a challenge than the latter. It is still an ongoing pattern that a natural history museum (or a botanical garden, for that matter) in trouble reduces its research staff by several mechanisms, ranging from shutting down research operations to offering early retirement. This is likely to continue if museum science continues to be largely invisible to the museum customers, to potential donors and even to the museum managers themselves.

If research and discoveries are prioritized and presented as an exciting and very visible aspect of natural history museums, on par with temporary exhibits, with similar marketing and exhibitory engagement, then we might ensure the survival of museum-based research. Higher administrators need to lead such efforts. It is a risky strategy and requires a change in direction in strategic planning of most museums, but I am confident that long term it would work out well.


Dr. Frank-T. Krell
Curator of Entomology 
Commissioner, International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature
Chair, ICZN ZooBank Committee
Department of Zoology 
Denver Museum of Nature & Science 
2001 Colorado Boulevard 
Denver, CO 80205-5798 USA 
Frank.Krell at dmns.org 
Phone: (+1) (303) 370-8244 
Fax: (+1) (303) 331-6492 
lab page: http://www.dmns.org/krell-lab

From: Taxacom [taxacom-bounces at mailman.nhm.ku.edu] On Behalf Of John Grehan [calabar.john at gmail.com]
Sent: Saturday, November 01, 2014 6:40 AM
To: Peter Rauch
Cc: Taxacom List
Subject: Re: [Taxacom] What A Great Time to be a Young Systematist

With respect to my experience in a small local science museum I found that
public interest in supporting the museum, as reflected in the priorities of
the region,s governmental and private foundations, was focused on education
for which success was measured by the number of members, door visitation,
and schools etc. served. This was the overwhelmingly single main focus in
assessing (by these organizations) the success of the museum and in
providing funding. Not long before I arrived the museum reduced its science
research staff (it also reduced its overall staffing in other areas as well
so it was not simply a matter of picking on research) due to budgetary
constraints (my understanding was that the museum was in debt for quite
some time) and this situation quickly declined further with the effects of
a subsequent recession resulting in another reduction which affected more
non-research than research staff. There was an ensuing outcry from a number
of people that focused on the loss of curators and some accused the museum
of not safeguarding the collections (not true of course since collections
can be properly managed without research staff as is the case in quite a
number of museums where collection curation has been disconnected from

The irony of the outcry was that in the larger scheme of things, the
governmental and foundation organizations were not so concerned. Rather,
they wanted to see the museum be economically viable and succeed in what
they saw as its primary mission - education through exhibits and programs.
So I agreed with the critics about the loss of research curators (even
though my credibility was also attacked, quite viciously sometimes) and
eventually I lost my position as the museum finally eliminated all research
related programs. The museum did, however, enlarge its curatorial staff
(after having separated it from research) to meet its American Association
of Museums responsibilities for maintaining proper care of the collections
(interestingly AAM has no counterpart requiring maintenance of an
appropriate research related curatorial component).

So I see the situation at this museum as a microcosm of what may be
happening in general. For museums that derive their funding through pubic
grants and public visitation based on educational need and interest,
support for collections based research may no longer viable. I heard about
one museum which was in severe financial difficulty where if all research
staff were eliminated they would have a balanced budget. Perhaps it will be
largely institutions such as universities where salaries are based on
faculty teaching can research continue as an adjunct activity at levels
commensurate, with external funding which often leads to focus on those
fields that bring in money or are related to aspects of biology that are
seen to have broader applicability (e.g. molecular fields) and higher costs
than could be maintained at smaller museums.

John Grehan

On Fri, Oct 31, 2014 at 3:29 AM, Peter Rauch <peterar at berkeley.edu> wrote:

> Apropos the upbeat observation made by Mike I. recently, I wonder how this
> most recent  doom and gloom commentary about U.S. museum collections
> squares ?
> http://nmnh.typepad.com/the_plant_press/2014/10/the-erosion-of-collections-based-science-alarming-trend-or-coincidence.html
> The Erosion of Collections-Based Science: Alarming Trend or Coincidence?
> From Plant Press, Vol. 17, No. 4
> <http://nmnh.typepad.com/files/vol17no4.pdf>, October 2014.
> *A Curator’s Perspective*
> *By Vicki A. Funk**
> Are they --systematists and collections-- independent of one another,
> unreliant upon one another ?
> And, perhaps more importantly, at this dramatic moment in world history
> --as we watch our evolutionary context of Humanity disappearing before our
> aged eyes-- is Funk's cutator's perspective alarmist rather than alarming
> (interesting that the NMNH / SI want to distance themselves ("...do not
> represent...", not e.g., "...do not necessarily represent ...") from her
> "personal opinion" --what's with that ?) ?
> I'm stunned by the long Funk list. Tell me I can relax and can ignore it.
> Peter
> On Mon, Oct 27, 2014 at 4:58 PM, Michael A. Ivie <mivie at montana.edu>
> wrote:
> > Dear Taxacomers,
> >>
> >> We see a lot of doom and gloom on this list, but in my career,* I have
> >> never seen a better time to be a young systematist*!  In North American
> >> entomology, we have seen 6 endowed professorships/curators, 3 of them
> new,
> >> either just filled, open or about to be open.  Plus, a major opening in
> a
> >> top university just filled, leaving an opening where that person came
> from,
> >> 2 in top museums, plus more than the normal set of collection managers
> and
> >> other non-faculty positions. The death of US systematic entomology is no
> >> where in sight!
> >>
> >> Mike
> >>
> >
> _______________________________________________
> Taxacom Mailing List
> Taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
> http://mailman.nhm.ku.edu/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/taxacom
> The Taxacom Archive back to 1992 may be searched at:
> http://taxacom.markmail.org
> Celebrating 27 years of Taxacom in 2014.
Taxacom Mailing List
Taxacom at mailman.nhm.ku.edu
The Taxacom Archive back to 1992 may be searched at: http://taxacom.markmail.org

Celebrating 27 years of Taxacom in 2014.

More information about the Taxacom mailing list