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Natural History Collections: A Resource for the Future

Who owns the Collections? [1]

I am to address the practical initiatives that natural history museums should be developing to allow (or not allow) access to or repatriation of specimens and/or data to their country of origin. “Who owns the Collections?” The question is not, “who owns the collections?” It is “what does ownership mean?”

At the first of these symposia four years ago in Madrid (Griffin, 1992), speaking to the topic Planning for the 21st Century and Preparing for the next 500 years, I said,

We must be concerned about more than what we have in our collections. Our collections must serve the broader purpose of encouraging understanding among peoples and of the world around us. Nature conservation is an issue about people – us – as much as it is about other animals and plants.”

There are those who say that the emerging importance of biodiversity will provide unique opportunities for museums; that significant funding will flow to them as a result. E.O. Wilson said as much not that long ago.

Many inevitably think about museums and biodiversity traditionally, as the contribution that taxonomy can make to the elucidation of the nature of biodiversity.

Unfortunately museums haven’t benefited hugely from the concern about biodiversity! I suggest because of an inward focus. But for their part Governments have spoken strongly about their concern for the preservation of biodiversity but not put out the resources. Even where funding has been provided specifically for biodiversity initiatives, the beneficial effects have been undermined by reductions in other funding, often driven by the same rationalist economic agenda of the last 20 years. Unfortunately little distinction is being made by governments between the activities of a short-term or operational nature and those of a long-term nature. Government action seldom takes account of the long-term investment nature of scientific research – and collections management – any more than they do in respect of education.

In the first issue of Biodiversity and Conservation, co-editors Alan Bull and Ian Swingland (1992) said, “the knowledge necessary for action, plans and priorities to be defined for effective conservation is generally absent. The complexity of ecological systems and our ignorance continues to thwart attempts to predict, prevent, moderate or restore destruction of the global environment.”

The question is whether ‘natural history’ museums will successfully influence the future through their contribution to understanding biodiversity on the basis of the collections and information they have at their disposal now or whether they should continue to campaign on the proposition that until all species are known they cannot make a meaningful contribution (Cotterill, 1995).

Many estimates exist of the actual number of species, they range up to 30 million. Recent estimates suggest 13-14 million species. Only 1.75 million have been scientifically described (according to the Secretariat for the Convention on Biological Diversity, Montreal). But the real point is that the number is really irrelevant – we will still be identifying them when we, and they, are extinct. That is not a criticism. it is simply to state a fact.

Others would claim that sufficient information exists now to identify the major geographic areas of high biodiversity and also the factors which are contributing to the decline of it. How much do facts contribute to choice anyway?

We know from students of choice theory and decision making that we can claim clear objectives, we can assert that we have a good idea of alternatives, we are quite clear as to our preferences. But that is far too rational to explain human behaviour. We are not able to manipulate all the information. New alternatives emerge through experience. Our preferences change over time (March; Brunner, 1991).

The “Systematics Agenda 2000” estimates that completing description of the Earth’s species diversity will take 150 years at present investment levels. A six-fold increase in present outlays to $3 billion per annum is proposed to complete the task in 15 years.

One colleague responded to this issues as follows, “I know of no institution that could seriously buy into the concept that it is possible to obtain or sustain, much less increase, support to museums by returning to that tired museum (and systematics) shibboleth that we can’t respond to current problems until we have finished inventorying all the world’s species. The evolution of new forms may even occur faster than we can describe them – and we know with existing and future rates of growth and change that we will lose vast numbers of species in the near term.”

He quoted Peter Raven in a speech given in Mexico City in 1982: “The stately pace that has characterized the operation of most biological museums in the past, their often disorganized and individualistic attitude toward scientific research and the gathering of samples for their collections, the implicit assumption that the practices of the past will forever satisfy all the needs of the future — all of these factors must change if museums are to hope to begin to satisfy their obligations to the science of which they are the servants and to the society that supports and sustains them.”

We should highlight the critical importance of what we can do now. We need to recognise the role of politics. We need to address pressure to self interest rather than reason to morality.

Taxonomy is an input. We need is attention to outcomes: the effects that actions will have in the wider world. The inputs include resources devoted to taxonomic studies including the personnel, the collections, the sorting, labelling and naming of species – all of which are valuable tasks; the outputs are the lists of new species, the revisions of genera, families or high levels. But if it is to have effect that information transformed from the data has to be again transformed through an addressing of the agenda of others. It needs to make a difference to the way society approaches human existence in this world. Until the taxonomic output influences the decisions made by others to conserve biodiversity – or the way in which we view the world in an ecological or evolutionary context – then it can be consigned to the cloisters of abbeys.

As natural history museums have refocussed their research to issues such as biodiversity, and as a response to reduced funding, they have lost many curators of various vertebrate groups such as mammals, birds and so on. Of course, if that expertise is lost altogether then indeed we will be in strife: if we can’t identify a new mammal or a new bird – if there is no scientist available at all to do that, then we will be severely hampered in our justifiable efforts to understand the world. But protesting that museums now can’t identify mammals, birds and other vertebrates is to ignore the monographs, the keys, the identification guides and so on which have been produced which allow identification by people who are not highly trained experts.

This is not a trivial point. The media, commenting on changes in some natural history museums, have often lamented the loss of such expertise but not recognised that museums must play a more proactive role: they demand more relevance but when museums try to be more relevant they criticise them. This absolutely is not special pleading!

The taxonomist now directs attention to issues of biodiversity and evolution. We are moving away from taxonomists talking to each other to evolutionary scientists talking to people outside their discipline. It is not that there is no further roles for taxonomists but that there are new roles!

If we want to influence public opinion, including particularly government opinion, we should recognise three other things (beside the realities of decision making).

First, independent groups, NGOs, with a little bit of science and a lot more, have a had great deal more effect on public opinion than science has directly: consider the activities of Greenpeace, for instance. As just one example.

Second, we in museums are not the sole repositories of information about these issues. International concern has led to large numbers of other academics, researchers and government policy makers and indeed specialists in “think tanks” and NGOs being extremely well informed. We need to form links with such people. (It is for that reason that I am particularly interested in the appointment by some museums including the Natural History Museum (London), the American Museum of Natural History (New York) and the Field Museum (Chicago) of “biodiversity ambassadors” whose role is to forge these links and to advocate, to participate in the important discussions at a national and international level.)

Third, that pernicious deprecation of the populariser. Far too often the traditional taxonomic fails to recognise the contribution of the media statement, the popular article, the book and the film or video. We have to acknowledge the importance of public communication! Scientists have a responsibility to influence public opinion and government action. We need to be political! And stop saying people aren’t interested in science!

The apparent limits to financial resources seemingly dominating the attention of most governments has meant, amongst other things, an attempt to find less expensive ways to identify the fauna and flora in surveys of biodiversity. Of course some of this comes down to a questioning of government commitment to preservation of biodiversity.

Rapid biodiversity assessments (Noss, 1993; Beattie et al, 1993; Oliver & Beattie 1994; Trueman, & Cranston. 1994) and the use of surrogate species – attempt to avoid having to explore the identity, distribution and abundance of every single species of every single group. RBA certainly addresses the current high consumption of time and cost of detailed identifications by highly trained specialists, especially so far as invertebrates are concerned (RBA refs). The utility of such approaches is not yet clear. The conventional approach to taxonomy in this context is inadequate in certain cases. RBA estimates of species richness can be obtained which are consistent with those obtained by more traditional methods. But rapid surveys of invertebrates seem unobtainable because shortcuts give an unreliable estimate when applied to different groups due to the irreducibly extensive and slow methods necessary to deliver confidence. Particularly in the case of invertebrates, a vast array of morphologies confront the non-specialist. The methods used must be both reliable (within known limits) and efficient. Biodiversity is of course more than species richness.

In considering how “North and South”, “First and Third Worlds” can work together we can draw useful parallels with the way issues concerning cultural material in the strict sense, items made by humans, have been dealt with. Yet again: what does ownership mean? Jonathan Haas (1992) of the Field Museum addressed the issue at the last conference: he claimed pressure to repatriate type material would increase. He said co-operative programs could mitigate the impact of repatriation and even obviate the need for it in the future.

The international reference point for cultural material issues is the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Preventing the Illegal Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Material (to give it its brief title). Whilst that document deals with international exchange, it has to be seen in the overall context. This includes international returns – generally to indigenous peoples. By museums in North America to Native Americans, by Australian museums to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We are all familiar with assertions about this: the claims that acquiescence in the return of cultural material, the return of even one piece, will lead to claims for return of everything. It is nonsense! It is matter of considering what ownership mean.

I have said (Griffin, 1996), and so have many others, that on no occasion have individual returns of cultural material led to claims for wholesale return. In no case have the negotiations carried out in good faith led to acrimony. On the contrary, the returns have been a force for peace and goodwill. They have been met with gratitude, not only for the return but for the fact that in the end the material has been looked after. But above all, the returns and the equally important transfer of information and provision of training, have recognised that those who are entitled to tell the stories of the objects, those who created them are owners of them. It is their patrimony. Considerations of return are not to be entered into with fear. We must recognise what “holding material in trust” means. Advancing the issue cannot be achieved by vacuous claims that western museums are entitled to hold the patrimony because it belongs to the world or arguments that objects will be more likely be seen by the majority of people interested in them if they are in western museums. None of this is to say that all discussions are calm and reasoned and that all participants recognise the changes in attitudes of museums.

Sometimes, the situation is political and exploited for political purposes. Sometimes governments have found it easier to instruct museums to return cultural property to indigenous peoples than to address the stark issues of cultural colonialism, cultural appropriation, cultural genocide or the marginalisation of those same indigenous peoples in health, education and other issues.

Much of the debate about this issue is based on the same political approaches common to colonialism and exploitation, the stereotyping of the other party to the discussion, the denigration of them, the assertions about their capability and their motives. The play, “Pentecost” by David Edgar illustrates it well. The authorities of a war-ravaged city in southern Europe consider how they will deal with a painting on the wall of a burnt out church which might have been executed by Giotto. It is thought perhaps to be one of the first paintings to deal realistically with perspective (like Velasquez’ Las Meninas perhaps). One of the central themes of the play is how distinguished artists, who have been persuaded to give advice, treat the locals. As silly and ignorant people. The local politicians and army authorities show that in fact they are anything but silly: they for instance know how to retrieve and print e-mails received on the art history professor’s computer: he does not! In one scene the assistant to the Minister has to be asked to help the professor!

Consider the comments on the internet about return and exchange. One wrote: “Consider the relations between two rich countries, the U.K.. and New Zealand. The Kiwis have made it clear for years they want the Brown collection, with its thousands of N.Z. beetle types, returned… The British Museum won’t… It will send any two types at a time they are needed. Both sides have stayed civil. Will that be the case if there is an international treaty on the books that says the material must be returned? … If groups of scientists from the same basic cultural viewpoint, with the same legal and governmental values, the same language… can go nuts on this, what about countries without those ties? What about the museum in outer Bango Bango that doesn’t have a working roof? Can you imagine the Natural History Museum justifying its budget if it had to return all the material in it.”

Another responded, “But what about the systematist in the third world (where most of the species are) trying to do a revision of some group, but without the type collections (or indeed, usually without any `pre-independence’ collections!)… the critical issue for science and systematics is accessibility to material, not where it is housed…”

Another, “Those types, those scientific specimens, are the work product of many peoples’ efforts, not the least of which are attributable to international contributions. When access to/ownership of specimens is addressed in that context, then we will start to make progress on making sure that everyone gets their rightful opportunity to “own,” care for and study the scientific material… it has nothing to do with first-world/third-world. There are tons of specimens in third world museums, well-cared-for.” All the issues about access, expenses to visit collections, etc, would still exist for those specimens even after any UNIDROIT treaty were ratified.”

Of course there are special considerations concerning type material! Here the long-term safety of the items must be a major consideration.

The Association for Systematic Collections (ASC) has taken a very active role in discussions with US Government negotiators over the Unidroit Convention which further elaborates the 1970 UNESCO Convention (ASC, 1995). Issues identified relate to the definition of the term “cultural object’ and the claims for return of cultural patrimony. Flora and fauna are included under the term “cultural patrimony” (as indeed they were in the 1970 UNESCO Convention). There are also issues of retrospectivity and the enforcing, within the USA, of the laws of another country. ASC’s position, inter alia, has been that any retrospectivity would wreak havoc on the activities of museums, that limits on exchange of material would change the nature of the museum enterprise (as it relates to international co-operation) and that museum scientists already support export of material through international exchange and loan programs.

Illegal export of natural history material is already covered by other Treaties such as the Biodiversity Treaty and the CITES Convention. Guidelines have been drawn up by ASC and also the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (ASC 1993; Hoagland, 1994; Cato, 1994).

There are some very significant issues here, ones which perhaps we are not as fully aware of as we should be, issues which change the way we conduct our research in other countries. Sarah Laird (1996) for WWF International writes, “The Convention on Biological Diversity establishes sovereign rights of nations over their genetic resources. (But it does not grant explicit control over genetic resources to local communities.) No longer remaining the “common heritage of mankind”, the market value of genes and species can now be captured by groups with a stake in their long-term survival. The Convention establishes conditions under which biodiversity has a commercial value…. The loss of the “ethically superior” position of biodiversity as a global heritage has met with some resistance… Under the Convention access is based on what is described as the “Grand Bargain” – a negotiated resolution to a debate between developed and developing countries for genetic resources and advanced technologies… It emphasises a form of benefit sharing.”

Western museums assert the primacy of their role but generally treat Third World demands as they did a century ago: issues including respect for other peoples as well as protection of the material and information – the custodial role of museums – are not to the fore.

One of the most important papers on the way in which First World museums might co-operate with those in Third World countries is by Daniel Janzen (1993), now of the University of Pennsylvania. Janzen is a long-time investigator of Costa Rican biodiversity and related matters. His initial exhortation I like: “if some of the attitudes expressed here are objectionable, accept the challenge of coming up with a better solution to the general problem of what to do to ensure that we don’t lose most of tropical biodiversity in the next five decades.” Janzen asks, “what does the taxonomist have to offer tropical society?” He asserts that tropical society’s taxonomic needs should be a major rejuvenating force in systematics.

Janzen continues, “tropical society wants first and foremost for the taxonomist to give it a cleaned up naming system, a cleaned up and workable set of Latin binomials and manipulation mechanisms for filing, comparing, searching, recording and working with the species-level units that constitute the backbone of the bountiful biodiversity resource of tropical nations. Such a gift … will give tropical societies the framework on which to hang and organize its biodiversity management, research, production, needs and aesthetics … [and] .. position systematists quite centrally in the social explosion that is sweeping across the developing nations… Contemporary systematics is the language for the basic managerial, intellectual and scientific framework for non-destructive production from conserved wildlands.”

The vast majority of species live in tropical – that is Third World – countries. Clearly, if the preservation of biodiversity of the world is to be one of our goals then tropical, third world or otherwise, countries must be part of our concern. We have to work out co-operative means to address obligations that we have as museums, not misuse our time haggling about issues of transfer of collections, demands for which are unlikely to be made and certainly can be accommodated within negotiated agreements of the kind that we have with museums in all kinds of countries now. We need to concern ourselves both with the information and its meaning and with the collections. We have to avoid the destructive arguments which have so absorbed the time of museums over cultural material, arguing about who should get what collections.

Access to information is now much easier than even four years ago. Access to means of identification including illustrated computer based keys are strongly developed. Of course, even allowing for the assistance that Janzen goes on to talk about – offering participation to scientists from other countries but not paying for the lot, acknowledging that assistance will likely be available from international development agencies – the major shift needed is a shift in thinking about our responsibilities, a recognition that we need to act now. We don’t need arguments about the housing of collections in Outer Bango Bango. Or arguments about the need for ongoing financial support for the naming of all species. If we are genuinely concerned about the preservation of biodiversity then we will act accordingly. Will we?

Unless we keep our eyes on the goal – the preservation of biodiversity, the enlargement of public understanding, our role as scientists in influencing decisions, we won’t!

Unless we recognise that the issue is “what does ownership mean?” we won’t!

Unless we persuade governments to put their money where their mouth is we won’t!

Unless we collaborate we won’t. We – I mean we – have to make this work.


Drs Penny Berents, Gerry Cassis, Hal Cogger and Mike Gray, all of the Australian Museum, critically reviewed the manuscript and made valuable suggestions. Ms Jan Brazier, also of the Australian Museum, provided very valuable assistance in searching out relevant literature. I want to thank also Dr Donald W Duckworth, President and Director of the Bernice P Bishop Museum, Honolulu, for helpful discussion of some of the issues involved.


ASC (1993), ASC Guidelines for Institutional Database Policies. ASC Newsletter 21 (6): 65.

ASC (1995), UNIDROIT Treaty Under Negotiation: Could Broaden Repatriation Claims to Include Flora and Fauna. ASC Newsletter 23 (3): 29 et seq (June 1995).

Beattie, Andrew J et al (1993), Rapid Biodiversity Assessment. Proceedings of the Biodiversity Assessment Workshop, 3-4 May 1993. Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ms

Bull, Alan and Swingland, Ian (1992), Editorial. Biodiversity and Conservation 1

Brunner Ronald D (1991), Global climate change: defining the policy problem. Policy Sciences 24: 291-311.

Cato, Paisley S (1994), Guidelines for the Care of Natural History Collections. Collection Forum 10 (1): 32-40.

Cotterill, F.P.D. (1995), Systematics, biological knowledge and environmental conservation. Biodiversity and Conservation 4: 193-205.

Griffin, D.J.G. (1992), Planning for the 21st Century and Preparing for the next 500 years. International Symposium and First World Congress on the Preservation and Conservation of Natural History Collections (CL Rose, SL Williams & J Gisbert, editors), Vol 3: 405-426. Direccion General de Belles Artes y Archivos, Madrid.

Griffin, D.J.G. Previous Possessions, New Obligations: A Commitment by Australian Museums. Curator 39/1:45-62.

Haas, J. (1992), Repatriation in a Global Context for Natural History Museums. International Symposium & First World Congress on the Preservation and Conservation of Natural History Collections (CL Rose, SL Williams & J Gisbert, editors), Vol 3: 71-81. Direccion General de Belles Artes y Archivos, Madrid.

Hoagland, K. Elaine, editor (1994), Guidelines for Institutional Policies and Planning in Natural History Collections. ms.

Janzen, Daniel H. (1993), What does Tropical Society want from the Taxonomist? In J. LaSalle and I.D. Gauld (editors), Hymenoptera and Biodiversity. Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau International, Wallingford, UK.

Janzen, Daniel H. (1996b), Access Controls for Genetic Resources: The Assertion of Sovereignty. ASC Newsletter 24 (2): 17 et seq

March, James G. (1982), Theories of choice and Making Decisions. Society November /December 1982: 29-39

Laird, Sarah (1996), Access Controls for Genetic Resources: The Assertion of Sovereignty. ASC Newsletter 24 (1): 1 et seq; 24 (2): 17 et seq.

Noss, Reed F. (1990), Indicators for Monitoring Biodiversity: A Hierarchical Approach. Conservation Biology 4 (4): 355-364.

Oliver, Ian & Beattie, Andrew J. (1994), A test of some methods for The Rapid Assessment of Invertebrate Biodiversity. A Report to the Department of Environment, Sport, and Territories. Ms.

Trueman, John W.H & Cranston, Peter S. (1994), An Evaluation of some methods of Rapid Biodiversity Assessment for estimating Arthropod Biodiversity. A Report to the Department of Environment, Sport, and Territories. Ms.

[1] A paper presented to the Second World Congress on the Conservation and Preservation of Natural History Collections, Cambridge, England 20-25 August 1996 (text as delivered). The paper was dedicated to Dr Alan Emery, then immediate past President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa whose energy during his directorship and his enthusiasm, dedication and persistence, even in the face of the fiercest heat, enriched the lives of many.