About a month ago, the NYTimes ran an opinion piece on the loss of specimen collections (see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/opinion/libraries-of-life.html). It describes how specimen collections, like the spider collection at the American Museum of Natural History, are the foundation of the identification and study of species. So without specimens to examine, describe, and classify, we will never be able to finish this project of knowing all Earth’s biodiversity.
The article also talks about the loss of curators, scientists like Norm who study and classify these specimens so we can understand their evolution. At the Field Museum in Chicago, one of the better-funded natural history museums in our developed nation, the curatorial staff has dropped by almost half in 15 years. Recently, here in New York, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden suspended its scientific research program – and shuttered its celebrated herbarium. And more than 6 months after Norm’s retirement, the AMNH has yet to hire a new spider curator. In all of these cases, there wasn’t enough funding to keep people on staff.
It seems clear that funding for curatorial positions is getting harder to come by. What will this mean for tomorrow’s would-be curators who would continue the work of finding Earth’s hidden biodiversity?
It’s a disturbing trend. But for me, there’s an added loss. Specimen collections are extraordinarily beautiful. Working on this film, I’ve had the great joy of touring all kinds of collections, from komodo dragons stored in giant tanks of alcohol to tiny iridescent taxidermied hummingbirds. To see the unbelievable diversity of nature’s forms gathered, preserved, classified, and organized, is to begin to understand the unending process of evolution – the basis of life itself. These collections are evidence of our attempts to grasp the infinite.
What will we lose if we stop reaching?