By Dawn Roberts, Senior Director of Collections
Museum collections are filled with all types of objects – fish in jars, textiles, oil paintings, mammal skins, fossilized plants, historic photographs. These tangible items, the specimens and artifacts, are very cool and I’m only a little biased. But, the really good stuff is something more intangible. The really cool stuff in museums is the data associated with those objects.
Why is data more cool than the real item, you say?
With data, we can tell the story of each specimen and artifact. Here is a label from a Passenger pigeon specimen, Ectopistes migratorius, which states:
“Purchased by Mr. James Richardson, of [the] Am. Museum of N. Hist. [American Museum of Natural History], in the flesh, in the New York Market.”
Passenger Pigeons are an extinct species; the last member of their species died in 1914. This specimen was collected along the Canadian River in 1889, two and a half decades before they went extinct. The pigeon was shipped to New York for the purpose of being sold as food, where it was being sold in a local meat market. That a staff member of the museum purchased the bird and then added it as a scientific specimen to the museum’s collection is fascinating to me. It sparks questions in my mind — Why did they collect this specimen? Did they have knowledge about the species’ decline at this time? Were they in the habit of scouring city markets for different species? Other species have been re-discovered this way, most notably the Coelacanth.
Without data, the specimen, artifact, or piece of art is only that. We might be able to identify it and give it a name or title, but we won’t know how that particular piece fits into the larger puzzle that lets us understand our world. We won’t know who the artist was or why the piece was created. We won’t know where the animal lived or when or be able to discern how it interacted with its environment. The story is truncated, as is any knowledge that we may have gained.
In the process of caring for the Academy’s museum collections and archives, it is not just the specimens and artifacts that we are preserving, but the information about those items as well. The relationship between a specimen and its data is protected as these components are not nearly as useful separated from each other.