Rae, 2014: EXPLORING THE COMMON GROUND
INTRODUCTION
COMMON GROUND
Functions of collections
Professionals who care for natural history
specimens and those who care for organic
Research
artifacts do not mix very much. In many
It is often said or inferred that the research
ways they deal with such similar `things'
and scientific value of natural history material
and
yet
remain
separated.
Busy
is paramount, that the material is there to
organizations often do not have or make time
be studied and that this makes natural history
to share experiences as much as they might
collections
different
from
other
aspire
to
or
may
not
recognize

collections. However, in many ways the same is
or want to recognize - any common ground.
true of ethnographic, textile, archeology and
This
paper
explores
this,
at
times,
library collections, for instance. The numerous
sensitive
relationship,
recognizing
where
type samples, site finds, evidence of use,
approaches to similar challenges can be
manufacture, information and history inherent
beneficial and where they differ. Both the
in museum and university collections are only
similarities and the differences contribute to
of use if they are studied. Continuing advances
the care of some of the most easily damaged
in radiography, microscopy and analytical
`artifacts'
and
`specimens'
in
collections,
techniques, mean that all collections are
encouraging closer working and cooperation.
providing an increasing level of information for
This is not a scientific paper.
It is a paper
scientists and others. Historic materials become
about people, usually skilled and specialist
sources
of
fresh
and
contemporary
professionals, and the ways in which they
interpretation, exemplified by Groombridge's
interact with historic materials and each other.
sampling of feather quills from eighteenth and
In many ways the ideas the paper promotes
nineteenth century Hawaiian feather cloaks in
are just common sense, but they are often not
museum collections for DNA studies of
common practice. They are not new, but they
extinction patterns in Hawaiian bird species
are very rarely discussed. There are many
(Groombridge, 2008).
logical and illogical reasons for the distances
created by and between specialists, which this
Exhibitions and outreach
paper will explore by focusing on organic
Collections are also on display whatever
materials. The term 'natural history' is herein
the
scientific
or research focus of the
used to refer primarily to taxidermy and skins
organization may be. Museums of all types
rather than the broad range of geological,
need to provide the public with access, to
mineral and fossil collections, which also
include people rather than exclude them
constitute natural history collections.
because they do not have the specialist
knowledge to understand what they are
looking at. There is a shared challenge of
demonstrating justifying the value of large
Similarities and differences
unseen collections.
Terminology matters. Object conservators will
Raw materials
usually describe the material they work on as
`artifacts':
"Product
of
human
art
or
Skin, feathers, fur, bone, claws, and scales
workmanship" (Brown, 1993:120) - whilst
form the primary components of many and
those caring for natural history generally work
varied collections. Animal, bird, reptile and fish
on `specimens': "An individual animal or plant,
specimens have been prepared and mounted,
a piece of mineral, etc., taken for scientific
or retained as study skins, for a very long time
study or display" (Brown, 1993:2973). In
as
key
components
of
natural
history
reality both sets of specialists may find
collections. They are also primary materials in
themselves working on objects that fit either
many types of artifacts, either whole or in part.
description. People know their own field. They
Indigenous cultures in particular valued the
often know much less about other fields or
practical and spiritual attributes of animal
may even have little interest or time in finding
materials
for
utilitarian,
symbolic
and
out about them. Yet the areas of overlap can
decorative purposes. Small creatures were
be enormous and by understanding them, the
sometimes
incorporated
as
complete
skills
of
specialists
in
both
fields
are
specimens, as in the instance of desiccated tree
strengthened.
frogs forming part of Amazonian necklaces
102 Journal of Paleontological Techniques