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Ray Triceratops & Other Issues

I have waited for so long anticipating that this topic would come up. I  was
hopeful that back in November when Sally Shelton posted to this list the SVP
Outreach Statement that it would begin at that time. At last it is here. Neil
Clark has a problem with the collector retaining ownership of the fossil,
despite being held in a museum. All of the potential calamities that could
occur under such an arrangement are his justification for a museum to have
full control and ownership of a specimen before anything scientific is done
with it. I'd really like a clear definition of what he means by full control.
Neil also wants to know what the policy is in other museums but wants replys
off the list. Personally, I am intrigued by this issue and I would like to
see an open dialog on the issue of museum collections as scientific resources
not just for the professional but for the educational and amateur community
as well. I think there are enough educators and amateurs following this list
that would appreciate a frank and open discussion related to museum policy
regarding educational and public access to their collections. 
        I am really more interested in what happens to the fossil after it is
under full control of the museum and the legalities of ownership over the fossil
by the museum and using the legalities to deny access to scientific data when  a
teacher or amateur scientist wants to study a fossil or perhaps obtain a cast of
the fossil.  Sally Shelton in a subsequent posting says she has written and
reviewed many museum collection policies. Is there a uniform policy or does
each museum generate its own policy? Is there a way for a citizen to get a
copy of a museum collection policy? I know that I have requested to see a
copy of a collection policy in the context of a complete document from a 
museum and was told all I needed to know was that such a policy exists. I
would think a tax supported institution should be able to make all policy
documents available to citizen request. I work for a tax supported public
school system. All policies and procedures are available to any citizen. What's
the big deal about showing people the rules? 
        Still later, Larry Smith speaks of all specimens just being a mouse
click away in the near future. To what people will they be just a mouse click
away? Are educators and amateur paleontologists going to have access to the
digitized fossils and to be able to incorporate them in their lessons or re-
search? Does the museum still maintain the kind of ownership rights and
policies over the digital images in order to have full control over who uses
the pictures and for what purpose they are used?
        Stan Friesen brings up the issue of verifiability and that a specimen
needs to be available for any qualified person to examine or check if the author
of a paper missed something or misinterpreted something. Who are the qualified
persons that can get this access to the specimen? I was most taken by his remark
that Public viewing is the *least* important part of what a natural history
museum is all about. Less than 10% of the specimens are ever displayed. Well I
can understand why research would have precedence to the professional dinosaur
or invertebrate paleontologist. That of course is their work, however, I must
say that it is also important today for scientists in a field that is of little
economic importance compared to other fields of science to consider how long th
they can expect broad public support for curating and research if steps aren't
taken to promote greater public interest in what they are doing hidden away
inside of their departments.
        Last year in the publication The American Paleontologist, I read a le
letter from a professional paleontologist in Amsterdam. He was commenting on the
difficulty facing institutions worldwide to fund the work necessary to curate
both existing material and new acquisitions that come in at a very fast rate.
He made what I thought was a very important observation. Once fossil material
is in drawers inside of a museum out of view to the public, it ceases to be
glamorous. If we consider the close scrutiny that is being applied by our
government bureaucrats to justify expending or allocating funds for research,
is it in the interest of a museum to demonstrate that their research is only
of interest to and limited to a very small and select group of people? Could
it be that if museum Paleo departments don't seek ways to adopt policies
(without sacrificing their public trust) that work to promote a greater public
interest and support for their profession, that they may one day end up like
the very plants and animals they seek to study. Extinct! At the moment, the
popular culture wave of support due to movies like JP etc. has provided con-
siderable interest in paleontological research. Just keep in mind that this
is a trend and broad popular support will one day wane just like the movies
and other associated icons. There will probably always be a level of support
from children and members of the fossil_nut group. Perhaps building a positive
substantive and enduring relationship with those less fickle supporters is
where the focus should begin.
        Should museums do more to take themselves from marginal players to
more important players in the information resource world? Some museums by
the establishment of special resource centers with books, collections and
access to scientific staff are experimenting with this idea. It is like a
collctions library accessible to amateurs, educators and students. Some of
these experimental models are looking to make those information resources
even more accessible via technology. In this case ownership of specimens
in a collection might work in favor of dissemination via technology. Unlike
library  reference networks that can provide only bibliographic info due to
copyrights on texts in their collection, museums can claim ownership of their
collections and data.
        One problem is that in the public perception, museums are viewed as
luxuries. A library is considered a necessity. Every public school site in
the country maintains a library/media center. How many schools operate with
their own natural history reference collections? Think of how often children
are told to go to the library, but rarely given the assignment to go to the
museum. Consider your average citizen that needs information. In all likli-
hood thay will contact a library and never consider a museum. Imagine a
special area of a museum set up to allow visitors to use the collections
the way research scientists use the main collections to identify objects
they have found, do research for a science project, further their hobby in
fossil or mineral collecting, use the objects for their aesthetic appeal in
art and photography, anything that isn't destructive to the object or if
it is an extremely rare fossil provide a cast. The special area could be
used to train teachers and have special activity/object based instruction.
        Why don't museums and paleo departments join in and support the
national education goals to improve science and mathematics education. How
many museums have advisory boards composed of museum researchers and science
educators focusing on national and state science outcomes and developing
strategies for implementation of programs that support better science
instruction in the schools. Most museums are a treasure trove of resources
that could work with local school districts to create localized science
curricula. An ornithology curriculum that uses local birds, a fossil or
dinosaur curriculum using local specimens or casts of rarer specimens.
Teachers would be grateful because units would be cheap to teach with most
materials existing in abundance outside. Many teachers don't know the
material and so learn themselves from the curricula. Students respond more
enthusiastically because they get outside and go deeper into a subject than
a generic curriculum will take them. Their investigations become truly open
ended when they realize there are no recipe answers at the back of the  book.
The main requirement for doing this successfully is creating the communication
between those who know the science at a deep level, who can articulate the
big ideas behind a subject and those who can transform this information into
child-appropriate, activity based investigations and lessons.
        It is my experience that museums and museum professionals most often
place the voice of authority right in the way of what real science should be
about. All the answers are in the back of the book. Absolute control and
ownership of the collections goes along with that voice of authority. All of
this gets smack in the way of any genuine play. There is rarely any room for
educators, amateur scientists or students as visitors to museums to take that
piece of information and try it this way or that without the background noise
of expertise crowding out creative thought. Why do only the professionals get
the chance to employ the creative process with the specimens under their
control? This is not a call to fire the experts, just to widen the arena and
share the blocks with other people that are equally fascinated with what you
do or see the potential to stimulate interest and improve instruction in
        Now I have to admit that when I saw the SVP Outreach statement posted
to this list back in mid November, I was impressed overall with the stated
commitment to work towards attaining goals similar in scope to what I've been
saying here. I'm still hoping that these goals are perceived as attainable
although I'm not always as optimistic when things drag on and on and nothing
substantive is occurring. Maybe something is going on that is positive and
I am not aware of it. I'd like to know about and read about model programs
betweem museum paleontologists and local educators and amateurs that reflect
the SVP Outreach statement goals. I'd like to see and hear about museums
with paleo departments establishing advisory boards between the education and
amateur community. I suggested to a nearby museum that if they wanted to
establish a steering committee to begin a process towards opening such a
dialogue that I would be happy to serve. That was back in December and I
haven't heard a word. I don't believe that all paleo people are in agree-
ment with the SVP Outreach statement goals. I would hope that they don't
take on a seige mentality and stay away from participating in an open
and objective examination of these issues. I would also hope that a level
of civility and respect is maintained towards all participants in any
ensuing debate. 
        There were some other postings to this list today that I will address
in a separate post about educators, amateurs, professional paleontologists and
"arm-chair" paleontologists. Name calling or taking a condescending tone towards
the expression of ideas is rude and unproductive. I've sat on enough committees
in my career and been a witness to all forms of cerebral intimidation by so
called experts that for no good reason shut people up that don't agree with th
their point of view. I hope that doesn't happen here.
Respectfully submitted,
Martin Tillett
Science Instructor
H.B. Owens Science Center
9601 Greenbelt Road
Lanham, MD 20706
301-918-8750  fax 301-918-8752