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Arthropod Museum and Stuff
I’m in the process of moving. Downsizing in a major way. Thousands of people move
every day, so the process should be straightforward and easy. It’s not. Having lived
in my home for almost 30 years, I’ve accumulated lots of treasures. Some big, some
small and all with some kind of meaning attached.
Moving necessitated breaking up and finding a home for my lifetime collection of books,
about 2,000 volumes. This is hard, but still doable once you accept the fact that
people will accept valuable books if you give them away. For me it is like finding
a good home for a pet you can no longer care for. That they are cared for and appreciated
is all that matters.
In the midst of this, I just finished reading Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson’s Journey to the Ants. This got me thinking about some of the entomologists who were housed just down the
hall from my office at the University of Arkansas, especially those in charge of the
Arthropod Museum. By definition, a museum is a curated collection of stuff. In this
case, hundreds of thousands of pinned insect specimens lined up in little wooden boxes.
There is a class structure in the academic world. Every researcher thinks his or her
work, if not the most important, at least the most interesting. But when the rubber
meets the road, hard sciences and anything associated with DNA manipulation, are currently
at the top of the heap. Near the bottom of the pile are those associated with taxonomic
classification, especially if it involves old-school approaches based on what an organism
This has not always been the case. Two centuries ago, scientists primarily focused
on gathering in specimens from all corners of the globe and arranging them into recognizable
groups based on shared characteristics. But times change and studying classification
became to be despairingly viewed as mere “stamp collecting” for biology. Then, about
30 years ago DNA analysis became cheap and easy and biologists began looking at the
cookbook of life to determine biological relationships.
This brings me back to all that stuff – the 750,000 pinned insect and spider specimens
– housed in the Arthropod Museum. Why should they be kept when you could take some
high-resolution digital images, match that to the DNA profile, and make all that information
available on line?
The answer, or so it seems to me, is that a physical thing is worth preserving. Whether
it be books, dusty old records, pinned insects, plant voucher sheets, rock samples
or bird nests, some instruction must take it upon themselves to preserve these touchstones
of our social and academic past. In biology, preserving specimens is especially important
because only a tiny fraction of tissue plastids (chloroplasts, mitochondria) is being
tested to assess relationships. To do the entire genome, other than for a few special
cases, is still beyond practical reach for most organisms.
Fortunately, the University of Arkansas has just relocated the Arthropod Museum and
the Botanical Herbarium collection to an edge-of-campus location where National Science
Foundation grants have helped provide state-of-the-art storage facilities for the
specimens. Several insects find insect collections and herbaria sheets attractive
feeding grounds, so the new facilities can be sealed up tightly and treated to prevent
outside attacks. Researchers occasionally add new specimens to the Arthropod Museum
as it relates to their current research project, but at the moment the museum is being
used as a part of the University outreach program to show school children and interested
adults this tangible slice of academia.
As for all my stuff, I’ve come to grips with the fact that I can’t continue to house
all of my “House of Wonder” possessions, so they have to go. Sure, a few treasures
will make the move with me, but what I can’t get rid of in my pending estate sale,
have a future home in a nearby landfill. Like a true museum collections manager, the
stuff I accumulate in the future will be part of a curated whole, just not more stuff.
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.