It’s a touchy subject among natural history curators and museum professionals. How do you organize your collections? In this case, how do you organize your natural history collections of geologic materials such as fossils and minerals? Ask five different curators and you’re likely to get seven different answers, but everyone seems to have a pretty strong opinion on the subject.
Many organizational schemes exist. Some work well; many, quite simply, do not. At the Museum of Geology we have several different collections, fossil vertebrates, fossil invertebrates, mineralogy, Recent osteology, and paleonbotany to name a few. We do not employ the same organizational scheme for each collection. In this series we’ll examine three of the most common organizational systems in geologic collections, each of which is employed in the Museum of Geology. These include systematic, biostratigaphic, and numeric organization. We’ll outline some of the pros and cons of each system.
Many long-standing collections are organized via a Linnaean systematic framework. Hence, taxonomic groups are clustered together regardless of geologic age or geographic region of origin. Some of the most extensive collections, such as the Frick American Mammals collection at the American Museum of Natural History, as well as most collections of modern natural history specimens, are organized in this fashion. Systematic organization is a long-standing tradition in natural history institutions.
At the Museum of Geology, our invertebrate paleontology and Recent osteology collections are organized via a systematic framework. These collections are primarily used for teaching, and organization by taxon most easily facilitates access for this purpose. All the scleractinian corals, all the Baculites, every specimen of Felis concolor are housed together in one area of collections space. Thus, anyone needing a specimen for teaching purposes knows precisely where to go to find it.
The benefits of systematic identification are rather obvious, as outlined above. Entire taxonomic groups (e.g. Carnivora, Felidae) are contained in one region of collections space. As such, phylogenetic studies are much easier to facilitate, and evolutionary trends within groups are more directly observed and documented. If I’m concerned about the phylogenetic history of fossil Equidae, I need only spend my time in one portion of collections space. Additionally, because specimens require accurate identification to facilitate this type of organization, additional attention is devoted to accurately identifying material in this context.
Systematic organization does have its down sides. When was the last time systematists agreed on a universal taxonomic scheme? Taxonomy and phylogeny are constantly changing in light of new discoveries and novel analytical techniques. As such, systematically organized collections may be in a constant state of flux, continuously shifting in response to changing views. I’d hate to have been the hypothetical collections manager whose job it was to move all Cetacea fossils from Mesonychia to Artiodactyla in the early 2000s. Additionally, accessing specimens in this context requires at least a working knowledge of the taxonomic system utilized in the organization. These systems sometimes rely on outdated taxonomy that contemporary researchers may not be familiar with. Additionally, getting student and volunteer workers up to speed on taxonomic interpretations can be challenging, limiting your effective work force.
There is a much more problematic underlying issue with systematic organization with regard to many modern research themes. When specimens are organized by order, family, genus, and species, much of the contextual information gathered during acquisition can be obscured, or even lost. Fossil localities with high taxonomic diversity will be “split up” in the curation process, and a great deal of geologic, taphonomic, and ecologic data may not accompany the collection as a whole. Researchers working in a geologic or ecologic context will have to reconstruct this information from disparate parts of the collection. At best, this adds additional steps to the data collection process. At worst, data for timely studies of long-term change are lost.
What is your opinion of systematic collections organization?
Next post we’ll discuss biostratigraphic organization, which can address some of these issues, but does come with its own drawbacks.