Collections Organization, Who’s Right? Part I: Systematic Organization

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.

Classification by taxon.

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.

All the kittens in one litter.

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.


9 thoughts on “Collections Organization, Who’s Right? Part I: Systematic Organization

  1. I think the biggest problem with systematic collections is that they are extremely vulnerable to misidentifications or “unidentifications.” The more fragmentary or disarticulated the material, the bigger the chance that it will get put somewhere where an appropriate expert will never see it. Fish and “fish” are a great example–lots of tiny bones with lots of complex shapes, which can mimic a whole bunch of other taxa. In many collections, the default identification for any odd bone is “fish”–and if this happens in a systematic collection, off it goes to a fish drawer never to be seen again by non-fish paleontologists. I’ve seen, variously, bird, small lizard, frog, and even gastropod elements labeled as fish over the years. [just a quick aside to note that of course *I* would never had made such callous mis-ID’s. yeah, right] Because they were organized by locality, it was relatively easy to run across them again and re-identify.

    Systematic organization does have its place, but I think it is most useful only for exceptionally complete and hard to misidentify specimens.


    • I completely agree. I’m having a dilemma with a plethora of unidentified specimens in the New Mexico Tech fossil collection I’m resorting right now, many of which can only be positively identified on the class or phylum level until detailed examination by more qualified specialists. The taxonomic sorting suggested by my boss remains the best option (the collection was previously sorted by time periods), but we still have leftover student work collections from past field trips and conference synposiums that haven’t been looked at in over 30-40 years.

      Also doesn’t help that we have had to recall many specimens from past amateur donations due to absence of good collecting material; I did the best I could to ‘relocate’ it for some fossils, but we still had to pull out about 330 specimens we don’t know what to do with (I suggesting auctioning, but that’s a morally sketchy proposal that would require much explaining and clarifying to the academic community). Paradoxically, I have a feeling that stricter collecting information requirements for future donations and acquisitions may prove alienating.


      • Proper provenance information is essential, regardless of organization scheme. Without it, we’re just dealing with “pretty rocks”. Teaching collections are always an option for “no data specimens”, or donation to schools or childrens’ museums.


  2. It’s also good to think about how your collection is being used by researchers. In my collection, researchers are (usually) looking at one age and one area that may include just one or several localities. By having the collection organized by age, locality, then Taxon it expedites their quest for knowledge. However certain collections, like our comparitive modern collection, are organized by Taxon – as in this case, users are looking for certain groups/individuals for comparison.


    • It’s true. It think the Frick American Mammals would be tough to work with in a biostratigraphic context. Every time I’ve been to AMNH, it’s been to look at the camels, or the horses, or the canids. But smaller collections benefit from stratigraphic organization.


  3. It’s not a question of either/or, since palaeontological collections will ultimately be classified by some combination of both, reflecting the priorities of a particular curator/researcher and the nature of the collection. Palaeontology is fundamentally a systematic science and fossils are unintelligible except in light of some kind of classification. The role this plays will have some relationship to the nature of the collection; it’s more a question of which takes hierarchical precedence: taxonomy, locality, and/or geologic age. Organisation by locality as a hierarchic precedent makes sense in some cases, especially in smaller, regionally focused collections. It won’t in all cases; but some amount of systematic classification will always be necessary. For very large collections, locality-wise classification will tend to be hierarchically subordinate to taxonomy.


    • Martin, in our stratigraphically organized collections, the next tier of organization after locality is systematic. This helps researchers find things within the stratigraphic context. It’s all just a question of priorities.


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