On the value of bespoke collections: regional natural history collections are important too!

Adrians book
Some of the books of my extended phenotype.


Around my home I have several books that I am currently reading. Beside my bed there is TH White’s The Once and Future King (a classic that I am finally getting around to read), Fables 20: Camelot (the only comic series I read these days) and Clive James’s Poetry Notebook (my sister gave this to my farmer father who passed it onto me because ‘someone should read it’). My toilet books (hey it’s a male thing!) are Don Neely’s The First Fifty Tests (detailing 50 cricket international matches at the Basin Reserve in Wellington) and Damien Fenton’s New Zealand and the First World War (choc full of amazing facts, photos and bits that you can pull out). Lying about on the lounge floor is the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s handbook (the new 5th edition) which I dip into occasionally assessing whether my even more occasional gaming group should switch to the new system, and the latest Empire magazine (which reviews film). Around the house on many shelves sit over 2000 books. They take up space. They require dusting. Once read, many will never be opened again. They required financial resource to buy in the first place. One block away from my house there is the Lincoln public library, one kilometer away is the Lincoln University library. Several computers and other devices clutter the house and can access the content of almost any book I can think of. So why do I have my collection of books? I could rationalise and use the public collections.

ENTO museum2
The collection starts here.

We live in an age of rationalisation. Centralising services seems like a good way to save money and to pool resources. This seems to be happening at all scales (say within the University), locally, nationally and even internationally. For example, we are currently arguing about the value of the Lincoln University Entomology Research Museum (LUERM) and where it sits within the New Zealand network of insect and arachnid collections. LUERM has around 500000 specimens in its collection. This makes it the third largest collection in the country after the New Zealand Arthropod Collection (Landcare Research in Auckland) and the entomology collection at Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand. The LUERM and Te Papa collections are of similar sizes and are considerably smaller than the national collection but reasonably larger than most others. Why not rationalise? There is considerable overlap between these three collections which all take up space and curation time. There are also gaps in the national collection that could be filled by bringing together all of the specimens spread around the country. We could also reduce the number of curators and replicated resources overall. For those that rationalise these all sound like great arguments. So what are the arguments for leaving these collections where they are? Let’s assume that the obvious issue of finding extra space at the national collection, extra curation time for integrating the specimens into the collection and so on are covered (which is a fairly large assumption in our cash-strapped modern world!). Lately the word ‘bespoke’ seems to have caught on. the LUERM collection can be termed a bespoke collection; it is tailored to the customs, tastes or usage of our university. So what are the values of bespoke collections?

The very nature of bespoke collections is that they fit the owner/user very well. To borrow an evolution concept, the bespoke collection is part of an extended phenotype (a Dawkin’s concept  that points out that the dams that beavers make are just as much a part of their phenotype (the physical appearance of an individual) as there big slappy tails). The books in my house are part of me. Looking at the shelves tells you a lot about my interests (natural history, history, cricket and rugby, sci fi and fantasy, movies and D&D), how I see the world, and what I value. My books help to establish and maintain who I am as an individual. I occasionally dip back into books to get information (or to re-read, like The Hobbit). The collection provides comment for visitors (and sometimes they are allowed to borrow books). Could I just use the local libraries and internet instead of maintaining my collection? I suppose so. The combination of books that I have would be hard to replicate but not impossible. But the lack of books would diminish my extended phenotype, it would make my home feel less home-like. It would make me feel less me.

Hamish Patrick and butterflies
PhD student Hamish Patrick curating!

What about the insect collection at Lincoln University? Again this bespoke collection is an extended phenotype of the ecologists at Lincoln. It has been built up over several decades and reflects the research interests of the scientists and curators that have been at Lincoln. The collection is part of our identity. LUERM is particularly strong in Canterbury specimens (obviously), tussock grasslands, Chatham Islands, spiders and beetles. What advantages do we get from LUERM being present? First, clearly one central collection would require a lot of travel, and time, by researchers outside the main collection area adding substantial costs for those who need to study specimens. Second, for most arthropod research it is not a matter of ‘one visit and done’. Work with the collection is an ongoing project where you compare newly collected specimens with what is already present and continue to do so as the specimens come in. The constant refinement of knowledge allows for better targeting of new sampling areas. Third, a substantial collection onsite is extremely useful for our postgraduate students who study arthropods. Instead of starting from scratch, researchers can easily access the variation present in their species of interest by building on the collection of those who have come before.  Fourth, the bespoke nature of the collection is appropriate because the students are almost always are researching in areas of collection strength. Fifth, diversity elements can be more easily added to research projects. Many ecology projects can add value to their research by including a diversity (population/taxonomy/systematics) aspect which can be achieved by comparing with the collection. With no local collection, diversity is harder to work with and can easily be left out of a study. Sixth, aspects of curation can be picked up and passed on. Preparing specimens for collections means preserving data for later researchers. Having a collection means knowing your specimens will be used in the future (especially now that existing specimens can be used for future DNA work). Seventh, visitors passing through the museum to work on specimens in the collection also pass on their wisdom. Expertise comes to the collection rather than having to be sought. Eighth, public outreach for diversity is easy! School groups visiting for their own learning can pass on the thrill of encountering nature in abundance (often for the first time). School children appreciating the scale of diversity in their own area is one of the most powerful tools for switching them on to ecological and environment ideas and how it matters to them. Ninth, in our disaster prone island archipelago it also makes sense to spread our collections around, lessening the risk of losing specimens to earthquakes and the like. Taken together the LUERM collection is an important part of the Lincoln University ecology extended phenotype. The collection is finely-tuned to our needs and allows us to produce research of a high standard. We probably need more of these bespoke collections around the country, not fewer. I wonder if I can use this as an excuse to buy some more books?

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