Popular Science Monthly/Volume 79/July 1911/Expansion of the Usefulness of Natural History Museums

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search




LIFE consists, to a large degree, in adjustments and responses, with institutions as well as with individuals, and the new conditions that these create must be faced in their turn. With every active growth there is branching out and so arise innumerable interlacings and entanglements of activities, one overlapping and interweaving with the next. The whole history of thought shows how subjects that once were to great extent isolated have spread out and crossed, until they compose a tangled web of endeavor, and consequently we can no longer define our sciences sharply, for each of them mingles with others on all sides. Indeed the borderlands of any science, the points where it joins with another, now make up the most interesting and promising fields of research. Thus biology at one angle passes over into medicine, at another into psychology, at another into sociology, one little corner threatens to join with mathematics, and at nearly every turn it meets with physics and chemistry. He would be a rash man who would try to-day to present a rigid classification of the sciences, they being in such a flux and flow of change; indeed they are coming more and more to constitute a unit.

But each worker has to select a particular part of this web for his study, for the reason that no man can undertake the whole; it once was that a strong mind could grasp the entire web, like as the mother spider controls all lines of her snare, but now the web is so great and complex that we single workers are like spiderlings upon it, each looking for his own particular little gnat. We single laborers associate ourselves together according to our tastes, so as to favor interchange of thoughts, thus forming societies, academies and the various other kinds of institutions, and the time has come when these different institutions should cooperate and partition out the work to be done by each, so that there may be as little waste and as little duplication as possible. For while there may be as great difficulty in characterizing institutions as in defining sciences, nevertheless mutual cooperation and division of labor have come to be a necessity.

Probably the oldest European association of naturalists was the academy, a grouping of followers around a gifted thinker. In the days of Greece such academies usually had no habitation, but the disciples followed and heard their master in the open air. In such an academy the teacher had his own doctrines most at heart, not those of others, consequently did not try to accumulate a library. Libraries arose in the orient earlier than in Europe, partly from the reverence of the eastern nations, particularly the Mohammedans, for the written word, partly from the greater age of eastern civilization; through Europe libraries arose in kingly palaces and in priestly monasteries, and these were, before the days of the printing press, the centers of book making. The foundation of distinct natural-history museums was considerably later than that of libraries for the reason that the voice of authority long took precedence over the concrete object: witness the long contention of bookly scholars over the number of legs of an insect, all disputing over various renditions of Aristotle, none condescending to catch a house fly and count its members. Alexander brought home great collections of living animals from the east, and founded therewith a zoological garden for this teacher of his, but we have few records of this collection; the beasts the Roman emperors secured were used mostly for combats in the circus, for these emperors had political and popular effects in mind and not the increase of knowledge.

The materials for the study of the natural sciences in medieval times were the libraries, museums growing up in Italy and England, and universities starting in Italy, Spain, England, France and Germany. These early universities were at first much of the type of Grecian academies, with didactic teaching; they arose from the desire of certain free spirits to gain knowledge of other kinds than that prescribed by the church. We can say that the museum was in most instances the mother of the empirical natural sciences, for it stood for the accumulation of objects of study rather than the accumulation of books. Men of inquiring mind grew up, inspired partly by curiosity, partly by superstition and belief in the black magic, who collected monstrosities and other strange specimens, without any definite idea to guide their choice; their preference was for fossils and crystals, salamanders and hedgehogs, and in general the most heterogeneous objects as one may learn from "Hudibras" or from the plates in Johnston's "Natural History." The wish was for the unusual, and specimens from foreign lands inspired much more interest than those of the native fauna and flora. The chief growth of these museums dated from the times of colonial expansion, when the ships of the Dutch and Spaniards and English brought home collections from the new and old Indies. The governments then lent their help to the museums, as an exploitation of the products of their new possessions, and the great collections of London, Paris and Amsterdam jumped in their growth and importance and have justly become objects of national pride.

The universities came to join with the museums in many cities, but have for the most part remained separate from the older of them. Perhaps the chief reason why the universities and museums have kept apart is the character of their work; natural science in a museum consists largely in accumulation of collections and in descriptive research, in the university in experimental science. This makes up the essential difference between the curator, on the one side, and the laboratory worker on the other; or, in other words, between the classifier and the experimenter. And it is curious to note that laboratories arose first quite apart from both museum and university, in the private houses of men of analytic mind; one needs only recall the names of Roger Bacon, Vesalius, Galileo, Harvey and, in modern times, Darwin. And those who were interested in comparative anatomy and physiology were at the beginning for the most part private physicians. As this work gained in importance they moved naturally to those institutions that offered the greater facilities for that kind of pursuit, consequently to the universities.

This has been the merest historical sketch of the connection of museums with other learned associations, while the subject is one of sufficient interest to fill a volume and then be far from exhausted. But it will have to suffice for our present purpose.

Now let us see the present ramifications of our institutions of natural history, and limit ourselves to the subjects of biology and geology. Of these there are, in the first place, the general academies, which may be characterized as being broad in subject, and open to all who are interested, to layman as well as to investigator. The latter quality is a particularly valuable possession, by virtue of which became associated in common interests many people who would find themselves alien in a more specialized association; for the specialist's research is largely dependent, at least in America, upon the gifts of amateurs, and all specialists are recruited from the ranks of amateurs. Probably the amateurs who are drawn to an academy by their natural tastes make better members than those who have chosen their calling after deliberation. The academies publish "proceedings" which include the most diverse subjects. Then there are museums, frequently associated with such academies, less usually with universities. Their primary object is the conservation of collections, and they have the same relation to natural history specimens as libraries have to books. The greater of them are reference collections where one goes to find the original specimens of descriptions. Their curators are men whose writing is largely limited to the materials of such collections and to the theoretical ideas based on such material. For the most part these museums now separate their reference and exhibition collections, and devote much thought to the most suitable presentation of the latter, following Huxley's thought that an exhibition collection should not aim to show all its specimens but rather to place on view particular groups of a direct teaching value. How far even the best collections do actually teach is, however, a matter of much dispute among museum directors. Some museums are trying the plan of frequently changing the exhibition collections, so as to offer more variety to the public. Thus the exhibition collections represent faunae, factors of distribution and of evolution, phyletic series, habitats of animals, stratigraphic series, etc. For the gathering of collections of these two kinds museums, as far as they are able, send out regular collecting expeditions; and indeed our National Museum is, to a great extent, the result of natural explorations. Both academies and museums usually maintain public lecture courses—as now do almost all learned institutions.

The work that the museums are doing in biology is mainly taxonomic, the study of groups, and ecologic, that of life environments. Their teaching is accomplished by short lecture courses, natural history excursions, and by exhibition of collections illustrating particular subjects.

The remainder of the work in natural history is done mainly in other institutions. Mineralogy is the branch of geology studied chiefly in universities and various technical schools. Almost all the branches of biology, except taxonomy, are taught outside of museums. Morphology and physiology are followed mainly at universities and marine laboratories, the experimental study of evolution including inheritance at these and at special experimental stations—governmental and private, and the newer sides of biology, biochemistry, biophysics and comparative psychology are practically unrepresented at the museums. For experimental research as distinguished from taxonomic, in fact for the study of vital details of any kind, one goes to a laboratory rather than to a museum.

Thus, on the one hand, there is the natural-history museum. Its research presents the historical or phyletic standpoint, and tends to consider the entire adult organism without attempt at abstraction of particular qualities. There is the laboratory proper, at university or marine or fresh-water or experiment station, that digs into the inside of the animal with the microscope, that tries to trace its whole development, that attempts to reduce its processes to known physical and chemical factors. The two sets of institutions are, on the whole, sharply differentiated, their work is contrasted, one can not say a priori which has the greater importance, but in time we shall be able to decide which has brought the greatest treasures to human knowledge. Certain it is that the pioneer work of the taxonomist opened the way for the theory of descent, and that without such work the experimental student of evolution could hardly attack his subject. And high-class taxonomic work requires as rare judgment and intuition as is demanded in any other scientific pursuit.

Foremost among the institutions to-day stand the universities and the museums; all others are represented by men who have been trained in one of these two. Now what should be the attitude of them to each other, especially when they coexist, as they often do, in the same city? Mergence has been suggested, but it would appear, unwisely. For each has its honorable traditions and does not wish to surrender independence. Further, they represent such different types of work that they would accomplish much more by careful cooperation than by any blending, for coalition would produce a mongrel of less virility. The plan should be cooperation and division of labor in subjects in which they overlap, so as to avoid waste of energy, otherwise maintenance of present independence.

In these matters human knowledge and the methods of getting it are of prime importance, not the fair name of an institution; or we should state it better by saying men's labors give the name to the institution. For seen rightly a university or a museum is only a tool towards this end, and should not stand in the way of it. We often hear it said that a man is or should be an underling of a particular institution. This is radically wrong, at least provided the object of that institution is to increase knowledge and not merely to conserve it and pass it on. A university or a museum is a complex engine, but still a tool, and how it should be used should be decided by the men who know best its object, and those men are chiefly, but not wholly, the investigators—curators or professors. For a man of original ideas to subject himself to any crystallizing conditions of an institution is an anachronism and an anomaly. He serves his institution best who serves his subject most loyally. The subject is the goddess to be followed, the institution is only one of her shrines.

What we are all here for is to make the most of natural talents, and to cooperate for the good of our subjects. This can result only in benefit to the institution in whose walls we work. Applying this principle, let us see how museums may cooperate helpfully with certain other associations of naturalists.

For the most part museums fill an important place and represent activity that is not developed elsewhere. But there is some waste, and there are also opportunities that museums have not tried to grasp. For instance, little good is accomplished by public popular lectures, whether given by academy, university or museum; in my experience they appeal mostly to the mentally unoccupied, to those who lack resource in their evening hours. I would not say they are valueless, for sometimes their seed falls into proper ground, and also they eke out the salaries of poor curators and professors. But, on the whole, they are mistaken charity and so constitute a waste, unless great care is taken that there is not a plethora of them. Much attendance on lectures is like much reading of books, a poor substitute for the activities of life. Again, universities often undertake work that might be much better left to museums. Thus if there is a museum conveniently near it seems to be a waste for a university to plan large taxonomic collections or even to give courses of taxonomic nature. For if a student wishes to learn species and their distinctions, he can gain this knowledge far better in the reference museum than in the laboratory; and to change a laboratory into a museum is to injure its proper use. Taxonomic collections and courses may well be omitted from universities, and students wishing these subjects should be directed to museums. A herbarium or a collection of shells is as much out of place in a laboratory as a bull in a china shop, for the university laboratory is for experimental work.

This idea may be pushed still further. When a museum has already large reference collections, not only there is no need of universities trying to duplicate these, but also the university should leave to museums the teaching of subjects for which such collections are the basis. This is the kind of teaching that would bring most results to the museums. Thus nature-study courses of all kinds could be best presented by museums, with their large local collections and their curators trained in knowledge of species and habitudes. Systematic courses in entomology might also be most profitably given in a museum; and these are growing in importance, now that insects are receiving so much attention by agriculturalists, and by physicians in their relation to disease. Practically all of our best entomologists, mammalogists, ornithologists and systematic botanists, whose work is of the greatest practical importance, have grown up in museums. But at the present time their training consists in becoming assistants in museums, helping in the arrangements of collections with no training whatsoever in the broader sides of the subject, and taking many years to learn what they might otherwise gain in a much shorter time, provided their work was directed from the start. A man told to label a certain collection will in time learn how to do so, but if he is to do more than merely determine species he must follow a plan of work. Such a course might be worked out in some such way as the following. The curator of entomology might each year direct a course in general systematic entomology or on injurious insects. The teaching need not be done by lectures, but with specified work on the object to be carried out by the student, assigned reading and practical examinations. Not much of the curator's time need be consumed, he would simply have to outline the work and to occasionally oversee it. The student would then begin with the advantage of the help of the judgment of a trained specialist. It stands to reason that such a course under a competent entomologist could be done better in most museums than in most universities. Such an initial course might be followed by one upon some special group of insects, or by one upon insects affecting a particular industry. A student who had taken such courses could on their completion readily find a position in some other museum or in a governmental station; and surely this would prove a better method of training systematists than the present way of acting as an assistant in a museum, for the work would be definitely planned from the start. Similar courses might be offered in mammalogy, ornithology and piscology, and in geology and paleontology, for all these subjects require large collections. Forestry might also be included in part. Without doubt universities would be glad to cooperate in such work, by advising students to attend such courses, and by crediting the work towards academic degrees.

This would be a new expansion, but logically a part of the work of museums, more important than public exhibition collections and far more important than vicarious evening lectures; though these evening lectures might be rearranged so as to compose a part of the courses. How important the matter is may be seen in the fact that the U. S. National Bureau of Entomology employs some 300 men, and finds it has to train most of them for the work; they would most gladly have other institutions undertake this training. The universities are attempting to present such courses, but they are greatly handicapped by the lack of suitable collections and of systematic entomologists. A university department of biology has to give courses, and direct research work, in histology, anatomy, embryology, physiology, animal behavior, inheritance and other analytical subjects, all of laboratory nature that require apparatus and living material rather than collections; it is too much to require that they should also present the taxonomic subjects. We should not attempt in an inland university to maintain large saltwater aquaria, but go to a marine laboratory for the sea organisms; and unless there is much ground around a laboratory, we do not attempt experimental breeding in a large scale, but go to some experiment station. Equally when a subject requires large taxonomic collections we and our students should go to a museum for them, and not try to amass other collections.

Since this was written I have learned that the Chicago Academy of Sciences now presents teaching courses which receive credit from universities. This seems to me to be one of the most promising fields of expansion of the usefulness of a museum. It would bring about a serviceable cooperation with other institutions, and thereby result in economy of expenditure and effort.

The second enlargement of the museum's service is increased research. Certain museums have been most prominent in research, as the British Museum which has surpassed the universities of its land. But few others approach this museum in this respect. To my mind a museum that consists mainly of collections, and of simple caretakers of these, has a speaking resemblance to a graveyard; dead specimens and gravestones betoken the past, and a mere conservator, like a sexton, has little to add to the future. It is as sad and melancholy a state as that of a university whose professors are nothing but teachers and committee men. There were magnificent collections in Pompeii, but so long as they remained buried beneath the soil they were of absolutely no use; they became of interest only when experts examined and interpreted them. I recall well a certain museum, founded out of piety, full of dead bones, where for years the only persons of any useful activity were the janitors and mechanicians; and it had an honorable board of directors too. Museums may become stagnant quite as well as other institutions. When the preparator and mounted rhinoceros are considered above the curator, and the exhibition collection above published research, then a museum is becoming senile. The strength of an institution lies wholly in its men. Past achievements are honorable possessions, but like an old family name entail the greater responsibility on the bearer. Any one who lives in the past will be treated like the past, and drop out from the race. For what museums do we call the great ones? Those with the staffs of prominent investigators, where there are many curators and all active in research. It is just the same with universities; international reputation is not based on buildings and number of students, but upon the number of original thinkers who publish. A dictionary is a museum of words, but it has no particular use until some one comes along and uses these words for a writing that people will read.

Very frequently a museum expends a sum for a single specimen or for a collecting expedition, sufficient to maintain several good men for a year. Often again it has a chance to secure an investigator, and hesitates because the expenditure would have to be drawn from some library or janitorial fund. Too often it is apt to consider the exhibition series to be its main purpose, and to regard men valuable only as arrangers of the exhibition. The saddest trait of all is self complacence, satisfaction in conditions as they are for this marks decay.

New timber must be planted, or any institution will soon lose its prestige. Worthy collections should be housed in suitable buildings, but the crown of the whole is the strength of the staff of curators. They come first in the judgment of the world as opposed to local opinion. When one names the great museums of Paris one forgets the specimens in the revered memory of Lamarck, Cuvier, Humboldt, the Saint-Hilaires and the Milne-Edwards. Such names constitute greatness, their writings have vivified the collections. America is too young to have many great names in natural history, but what reputation would our museums have without Horn, Say, Dana, Cope, the Agassiz's, Leidy, Baird and Gray?

The whole point is to try to live up to this record of honor, if possible to surpass it. That means to recognize capable men, to keep them by freeing their time as much as possible for their researches, and to call in capable outsiders. This is the principle of President Gilman, of Johns Hopkins University, "to discover and develop such men as have unusual ability." Each particular collection should be considered the basis of work for a particular gifted man, and not be its tender. Young naturalists starting out should be helped with fellowships and advice, substantially encouraged, not treated as preparators. Museums, you surely must agree, should make places for able men, just as universities are doing, recognizing it to be a part of their duty to help the subject by helping the men. It will be costly to do this, but not if a portion of the great funds given to getting collections be given to getting men. When this is done museums in general will be great teaching institutions, and cease to be cold storage centers. It may be questioned whether it is wise policy to say one must get buildings and collections first, then we can think of men. Would it not be wiser to attempt to add men and equipment simultaneously so that the new equipment may be used to best advantage? The cart must not be put before the horse, nor the fire before the food.

For the very reason that the American spirit is so eminently utilitarian and commercial, so highly uncivilized, the learned institutions should do all in their power to help those who are working for science. If they do not offer this help, who will? All institutions should combine in this endeavor to make it possible for inquiry after knowledge to increase. They should combine in every possible way to aid the man of original ideas, for he alone is the one who advances knowledge; he is the yeast in the bread. One of the most pitiful chances we can experience is to see a man full of hunger for a scientific career, driven to an uncongenial commercial calling for the lack of opportunity and timely aid; a naturalist shudders at the thought. Such cases are frequent, and human progress is by so much the loser. Is it not a duty of society to see that men do the work for which they are naturally fitted? Yet when we examine the matter seriously, we may well doubt whether our learned institutions fully recognize this need, and whether they are doing much to realize it. It is, nevertheless, probably the greatest good that they can carry out.