Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/August 1910/The Methods and Uses of a Research Museum




THE average public museum contains natural history specimens of two categories—those which are displayed within glass cases constantly open to the light, so as to be continually in the view of visitors; and of those which are stored away in various appropriate containers, ordinarily protected from the light, and which are not open for the inspection of the general public, though they may be freely handled and examined by the special student in the field to which they pertain. The former category of specimens constitutes what is usually referred to as the museum proper, or exhibition museum; while the latter forms what may be termed the research museum.

The functions of an exhibition museum have been discussed at length, and its claim to recognition as a valuable factor in public education as well as amusement has been too well established to require further proof. It should be remembered, however, that much of the material on display may at the same time be of direct value in research; for it consists in part of such objects as skeletons which are not affected injuriously by light and which may be encased with a view to easy access by the osteologist who wishes to examine them minutely.

It is in the research department of the museum that I believe lies a great value, even though the sight-seeing visitor may know nothing of its existence. The maintenance of a research department on a large scale is certainly justifiable, as I purpose to show, by the importance of the results to be obtained through it from the standpoint of pure science. In an institution, like the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, which is an integral part of a large university, it may even be warrantable to emphasize the importance of research over exhibition. For the presence of the research museum serves as a stimulus to the university student and as a source of material and information usable in the work of other departments in the university.

In discussing at length the functions of a research museum, in order to have something concrete to use in illustration, I will refer constantly to the institution with which I am connected. Here, although it has been little more than two years since its inauguration, enough of methods and policies have been formulated to furnish data for the basis of this paper.

The functions of our research department, in other words the energies of our curators and the expenditure of our money allowances, are directed along the following lines:

Our most obvious activity, though not necessarily the most important one, lies in the accumulation of the preservable remains of animals of the vertebrate classes with the exception of those below the Batrachia. I am sure that no one will disagree with me in the claim that the results of our work will be of far greater moment in thus narrowing down the object of our work to a portion of the animal kingdom than if we were to spread it thinly over a greater range of subjects.

The field of our work is the region immediately about us. In other words, it is much less effective to attempt to secure a representation of the animals of the world than to exploit the fauna of a limited area. The Pacific coast is practically inexhaustible, is naturally of easiest access and should be of greatest interest to this institution.

Our collections consist of the skins and skulls of mammals, each individual collected being ordinarily represented by its skin, together, of course, with all dermal structures attached, and the entire skull, cleaned and preserved separately. The entire skeletons of a much smaller proportion of the specimens secured are also preserved; and of the smaller forms the entire animal, a few of each species, is preserved in alcohol for anatomical purposes.

In the class of birds the ordinary study skin is the chief portion preserved. However, the endeavor is made to secure complete skeletons representative of each family at least; and also portions of skeletons of a greater number, consisting of skulls and sterna chiefly. As with the mammals, alcoholic preparations are saved, especially of young birds. The expense and mechanical inconvenience of collecting and storing alcoholics impose a practical limit upon the quantity of material to be cared for in this way.

Reptiles and batrachians are preserved entire as alcoholics. Skeletons should also be prepared and saved, but the difficulty of properly obtaining them has proved so great that as yet we have but few. At any rate, with the entire animal preserved in alcohol it is possible for the special student at any time to take out the skeleton of the reptile or batrachian that it is desired to study.

The museum's policy is, and should be everywhere, liberal as regards the loaning of material to non-resident as well as near-by specialists. Material of any sort is loaned freely to any responsible person any where for the purpose of aiding in his investigations, or as basis of any special study. The value of a museum's hoard of specimens and facts increases in direct ratio to the extent to which they are used. No museum is a success as long as it remains a cold-storage warehouse, closed to ready access by the general student whether he be remotely situated or located within easy reach.

The museum curator only a few years since was satisfied to gather and arrange his research collections with very little reference to their source or to the conditions under which they were obtained. In fact it is surprising to find how little information is on record in regard to collections contained in certain eastern institutions as accessioned previous to about 1885. The modern method, and the one adopted and being carried out more and more in detail by our California museum, is to make the record of each individual acquired, whether it comes in from an outside donor or whether, as is the most usual case, it is secured by the trained museum collector, as complete a history as practicable.

The field collector is supplied with a separate-leaf note-book. He writes his records on the day of observation with carbon ink, on one side of the paper only. The floral surroundings are recorded, especially with respect to their bearing on the animal secured. The behavior of the animal is described and everything else which is thought by the collector to be of use in the study of the species is put on record at the time the observations are made in the field. The camera is as important a part of his outfit as the trap or gun. These field notes and photographs are filed so as to be as readily accessible to the student in the museum as are the specimens themselves.

Furthermore, a rather elaborate system of card cataloguing is maintained in the museum. Three sets of cards, namely, accession, department and reference, which are kept up as a part of the regular work of the curators, enable the enquirer to determine quickly what material is on hand, in what form it is, when and where obtained, and, by following up the cross references to the field note-books, the conditions under which each animal was obtained.

As a matter of routine, each specimen as it is obtained in the field is at once tagged, the label being inscribed in India ink with the exact place of capture, date, collector and field number. The original field number is the same as that under which the animal is at the same time recorded in the field notes. Its original tag is never detached from the specimen, no matter what disposition is made of the latter in arranging the collections in the museum; and so, reversely, the student may quickly trace back again from any particular specimen its history, by referring to the card catalogue and field note-book. In addition to the original collector's number there is added on each label a separate department number by which it is referred to in the museum records and any published articles specifically mentioning it.

It will be observed, then, that our efforts are not merely to accumulate as great a mass of animal remains as possible. On the contrary, we are expending even more time than would be required for the collection of the specimens alone, in rendering what we do obtain as permanently valuable as we know how, to the ecologist as well as the systematist. It is quite probable that the facts of distribution, life history, and economic status may finally prove to be of more far-reaching value, than whatever information is obtainable exclusively from the specimens themselves.

At this point I wish to emphasize what I believe will ultimately prove to be the greatest value of our museum. This value will not, however, be realized until the lapse of many years, possibly a century, assuming that our material is safely preserved. And this is that the student of the future will have access to the original record of faunal conditions in California and the west wherever we now work. He will know the proportional constituency of our faunas by species, the relative numbers of each species and the extent of the ranges of species as they exist to-day.

Perhaps the most impressive fact brought home to the student of geographical distribution, as he carries on his studies, is the profound change that is constantly going on in the faunal make-up of our country. Eight now are probably beginning changes to be wrought in the next few years vastly more conspicuous than those that have occurred in ten times that length of time preceding. The effects of deforestation, of tree-planting on the prairies, of the irrigation and cultivation of the deserts, all mean the rapid shifting of faunal boundaries, the extension of ranges of some animals, restriction in the ranges of others, and, with no doubt whatever, the complete extermination of many others, as in a few cases already on record.

If we now had the accurate record of faunal conditions as they were in the Atlantic states a century ago, how much might we not be able to adduce from a study of the changes which have taken place. Now is the opportunity to make such records in our western region. Comparative studies of conditions in the same area at different successive times is bound to bring important generalizations in the field of evolution. It will be seen here how valuable also will prove the collections preserved at corresponding intervals. Changes in conditions will doubtless bring about changes in the habits and physical characters of the animals enduring them.

Another grave danger from the standpoint of the student of natural speciation lies in the introduction of exotic animals. This evil is growing rapidly in the effort to restock regions with more hardy or prolific game animals. If successful from the sportsman's basis, either of two things will happen: the original, native species will become extinct by competitive replacement, or, where the relationships are close, crossing will take place so that the original species will be spoiled through hybridization. There are already instances of both in different sections of the United States. It is highly desirable that a good representation of specimens of the pure, native stock be properly preserved in our museums, for future comparison.

I wish here to register an objection to the prevalent idea that experimental methods upon the higher animals under artificially imposed conditions may be expected to lead invariably to the satisfactory solution of evolutionary problems. I have in mind some experiments recently made upon birds. Certain species were kept captive in enclosures in which a relatively high atmospheric humidity was maintained. The experimenter found that within the life of an individual, in fact within a few months, successive molts resulted in the plumages of some of the birds becoming darker. Feathers which were normally marked lightly with black became solid black. The increase of pigment throughout the plumage brought about a conspicuous change in the appearances of the birds, as great a difference as one finds between two near-related species under natural conditions, the one occupying an area of arid climate, the other a region of humidity.

The conclusion from these few experiments, quite generally, but, I feel confident, too hastily, drawn, has been that there may be a "direct influence" of the atmospheric humidity sufficient to bring about the color characters of the different species as we find them under the varying natural conditions; in other words, that it is not a matter of gradual adaptive acquisition subject to inheritance. It is even being maintained widely among biologists that natural selection may have very little to do with the characters of animals as we find them in nature.

I believe that the above experiments, among others carried on in the same way, will, alone, lead to inductions largely inapplicable to animals in the wild. My chief objection is that wild animals brought into confinement at once begin to show irregularities in various structural respects. This is shown sufficiently by studies upon the skeletons of animals dying in zoological parks, a very large proportion of which are abnormally modified in various particulars. This diseased condition undoubtedly begins just as soon as the animal is taken out of its natural surroundings. For the cessation of any one set of muscular activities is bound to bring about immediate changes in quantitative metabolism in the system. Change in food supply directly affects the entire organism, and unusual invasion by parasites ensues with concomitant irregular growths. How then can we expect to get a knowledge of the processes of species formation under natural conditions from the extraordinary physical development or behavior of such animals?

I would urge that it is only through the close and long-continued study of animals in the wild state, that is, under perfectly natural conditions, that we can hope to gather conclusive evidence as to the causes and methods of evolution. Our research museum has assumed the rôle of recorder of faunal conditions as they are in this age. I reiterate, for emphasis, that I believe its greatest ultimate value will not, therefore, be fully realized until a later period.

But to return to our immediate activities and their justification: The mass of information already at hand brings us face to face with numerous problems of distribution and variation. As our field work is carried on, we learn more and more in detail of the extent of the range of each species of animal, and we are able to recognize more clearly the correlated factors. We are able with more accuracy to define the characters of the local races or subspecies. The study of these "small species" I believe is leading to a better understanding of the relationships of animals and the causes of evolution than if we ignored the slight varieties and contented ourselves with dealing systematically only with the species differentiated so far as to be distinguishable at a glance.

Systematists, either as members of our museum staff or students from elsewhere, who make use of our material, are putting on published record the more important facts of distribution and variation as they come to light. All of this activity leads to the more thorough knowledge of animals necessary for any sort of wider generalization. Our institution is a repository of facts; and no matter what may be said to the contrary by those who undervalue the efforts of the hoarder of facts, it must always be the mass of carefully ascertained facts upon which the valid generalization rests. I have lately learned from no less than three zoologists of prominence that the published scientific paper which does not include some induction or generalization is not worth while. The result, it seems to me, of such a sentiment as this, which is being promulgated among the younger students, is to encourage premature conclusions. The object, in the view of the young research student, becomes the discovery of generalizations, and he is liable to be content with a wholly insufficient basis of facts. We can not expect satisfactory inductions from scanty data any sooner than from inaccurate data. At the same time I do realize that the ultimate value of the facts lies in their service as indicators of general truths. The amassing of detailed facts in any field of science is certainly a commendable pursuit; and if generalizations of wide application are early indicated, so much the better. Our research museum is a repository of facts.

There is a more widely-appreciated function of our institution which is already asserting itself as an important one in the research museum's activities, especially in its connection with a state university: People want to know whether or not a reptile is poisonous; whether or not a bird is beneficial or injurious; whether or not a "wild animal" is to be feared. People instinctively want to know the names of things. There is the mere curiosity, perfectly laudable, which brings such questions as these to the museum in greater and greater number. It is as a popular source of information that no small part of the curator's time is occupied.

The economic value of birds and mammals to the agricultural interests of the state is one of practical importance. In our field work we obtain a great amount of information applicable along this line; and, further, our staff keeps posted as to the results of the important work carried on by our national government to ascertain the beneficial or injurious effects of wild animals. Either from knowledge acquired directly by ourselves, or from that published elsewhere, we are often able to give the information asked for. The museum is thus constituted a popular bureau of information as regards the higher vertebrate animals of the region with which, we are familiar.

The functions of a research museum may be summarized as follows r Collecting and preserving animals of certain groups from a limited region; recording in permanent form all obtainable information in regard to their distribution, variation, economic status and habits; serving as a bureau of popular information as regards the animals of the region worked in; the description and analysis of ecologic and faunal conditions as they are to-day; the publication of the immediately important data obtained, calling attention to whatever generalizations, these facts may point towards.