Book review – Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums

One fond memory I have of studying biology at Leiden University in the Netherlands was a behind-the-scenes tour for first-year students at the then brand new location of Naturalis Biodiversity Center. This included a tour of the main tower housing the scientific collection normally off-limits to the general public. This is the domain of the museum curator, but their work involves much more than spending time amidst storage cabinets. To get a good idea just how diverse this job is, look no further than this lively and beautifully presented memoir. Here, Lance Grande tells of his career of more than thirty years as a curator at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Curators

Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums“, written by Lance Grande, published by the University of Chicago Press in March 2017 (hardback, 412 pages)

Grande originally studied fish palaeontology at the American Museum of Natural History, and in September 1983 was hired as a curator of fossil fishes at the Field Museum. The first few chapters tell of his early interest in natural history and palaeontology, including his work digging up fossil fish in Wyoming. He has written much more about the wonderfully preserved fossil assemblages found here in The Lost World of Fossil Lake: Scenes from Deep Time.

But much more than his own story, Grande introduces the reader to the colourful cast of colleagues that were influential in developing his career. This includes eccentric, larger-than-life characters such as Shelton Pleasants Applegate who studied fossil fish in Mexico, or the golden-tongued Willy Bemis, who could talk any sport fisherman out of a fish skeleton in exchange for a first-class filleting job.

A large chapter deals with a particularly well-publicised episode that tangentially involved both the Field Museum and Grande himself: the T. rex skeleton nicknamed Sue. The tumultuous story of how this fossil was excavated and became the subject of a custody battle involving the Department of Justice and the FBI has been told at length elsewhere (see e.g. Rex Appeal: The Amazing Story of Sue, the Dinosaur That Changed Science, the Law and My Life and Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T-Rex Ever Found). Grande adds a unique and even-handed side to this story from the perspective of a curator – both when he was questioned regarding previous dealings with the fossil hunter who dug up this specimen, and, more significantly, when the Field Museum acquired this fossil when it was auctioned off.

“even when he touches on […] the details of executive management or the financial woes of a large museum in a time of economic crisis, he manages to captivate”

Grande honours many other colleagues, including a whirlwind chapter that gives short introductions to his current fellow curators at the museum, as well as past curators such as the famed herpetologist Karl Patterson Schmidt. To his credit, even when he touches on his time as vice president and lays bare the details of executive management or the financial woes of a large museum in a time of economic crisis, he manages to captivate.

A final three chapters cover more sensitive topics such as dealing with human remains and their repatriation, and the importance of museums and their collections for ongoing conservation efforts. The latter topic is one that I touched on in my review of Christopher Kemp’s wonderfully written The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums. Museum collections provide unique snapshots of species diversity throughout recent history and are vital repositories when describing new species. The Field Museum stands out in particular for the Rapid Biological Inventories they do nowadays, where a team of zoologists and botanists is blitzed into a tropical location to do a taxonomic inventory in the course of a few weeks, after which they draw up an advisory report in several languages. These have more than once led to the establishment of protected areas in tropical countries.

“[…] it is a beautifully presented book. The publisher really went to town on Curators

Grande does not avoid the difficult topic of collection ethics. Like many other museums of a similar age (the Field Museum was established in 1893), their collections were in large part brought together during a time when people did not yet frown as much on plunder, colonialism, and hunting. Grande is frank in discussing this and does not attempt to hide the troubled past of some collections, but also highlights current practices that meet far higher ethical standards. Even so, there were chapters that made me feel conflicted. In his chapter on the Hall of Gems, he describes the lengths they went to to ensure that all the minerals sourced were ethically mined. But Grande seems to be okay attending the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo with Willy Bemis to obtain skeletons of deep-sea fish. One can argue that these sport fishing events will happen anyway, whether or not two museum curators try and take away some of the scraps for museum collections. But something tells me that if they approached trophy hunters in Africa in the same fashion to obtain skeletons of lions or elephants, there would be a public outcry.

Having said that, the fact that Grande covers these complexities – the shades of grey you have to deal with at times, the unique occasions where there are no precedents – makes Curators a revelatory and mature portrait of his profession. I also need to add here that it is a beautifully presented book. The publisher really went to town on Curators, producing a chunky, full-colour book printed on thick, high-quality paper, with each chapter followed by sizable sections of colour photos. If you enjoyed Richard Fortey’s Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, or Kemp’s work mentioned above, or you are fascinated by museums, then this book comes highly recommended.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Curators hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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