Digitization reveals and remediates challenges to research on dispersed museum collections from Florissant fossil beds, Colorado
Published:November 27, 2018
Gwen S. Antell, 2018. "Digitization reveals and remediates challenges to research on dispersed museum collections from Florissant fossil beds, Colorado", Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making, Gary D. Rosenberg, Renee M. Clary
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Florissant fossil beds ranks among the best documented Cenozoic fossil deposits in the world in number of scientific publications and named species. The history of geoscience research on the Upper Eocene Florissant Formation spans nearly one and a half centuries. New excavations and transfers of historic collections have spread Florissant fossils to nearly 30 natural history museums during that period. The history of acquisition, conservation, and taxonomic study of each museum’s collection is unique, so Florissant collections provide examples of how taxonomic diversity, physical conservation, and public exhibition of collections vary with provenance.
Dispersal of fossils among museums, including separation of type specimen parts and counterparts, has led to a variety of challenges for research on Florissant fossils. First, an exploratory, quantitative analysis of taxonomic diversity in four collections of fossil insects from Florissant uncovers a pattern of identification bias. Some taxonomists preferentially identify common taxa or consistently misidentify rare taxa, for instance. In light of this result, it is recommended that researchers vet any set of identifications made by multiple researchers or, ideally, identify specimens anew. Second, observations of Florissant specimens at different museums show that a large number of fossils have been lost, damaged, or destroyed due to actions such as travel on loan, display in exhibits, or application of non-archival conservation techniques. Through the digitization process, including cataloging and imaging specimens, curatorial staffs have discovered the extent of uncatalogued or missing material.
Digitization has mitigated some of the challenges associated with dispersion of specimens. Collaborative projects across museums have led to rediscovery of lost specimens or discovery for the first time of parts and counterparts that correspond to the same fossil but are housed at different institutions. Online databases that serve specimen images allow researchers to assign new taxonomic determinations, controlling for bias from earlier researchers, or to examine fossils remotely from photographs, reducing the need to handle and ship fragile material for loans. Moreover, providing public access to museum specimen records through collaborative digitization projects expands the opportunities to exhibit and develop specimen-based educational curricula.
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Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making
Natural history museums have evolved over the past 500 years to become vanguards of science literacy and thus institutions of democracy. Curiosity about nature and distant cultures has proven to be a powerful lure, and museums have progressively improved public engagement through increasingly immersive exhibits, participation in field expeditions, and research using museum holdings, all facilitated by new technology. Natural history museums have dispersed across the globe and demonstrated that public fascination with ancient life, vanished environments, exotic animals in remote habitats, cultural diversity, and our place in the cosmos is universal. This volume samples the story of museum development and illustrates that the historical successes of natural history museums have positioned them to be preeminent facilitators of science literacy well into the future.