Saturday, April 01, 2006

Commercial vs. Amateur Collectors

J. CHRIS SAGEBIEL, Curator of Geology, for the San Bernardino County Museum, Redlands responds to a recent editorial in the LA Times:

"The proposed gentleman's agreement between paleontologists and commercial collectors is based on ignorance of natural history museums and science. A natural history museum is a different beast from an art or history museum. Natural history museums maintain paleontology collections because fossils are scientific data. Science is an ongoing process of investigation and depends on continued access to this data. Museum collections are invaluable libraries of three-dimensional objects available forever for research, education and public enjoyment.

In contrast, the goal of commercial collection is the removal of specimens from public access — ironically, rendering them worthless. Commercial collecting is thus incompatible with science. Your proposal is akin to removing writing from history on the argument that a story can have no value beyond its first telling.

Far from being a boon, commercial collection places financial strain on museums. Eventually, every privately owned fossil loses its charm or passes to an indifferent heir, and a well-meaning individual brings the fossil to a museum. It then befalls the museum to expend its limited resources conserving the object and its data. Whatever an individual pays to buy a fossil, the taxpayer eventually pays tenfold. I have yet to meet the commercial collector who contributes to the public trust a fraction of what he takes.

The editorial confuses commercial and private amateur collectors. Amateur collectors work with museums and universities to fruitful ends for collector and public alike."