Private collectors vs. museums – not so black and white

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and after re-living a particular case for a project I’ve been working on, I decided to finally put some of my thoughts on paper (errr, the internet). In palaeontology, there is a big debate about the acceptability of private collectors. Should we work on private collections?

On one side, there is the thought that private collectors are bad for science and bad for the public. They often remove material without taking note of important scientific details such as documenting how the specimen was found (for taphonomic studies), GPS details of where (large-scale distribution studies) or fine-scale geological details (any information from the surrounding rocks that can help in understanding the environment). They are often in it for the money, finding specimens and patching them up to sell to the highest bidder, which 90% of the time isn’t going to be a museum, but another private collector with a lot of money, thereby hiding potentially important pieces of science and history from the public. Doing it for money also introduces potential scientific problems such as using different individuals to make a complete skeleton, or even different skeletons of very different animals. Not good if the specimen ends up in a museum or someone wants to study it later on.

On the other hand is the thought that we need these private collectors. Fewer and fewer museums are spending money on field excavations anymore. In the UK, very little is done by actual institutions in places like Lyme Regis where fossils literally fall out of the cliff every day. No museum has the money or the people to patrol these areas and save the fossils, and without these private collectors, these specimens would be lost to the elements.

Until moving to the UK, I had always been vehemently against private fossil collectors. I still believe that fossils should be in museums and should be accessible to everyone, but I also recognise now that it’s not as black and white as I previously thought. There are a number of fossil collectors in the UK that are perfectly happy to have researchers come by and check out their collection, and publish on it. Collectors that know what information is important like geological details, GPS coordinates, etc. For example, Steve Etches has been collecting fossils in Kimmeridge Bay for decades, and has a phenomenal collection. It’s so good, in fact, that they are opening a museum to show it to the public. If not for him going down to the beach every day, this material would have been lost, since no museums or universities actively work there.

On the flip side, I’ve heard countless stories of museums not letting people work on specimens, in some cases for decades. There are two good examples I can think of in the pterosaur world, the most famous being that of the giant Quetzalcoatlus northropi. This specimen was first named in 1975, and represents the most complete giant azhdarchid pterosaur to date. That is, so we think. The problem is that this specimen has never been formally described, despite being held in a public museum, and only a hand full of people have been able to see it over the years, and never allowed to publish on it. Hopefully this year it will finally be formally described, which is a long time coming. But this is a specimen that has been known to science for over 40 years, and is arguably one of the most important in understanding giant pterosaurs, and pterosaur workers are still unclear of exactly what material even exists. I was involved in another case more recently where our group was told we could not see a specimen and therefore had to publish a paper disagreeing with an interpretation without having seen it, which was then brought up, even though it wasn’t our fault. Additionally, some museums are starting to charge bench fees if you are visiting for more than a few days, making it sometimes unaffordable to go to a museum. What students can afford £1000 thrown at them to spend 3 weeks in a museum? I certainly can’t.

I’m not saying that private collecting and selling of fossils is something I’m ok with, because I don’t like the idea of people making millions off of fossils that I believe should be in a public institution and available to people. However, I don’t think the issue is as black and white as many people make it out to be. In Germany, for example, it’s quite common for museums to buy specimens that have been collected privately. I don’t see this is as a major problem if they are charging a reasonable amount. I mean what’s better, a specimen to be left in the ground to potentially be lost forever, or for a a private collector to excavate it and maybe one day it’ll make it back to a museum sooner or later? There’s a difference between people who collect and excavate the fossils on their own, and sell them to a museum vs. people who put them on auction to sell to the highest bidder. Most of the time collectors do try to sell their finds to museums, but museums often can’t afford the high prices they try to sell them at. I’m definitely not a fan of amazing fossils being sold at auction to the highest bidder (who tends to be some rich person that hides them in their basement such as Nicholas Cage), but if they could be sold at a reasonable price to a museum, then isn’t it better than losing the material forever?

I’m interested in what people think about this as I know it’s a pretty controversial topic and there are some very strong opinions about it…

EDIT 24/03/2016: I just want to clarify/add (after a lengthy Twitter conversation with some people) that I am not trying to advocate for publishing on privately owned specimens. Paul Barrett (amongst others – Stu Pond, Dean Lomax, Robert Boessenecker) made several points that I hadn’t mentioned including future access (just because someone is happy for you to look now doesn’t mean they will be in 10 years), and about what happens to the collection later on. Curation of a collection is key, and that is where museums are essential – they can provide this. If you want to read more about Paul’s thoughts on the subject, you can check out his blog post from a few years ago. I am merely trying to point out that this debate is more than just about publishing on private specimens or selling fossils. There are a lot of passionate people on both sides of the debate and it is not clear cut.

From my point of view, it looks like something needs to change. You either have a Canada-like system where all fossils are owned by the crown and no private excavations or selling of fossils is allowed, or there needs to be a way for private collectors to work with museums in a way that works for science. The Canadian system seems to work to me, but I imagine that probably specimens are lost to the elements a lot more than if there were private collectors checking up on them. However, it seems pretty normal for people to call up the local museum when they find a fossil, so I don’t think it’s working too badly. But knowing that the UK has been operating by this system for so long, plus there are so many more specimens coming out of fossiliferous areas like Lyme Regis, I don’t think it would work so well in the UK. I don’t know what the solution is, but it seems that the current system is allowing for things to fall through the cracks and disagreements between the scientists and collectors.

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7 thoughts on “Private collectors vs. museums – not so black and white

  1. Sounds like we need to establish a minimum set of standards for private collectors and then give them incentives to follow them.

    As for museums, wow, I didn’t know that some were stingy on access to their collections like that. They not financing expeditions kind of makes sense, lack of money to send out the teams, lack of money to build and maintain storage facilities, etc. But not letting people see what they know they have, that sounds anti-scientific.

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    1. One of the main problems is that every country has different rules about who can collect fossils, and whether or not you can sell them. So in the UK and the US, private collectors are very common and auctions get a lot of material that’s perfectly legal to sell. However in places like Canada, it’s illegal to excavate without a permit, and illegal to sell, so it doesn’t happen. So things like standards have to be done country by country, and a lot of people put all collectors (as in the ones who go out, excavate/prep the specimen themselves) into one big category of “bad”, which I don’t think is fair at all.

      And yes, the museums thing is an issue. There are so many stories about museums hiding specimens (although this is more common from not so “western” societies), but it happens all over the place. I understand if it’s being actively worked on, but at some point, having a specimen for 40 years without being published is just not ok. It is very anti-scientific…

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  2. Liz – this is a much broader issue than people realise I’m afraid even when you take money out of the equation. We have arrived at a point now where ethical collectors who want to donate important specimens to museums actually cannot do so because they do not have any written confirmation to say that they had the legal right to collect!

    Museums are now so petrified of the legal ramifications of accepting private specimens and collections that, even if if you had a missing link, they would not touch it with a barge pole. This is a crazy situation when you consider that the vast majority of private collections made during the last century would have been made because the landowner gave verbal permission or perhaps a handshake. What will happen to these collections? This really concerns me and many others.

    It is also worth stressing a point you have made and that is that not all private collectors are unethical or in it for the money and it is important not to tar everyone with the same brush. A lot of them are the good guys too and are doing great work not for the money because they both love and believe in what they do – and long may they be able to collect.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Mark. I had heard rumours that it was becoming difficult to donate specimens to museums as well, but I didn’t realise it was so bad. Do you think there’s a way to get around that? Do things like written agreements between the collector and the landowner help? Or are museums still not happy with that?

      I completely agree about collectors being very different from each other. I’ve met lots since being in the UK that really want their material to end up in a museum and they actively seek out scientists to look at their finds. However, since we’re not really meant to publish on private specimens, it becomes difficult. It’s not fair to collectors for people to assume that they are all just money-hungry people looking to make a fast buck and not caring about the material… Most I’ve seen aren’t like that at all.

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      1. If there is a written agreement between collector and landowner this would normally suffice but the vast majority of specimens/collections will have no such documentation so it is a problem. A museum will want a paper chain of some description nowadays but a lot of venues are now closed, people involved are now deceased and provision of a written document is impossible hence the concern.

        The solution, perhaps, may have to be of the legal variety whereby once a private collection or specimen has been acceded into the collections of a museum or other accredited repository then it becomes untouchable in law because it has crossed that particular threshold and is now held in the national interest. I am not entirely sure how practical this is or how we could go about it but it seems to be a possible solution. This is just my personal thoughts on the subject.

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  3. Nice to see this post, and kudos for broaching what is often a very tangly issue. A few thoughts…

    1) I would go a little further, and subdivide private collecting explicitly into amateur and for-profit (“commercial”). Because they are not museum collectors, amateur and commercial collectors often get conflated, and I don’t think that is fair to either. And then within commercial collectors, there is a whole spectrum of quality and care for collection practices–some are quite proficient, others not so much.

    2) There is a bit of an “every bone is sacred” philosophy (apologies to Monty Python) among some paleontologists, and I’ve really wrestled with that. What I mean by this is the idea that every single fossil fragment is a priceless piece of world heritage, and to suggest otherwise is against all that Science stands for. On the one hand, I get this–large samples of even incomplete specimens allow certain kinds of research, fragments can mark locations of more complete fossils, traffic in fragments could encourage traffic in illegally collected fossils, and I absolutely think that protected areas with restricted collecting should be respected. However…I also know that some vertebrate fossils are ridiculously common (e.g., shark teeth from certain deposits), and quite frankly some fossils from some contexts just aren’t worth the time for a museum to collect them (this is not the same as “a museum didn’t get there first, so obviously they don’t care about this fossil”–an attitude sometimes seen from ‘the other side’ that is just as deplorable). The “let ’em erode” mentality, as you note, is a hard one to really say with a straight face, and I think that if [some] paleontologists want to use it, they need to up their game in selling this to the public.

    3) The issue of museums (or more commonly, individual researchers) sitting on fossils for decades is a big one, and one that our professional societies need to confront more directly as an ethical issue. At the very least, it gives serious–and justified–ammo to those who question the efficacy of keeping fossils in museums. That said, efforts to address it have probably been hampered by a bit of mutually-assured-destruction fears. If we call one particular researcher or institution on their poor access practices, does that mean we’re cut off from any future hope of seeing other fossils there? I was once denied permission to photograph a specimen that had already been figured in detail in the literature–but as a grad student back then, I didn’t feel like I had any recourse. Sure, I could make a stink, but that meant I would burn bridges and any chance of seeing other fossils in the same collection.

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    1. Thanks (as always) for the comments Andy! I agree that it’s definitely worth dividing collectors into different groups. All collectors have different motives/beliefs about how it should be done, and some I agree with more than others.

      As for the museums part, I agree that it’s definitely something to tackle carefully. I completely understand having something for a few years because you’re working on a detailed description and don’t want anyone else to scoop it, but there should be some kind of limit. And some kind of evidence that you are actively working on it. I feel like several specimens get hoarded for decades when no one is even looking at it, but just because someone said they were working on it, they’ve been given the specimen for years. I had one case where I tried to contact a museum about a specimen and found out it had been on loan to a guy for over 10 years… it’s at his house! There has been 1 paper on this specimen in the last 10 years and it wasn’t even that substantial.

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