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.