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The Campaign Is On to Save the Natural History Collections of a Louisiana University

The school is displacing millions of specimens in favor of a new track

Though the pictured fish belong to a German research collection, they represent similar samples around the world that have come under attack. (ignazuri / Alamy Stock Photo)
smithsonian.com

Earlier this week, museum curators at the University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM) sent out an S.O.S. of sorts on Facebook. According to the original post—now removed but still available on Gizmodo—administrators told the museum that they had 48 hours to find a new location on campus for their natural history research collection. They would be allowed to keep whatever they could pare down to fit inside one classroom.

But the line that seemed to cause the most shock on social media was about the potential fate of these precious objects: "[W]e were told that if the collections are not donated to other institutions, the collections will be destroyed at the end of July."

Most recently housed in Brown Stadium, the university's track and field facility, ULM has amassed some 6 million fish specimen and nearly 500,000 plants over more than 50 years of collecting, according to the Facebook post. These collections were transferred to the stadium just last year—a move that took over a year due to the number of specimen. But the stadium will undergo renovations beginning in July to clear the path for a regulation-size running track, which would make ULM eligible to hold track and field meets. So this means that the fish and plants need to go. 

A planned expansion of the Natural History Museum, which may have housed the specimens, has been postponed for at least two years, reports The News StarHowever, recent budget cuts mean that the expansion is unlikely to happen.

“Unfortunately, the fiscal situation facing the university over the years requires us to make choices like this,” Dr. Eric Pani, Vice President for Academic Affairs, tells The News Star. “We can no longer afford to store the collections and provide all of the public services we have in the past.”

As Sarah Kaplan reports for The Washington Post, the deadline for finding a new on-campus home for the collections has now passed, making it even more urgent for ULM to locate a new home for the specimen. Pani tells Kaplan that he hopes that an institution in Louisiana or the Southeast will step up to house the remaining specimens. 

While the 48-hour deadline made the ULM situation fairly dramatic, it’s not the only natural history collection facing difficulties. As Kaplan reports, many of the 1,800 natural history collections in the U.S. have been forced to reduce their collections or staff in recent years due to budget cuts. At least 100 herbariums in North America have shut down since 1997.

While some may see the massive shelves and cabinets packed with pickled fish, flattened flowers and animal bones as an expensive waste of space, such collections serve as the foundation for many fields of research, Larry Page of the Florida Museum of Natural History tells Kaplan.

These types of collections also have many different audiences, Andy Bentley, collections manager at the University of Kansas, tells Smithsonian.com. Collected specimen are used to monitor the spread of disease and the advance of invasive species. Even agencies like the Department of Defense use them to put together Environmental Impact Statements. 

One problem with the ULM collection, he points out, is that no one in the field knew it even existed. As an ichthyologist, he has a fairly strong grasp on the collections around the country—but he’d never even heard about the ULM collection. And size had nothing to do with it. At 100,000 lots ULM's collection is over twice as large as the the one he oversees at KU, which is considered a major collection in the Midwest.

"It was shocking for me to realize the collection was so large. Regional collections are usually not that big," he says. Even a colleague doing a survey of all the fish collections in the world had not heard about the ULM trove, Bentley says. "There’s no information out there about the collection and nothing on web."

And that, he says, is one reason its undervalued. "Collections like this need to join the global collections community and make their data available so people know they exist," he says. "If no one knows they’re there and nobody is using them, then people making decisions will say 'We don’t need them anymore.'"

The Society For The Preservation of Natural History Collections is currently drafting a letter to the University asking them not to evict the collection, says Bentley, who is a former president of the group. Several other natural history organizations are also objecting to the move, he says.

“This is a pervasive problem. We’re seeing more and more regional collections come into trouble and seeing more of these kinds of things happening,” Bentley says. “It’s disheartening and distressing.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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