A recent fire that destroyed much of India’s National Museum of Natural History
should prompt us to wonder “what has been lost?” Was that collection something that was nice to have, or was it a “need to have” and now lost forever?
In 2001, West Nile Virus swept into Ohio as a newly emergent disease. The virus is transmitted by common mosquitoes of the genus Culex, which preferably feed on birds but will easily bite us slow moving, hulking humans. The small city of Shaker Heights was a red mark in the state as it had the highest concentration of trapped mosquitoes that tested positive for the virus. City officials feared an outbreak of the potentially deadly disease (West Nile Fever) and thought to begin aerial spraying with toxic insecticides.
At the time, I was a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. I went into the large collection of insects, and a treasure trove of information was at my fingertips. Hundreds of mosquito specimens were neatly arranged in a museum case, and each individual had labels of where, when, and how they were collected. The labels led me to conclude that common species of Culex bred locally in sewer systems. Shaker Heights had an antiquated sewer and wastewater system whereby water would pool up below the grated portals in the city streets. This water would remain stagnant between rains and was a perfect spot for mosquitoes to lay their eggs and the resulting larvae to grow. I advised that targeting the sewers with biodegradable “larvicides” would solve their problems. So, a small team consisting of a city worker and temporary summer interns treated the sewers. Despite the high concentration of West Nile positive mosquitoes in 2001, not a single human case was documented.
In essence, the natural history collection forestalled the exposure of the human population to toxic insecticides, and actually saved Shaker Heights the pains of paying for expensive aerial spraying.
This one example shows the practical importance of collections representing the natural and cultural heritage of our world. At the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH), staff use these collections to develop exhibits and educational classes that are aimed at improving science literacy (and the exhibits are just totally cool too!). Museum curators conduct specimen-based studies that improve our understanding of the Commonwealth. These studies answered questions that pertain to many topics, including why Virginia Indians often buried dogs in human graves, what Virginia looked like when oceans were deeper and Richmond laid under 40 feet of water 14 million years ago, and how volcanoes shaped the landscape 50 million years ago. So, you can see how natural history collections touch on modern issues while giving us a window into the earth’s past.
The loss of India’s National Museum of Natural History
should give us all pause. Fire is not the only threat. Natural disasters (the tsunami that struck Japan, for example) and funding disasters (look at the mess Illinois state government
turned their museums
into) threaten our collections every day. VMNH has a continuation of operations plan and keep our safety systems up to date. We should all look at our collections critically to ensure their safety because who knows which specimen or artifact will be needed to answer new questions about our world.
In honor of MayDay, consider doing ONE thing at your museum in support of disaster preparedness. MayDay activities have been expanded throughout the month of May (and any time is the right time to think about preparing for disasters and mitigating your risk). Visit the Heritage Emergency Programs page on the AIC website for more information on preparing for disasters.
Also, consider renting one of VAM's Environmental Monitoring Kits, and check out our additional Disaster Planning and MEST resources for members. As always, contact the VAM office at 804.358.3170 or at email@example.com if you have any questions about any of these resources.
Joe B. Keiper is director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History and VAM's director for nature, science, and planetaria. He can be reached via email.