National Geographic

Historical Fossils May Be Lost at Auction

Update (11/18/2013): I’m happy to report that the San Diego Natural History Museum has decided to withdraw the remaining fossils from auction. You can read their official statement here. Where the significant fossils will end up has not been announced, but I am relieved that they will be saved for science. And I applaud the efforts of Kenshu Shimada and other paleontologists who have worked so tirelessly to make sure the important specimens stay available for study.

Two weeks ago, paleontologists at this year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference in Los Angeles, California were shocked to find a technical poster displaying tyrannosaur fossils that are soon going up for auction. The dinosaur, which has not been properly curated in a museum, may wind up in hands of a private buyer. But the controversial dinosaur isn’t the only fossil that may soon be lost to scientists on the Bonham’s block. More unsettling is the impending sale of historic specimens previously held at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

High-priced fossils rarely go up for auction alone. Headliner specimens are often joined by an array of other fossils from different sources that may or may not have been legally acquired by the sellers. And in the case of the Bonham’s sale next week, the “Dueling Dinosaurs” are supplemented, in part, by various specimens collected by the famous fossil hunter Charles H. Sternberg that were curated at the SDNHM. The museum specimens include an enormous fossil fish called Xiphactinus, and, until now, also counted a partial skull of the horned dinosaur Chasmosaurus. As the formal statement from the SVP on this matter states, “The decision to sell these fossils at public auction was not that of any paleontologist at the SDNHM”, but that doesn’t ease the worry that these fossils may soon be lost to a private collector.

Both the Xiphactinus and Chasmosaurus formed the basis of formal fossil studies and are important data points in ongoing investigations. Given the study and debate surrounding how horned dinosaurs changed as they aged, in particular, the loss of the Chasmosaurus skull to a private buyer would rob researchers of another individual with which to investigate growth and variation in this dinosaur and its kin.

But even at a more basic level, the loss of such specimens creates a major stumbling block for paleontology. If a previously-studied and published fossil has been deaccessioned and sold off, then the specimen is off limits to researchers who want to take a fresh look or check up on old data. The fossil has to effectively disappear from the literature as it’s no longer open to study. It’s a matter of reproduciblility. If a fossil like the Xiphactinus skeleton isn’t permanently stored and cared for in a museum, then no one can re-examine or check on what has been gleaned from that fossil before.

The irony of the sale is that the auction booklet plays up the historical nature of the SDNHM fossils, yet those who approved the sale thought that the fossils weren’t historically important enough to keep within the museum or trade to another. Charles H. Sternberg was a major figure in the field who discovered scads of beautiful specimens. Selling off specimens he collected vaporizes part of his history, and may frustrate researchers who later try to track down what he collected and worked on.

As of this morning, after the official SVP letter of complaint was issued, the Chasmosaurus skull has been withdrawn from auction. The Xiphactinus skeleton is still up for grabs, as is a mosasaur skeleton and other Sternberg-collected fossils. Given how long these fossils have been at the SDNHM, and how many researchers have pored over them, we may not even know how the full extent of what’s being lost until after the sale has taken place. This directly violates the ethics code of SVP.

Fossils are part of a natural history heritage that belongs to everyone. Selling them not only steals them away from science, but prevents researchers from translating discoveries from those fossils into the inspiring visions of prehistory presented in museums, books, and films. That is why SVP requires members to follow the statement that “The barter, sale, or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into or keeps them within a public trust.” Whoever at the SDNHM authorized the sale of Sternberg’s fossils did so in opposition of this important standard to safeguard significant fossils.

There’s less than a week before the SDNHM fossils go up for auction. I hope that museum directors and staff there can work with the SVP to take another look at the fossils put up for sale and save some of Sternberg’s legacy, regardless of whether they stay in San Diego or are given to another institution for care. So many informative fossils have already been lost to private buyers. When a museum is involved in such a loss, the pain cuts that much deeper.

You can contact the San Diego Natural History Museum to object to the sale of Sternberg’s fossils here.

Update: The San Diego Natural History Museum has issued a statement about why their Sternberg collection was deaccessioned and put up for auction. According to the museum, the Sternberg fossils are “unrelated to our mission” and their sale was approved by the board of directors after other museums were contacted about taking the fossils.

Yet the statement neglects to say who determined that the fossils were unimportant to the SDNHM and how other institutions were contacted. From the outrage sparked by the publication of the auction catalog, it seems that many vertebrate paleontologists who have studied the fossils and consider them valuable had no idea of the impending sale. Paleontologist and Charles H. Sternberg expert Mike Everhart expressed his dismay to the Hays Daily News, and fossil fish expert Kenshu Shimada has likewise worked to rally paleontologists to stop the auction of scientifically-important specimens previously held by the SDNHM. The fact that the ceratopsid skull was withdrawn after being listed and will go to Alberta, Canada’s Royal Tyrrell Museum is another hint that paleontologists were not made fully aware of what was being sold until after the Bonham’s catalog was published.

While the SDNHM’s focus on acquiring fossils and geological samples relevant to southern California is certainly a worthwhile goal, raising funds by selling off scientifically and historically important specimens is not the way to do so.

[Top image by Ryan Somma, via Flickr]

There are 34 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Jim Kirkland
    November 14, 2013

    I think that the various federal and state agencies, for whom they hold specimens, should make clear that closer scrutiny will be made regarding their repository status.

  2. Duane Nash
    November 14, 2013

    I just emailed the San Diego nat history museum that I will never visit their museum due to these actions.

  3. Richard White
    November 14, 2013

    What can be done if SVP, and paleontologists in general, are serious about their ethics? Should the professional staff at the Museum all resign, rather than be associated with a museum which sells scientifically and historically important specimens? Should no one associated with that museum should be permitted to present a paper at SVP? Unfortunately, those scientists are our friends and colleagues – do we have a right to expect them to forfeit their jobs? How do we punish the SDMNH (and punished they should be!) without harming our colleagues? What sanctions can be put in place which would not be a hardship on our colleagues? We as a society need to raise holy hell in a very public way so that unfavorable media attention is brought to bear on the Museum. This is not all that dissimilar to what the Museum of Northern Arizona went through a number of years ago. Hopefully the end result can be the same – some administrators and Board members need to lose their jobs.

  4. Frank Landis
    November 14, 2013

    I’m a member of SDNHM, and I’ve supported their regionally important herbarium in the past. I also belong to a group that financially supports the SDNHM. Personally, I’m disgusted by this news. I wonder if the mosasaur is the one they’ve illustrated in a mural?

    Now, I’m not part of the museum staff, but I’m aware that they’ve had financial problems in the past and may have financial issues now. If they are selling these fossils off to make money, ostracizing them won’t help, because they’ll simply have to sell more and more to keep their doors open.

    It might be more deviously useful to promise aid of some sort to SDNHM–so long as they don’t sell the Xiphinactus or any other important fossils. The only reason I suggest this is that I’m not sure that simple expressions of outrage will be nearly as useful as motivating them (possibly with a stick attached) to do the right thing.

    It might also be good to appeal to Erwin Jacobs or the San Diego Foundation (or some other San Diego philanthropist) to buy the fossil and return it to the museum, perhaps with a bit of chiding.

  5. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
    November 15, 2013

    Have the President &/or Board of the SDNMH made any public statements explaining this move?

  6. Lisa Buckley
    November 15, 2013

    Here is my letter to the SDNHM Board of Directors. As there was no option to contact the Board on the message form, I sent it through Research.
    ————————–
    I know that the recent decision to put the Sternberg specimens up for public auction is not the decision (and even against the recommendations) of the paleontologists at the SDNHM, so please forward this message to the Board of Directors.

    To: Board of Directors, San Diego Natural History Museum

    I am writing to express my professional concern as both a collections manager and a curator of a natural history repository and museum regarding the decision to deaccession the specimens collected by Charles M. Sternberg for the purposes of offering them for public auction. The SDNHM is a federally recognized public repository for natural history. This is a responsibility that is not to be taken lightly, or to be ignored or set aside when money is tight or when it is inconvenient. By having official repository status, your natural history collections and the standards as which your paleontology staff manage them demonstrate the highest standard of stewardship for our planet’s natural history.

    The decision to offer both a scientifically and historically significant fossil collection for public auction flies is an insult to that high standard of stewardship. Specimens such as these (specimens that have been the focus of academic study) must remain in the public trust, whether at your institution or at another public repository. Public auction is not the same as public trust. There is no guarantee that these specimens will be acquired by a museum. In fact, the commercial trade in fossils encourages the sale of fossils at prices that natural history institutions cannot pay. Only wealthy individuals or groups will be able to afford such “luxury items.”

    Why is this bad? Even though a specimen (such as the Xiphactinus) have been studied before, they were studied with the best technology available at the time. Times and technology change, and there is no substitute for a direct examination of a specimen. A private individual is under no obligation to allow scientific access to specimens. These specimens become lost.

    Also, this is a terrible loss to public education. Does a private citizen or a corporation have a duty to allow school groups to learn from natural history specimens? No. These specimens belong to everyone, and the people who stand to lose the most from the sale of natural history specimens are the children, the fossil-enthused public, and anyone who has ever visited a museum to gaze in wonder at our planet’s past. After the auction, the only person who will be able to appreciate the wonder of these specimens is the individual who purchased them.

    As a natural history museum and repository, you have an obligation of responsible stewardship of natural history. You have been tasked with holding our planet’s natural history in trust for future generations.

    This is your legacy. Please consider carefully the type of legacy you wish to create.

    Lisa Buckley
    Curator & Collections Manager
    Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre

  7. Sally E Walker
    November 15, 2013

    For scientists, museum specimens are like our Fort Knox and Strategic Petroleum Reserves! Would we sell the foundations and security of our science for a short-term money fix? Unlike gold bars and oil, fossils are infinitely unique; once one is sold, it is taken out of the public trust and out of the purview of scientific inquiry. Without museum specimens, the whole foundation of biodiversity will be lost: all named species on earth living today or once living in the past are housed in museums. Additionally, each museum fossil represents an incredible amount of time and money to discover these creatures, prepare them out of the rock, and then prepare them for public educational displays and for scientists to use in their research. Museum specimens are the foundation of science; they are a window into the past and a guidepost for the future. Museums have housed specimens since the 1300s to advance human knowledge: Why sell out now and undermine the foundation of science? Please take the Sternberg collections out of the museum sale, they are essential for our scientific integrity and inquiry.

  8. Harry Pristis
    November 15, 2013

    All this breast-beating and threats of sanctions against the museum are the wrong tack. The museum desperately needs money, or it wouldn’t be selling a spectacular display fossil.

    The SVP has money, and should buy the x-fish at auction.

    If the SVP doesn’t have enough ready cash, every member should contribute say a thousand dollars to buy the Xiphactinus skeleton. Any member who fails to pay this levy could be sanctioned by disfellowship and boycott.

    Now is the time to put your money where your mouth is.

  9. Carl Mehling
    November 15, 2013

    I’m pretty shocked and saddened by all this. It’s ethically reprehensible for all the reasons given and I stand firmly behind those who oppose this sale.

  10. Matt Christopher
    November 15, 2013

    Removal of material referred to in published research from a collection under these circumstances is outrageously irresponsible. Any claim to repository status this institution has held in the past should be immediately forfeit and any financial support, certification eligibility, or permit status should be revoked by all bodies, public or private, at all levels, to all arms of this institution. Clearly it is no longer a reliable research institution, even though it is staffed with reliable researchers.

    In my opinion, the SDNHM has been heinously sabotaged by its board and leadership. If they are not competent to run the institution according to its constitution and mission, they need to find an entity willing to take it out of their incapable hands.

    Whatever other boards these so-called philathropists sit on should think twice about retaining those members. When you take a position as a steering member of a not-for-profit institution, you take responsibility for your hand on the wheel or you wear your finger to the bone dialing for dollars and annoying all of your rich friends until you can keep the doors open in an ethical manner, or you pull out your own checkbook.

    Your status as a pillar of society is meant to come at a cost. Museums are not there to make rich people feel good about themselves by giving them VIP status and feeding them lunch at a board meeting every month. Rich people are there to make themselves feel good through demonstrating the skills that made them rich and stewarding the museum in that manner to enrich their community. Boo to the over-stuffed suits who are shirking their duties.

  11. Michael Holland
    November 15, 2013

    Supposedly the leadership of SDMNH found this sale to be consistent with their mission and policy, and vetted this method of deaccessioning through the American Alliance of Museums.

    This is noteworthy because many museums nationwide strive to achieve the standards required to earn accreditation by AAM, and those who earn that accreditation proudly display it, often citing it as an important qualification when appealing to individual financial supporters or applying for grants.

    I do not personally know any of the people within either SDNMH or AAM who made those decisions, and I mean no offense to any of them personally, but…

    This seems like a major failure for both organizations.

    For both of them to condone the auctioning of specimens which are part of published scientific literature demonstrates either a poor understanding of or disregard for both the scientific process and the responsibilities of maintaining a repository.

    I would be very interested in seeing a statement from both SDNMH and AAM which explains why they thought this was okay.

  12. John W. Hoganson
    November 15, 2013

    I find the decision by the San Diego Natural History Museum administration to sell scientifically and educationally important fossils appalling. I assume that the San Diego Natural History Museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. The AAM should be apprised that the San Diego Natural History Museum is selling these important fossils at auction and encourage them to remove accreditation of the museum. I also suggest that federal and state fossil resource management agencies no longer consider the San Diego Natural History Museum a repository for publicly owned fossils.

  13. Royal Tyrrell Museum
    November 15, 2013

    The Chasmosaur skull was withdrawn from the auction because the San Diego Natural History Museum agreed to transfer the specimen to the Royal Tyrrell Museum for its permanent collection. This will ensure that a scientifically significant fossil from Alberta will remain in the public domain.

  14. Victoria Arbour
    November 15, 2013

    This is really disappointing. I had visited the SDNHM a few years ago to study Aletopelta, and was impressed with the quality of the displays at the museum. The collection and research staff were generous with their time and assistance, even though my visit was relatively brief. I can only imagine how frustrating and disheartening this situation must be for them.

    While I doubt that Aletopelta would ever be deaccessioned and auctioned off to the highest bidder, the fact that the board of directors is willing to allow previously accessioned material to move into private ownership is unsettling. How can any researchers trust the SDNHM if this occurs? And if researchers can’t trust the museum enough to study their specimens, then how is the SDNHM fulfilling its role as a museum?

    I am relieved to see the Albertan specimen removed from the auction (good job TMP for giving it a home!), and hope that all of the other specimens will be rehomed at appropriate museums in Kansas or wherever they were originally collected. There just has to be a better way to deaccession material than this.

  15. Jason Schein
    November 15, 2013

    This is disgusting and idiotic. I will never visit the SDMNH and I certainly hope SVP will never be in San Diego. I feel for the scientists there – they are the other real victims here.

  16. Karin Rice
    November 15, 2013

    On of my earliest finds as a paleo monitor – a juvenile baleen whale skull from the Capistrano Fm. – went to live at SDNHM. It’s still so magnificently satisfying that a fossil I salvaged made it to a museum and may be part of someone’s research. It gives me pause then that this specimen is housed at a museum that has decided it is okay to sell off other scientifically important vertebrate fossils. If these specimens offered for sale do go to auction, where does it end? Which fossils in a collection will be at risk of being lost to researchers?

    I will also pick up on Victoria’s line of thought about the fossils provenance. Were the fossils collected on federal land? State land? If so, are they technically government property?

  17. Me
    November 15, 2013

    The auction site now shows “amended” next to the Xiphactinus and mosasaur…anyone know what this might mean?

  18. Victoria Arbour
    November 15, 2013

    I sent a message to the SDNHM earlier today and they replied back with a link to a statement on the museum’s page: http://www.sdnhm.org/blog/blog_details/fossil-deaccession/8/

    Looks like funds will be used only for the acquisition of new specimens, and that they had approached other institutions beforehand.

  19. ReBecca Hunt-Foster
    November 15, 2013

    I got the same link in an email from SDNHM tonight.

  20. Bruce Schumacher
    November 15, 2013

    To John Hoganson –
    Most disappointing of all in this business, word on the street is this sale was ‘green-lighted’ by the AAM through their formal de-accessioning guidelines.
    Read them yourself, this language does not equate to natural history museums.

    http://www.aam-us.org/docs/continuum/deaccessioning-activity.pdf?sfvrsn=2

    IF AAM approval of this sale is in fact the case, fingers should be squarely pointed at this organization more so than SDMNH.

    This article is telling also.

    http://www.mondaq.com/unitedstates/x/264078/music+arts/The+Financial+Crisis+And+A+New+Round+Of+Deaccessioning+Debates

  21. Paul Varotsis
    November 16, 2013

    Hi Brian
    I understand your concerns and share them to some extent but I think we need to look at these issues in a more pragmatic manner. The real issue is less ownership than access to the fossils and care of the specimens. Museums are too often places with wonderful collections and poor means to keep them. I think we should focus resources to ensure collectors of specimens allow scientists to know they own them and allow them to study them, this can only enrich their collection and the scientific community as more people get to own and love these objects. In a way the high prices paid show that there is interest for the fossils similar to ones for a Monet or van Gogh painting which is good for palaeontology. Mary Anning and many other early palaeontologists were making a living by selling specimens, what is important is that the specimens have been studied even if some have unfortunately been embellished…

  22. Dan Chure
    November 16, 2013

    Is this something just involving fossils or is it part of a broader initiative by the museum to divest itself of objects and specimens not meeting it’s mission? If the later, what other materials in the museum have been deacccessioned and/or put up for auction or are being considered for sch action? Who came up with the original idea that these fossils are beyond the scope of collections and should be gotten rid of? Was the paleo staff consulted in any way (and if so what was the reaction) or was this just sprung on them?

    These may seem unanswerable questions, but states have various laws concerning transparency of government institutions and those laws might form the basis of a Freedom of Information Act type request for the public release of documents related to the decision making process, consultation with outside and internal entities and operations, etc. Although this auction may not be stoppable citizens may have a legal right to know how their public institution came to doing it.

    If the SDMNH is an entirely private organization then those laws would not apply.

  23. Daniel Snyder
    November 16, 2013

    According to the museum’s web site, the SDMNH’s mission is “To interpret the natural world through research, education and exhibits; to promote understanding of the evolution and diversity of southern California and the peninsula of Baja California; and to inspire in all a respect for nature and the environment.” Why on Earth would Sternberg’s fossils not be germane to this purpose? If research, education and exhibits are so important, why are the administration willing to undermine all three by disposing of their specimens? If they wish to inspire, why were the vertebrate paleontology staff kept in the dark, and the decision left up to the board?

  24. Kenshu Shimada
    November 16, 2013

    Dear SDNHM Director and Board,

    I am commenting passage by passage on the official statement entitled “Fossil Deaccession” made by the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM) on November 15 (http://www.sdnhm.org/blog/blog_details/fossil-deaccession/8/). Each of my comments poses a question solely intended for the museum administrators to answer.

    Passage from official statement: “The San Diego Natural History Museum’s mission is to interpret the natural world of southern California and the peninsula of Baja California.”
    Comment: Does this mean that it is okay to be ignorant about, or disrespect, the natural world outside of your region by selling deaccessioned specimens from places like Kansas, Wyoming, Montana, and Alberta where they came from?

    Passage from official statement: “The Museum is permanently removing 13 fossils from our collection (called deaccessioning) that are unrelated to our mission.”
    Comment: Just because the deaccessioned specimens are unrelated to your museum mission, does this mean that it is okay to sell them that may be lost from science forever through the upcoming auction?

    Passage from official statement: “Following American Alliance of Museums (AAM) guidelines, with whom we are accredited, and our own collections policy, the funds from the deaccession will be used only for the acquisition of scientifically important fossils from our region as well as gems and minerals from southern California and Baja California.”
    Comment: Clearly, there is a major gap in the AAM guidelines that needs to be sealed. It is worth pointing out that the AAM deaccessioning guidelines work well for art and cultural collections, but not for natural history collections, so I believe the AAM will need to seriously look into creating separate guidelines for natural history collections. The question is, just because it follows the AAM guidelines, is it okay to sell those deaccessioned specimens that may be lost from science forever through the upcoming auction?

    Passage from official statement: “These will be strong additions to our collection while enhancing our mission.”
    Comment: Is it okay to enhance its mission at the expense of deaccessioned fossil specimens that may be sold to the private sector as well as how collection-based science works?

    Passage from official statement: “As part of this thorough and multi-year process, we approached other museums we felt would be interested in the fossils, but no institutions expressed interest to acquire these specimens for their collections.”
    Comment: As someone who has been associated with the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, Kansas, for over 20 years, I would think that the SDNHM would have approached the Sternberg Museum as a first-choice institution asking for transferring all those Kansas fossils up for auction. To my knowledge, the Sternberg Museum was never approached by the SDNHM, and the museum should not claim that it didn’t know about the museum since the Sternberg Museum is referenced in its own website (http://www.sdnhm.org/about-us/our-museum/history/sternberg-charles-hazelius-1850-1943/). Personally, if I knew that the SDNHM was willing to transfer all those Sternberg-collected specimens, I would have persuade the Sternberg Museum administration to acquiring them because the museum has space and many of those specimens (especially ones from the Niobrara of Kansas) are, to me, scientifically and historically significant, and I will say that it is still not too late for the SDNHM to make that offer. So, the question is: Is it okay to sell those fossils, especially the Sternberg-collected specimens, at the upcoming auction knowing that there is at least one scientist who considers that those specimens are scientifically and historically significant?–(in fact, I have many other colleagues who think the same).

    Passage from official statement: “Once the fossils were listed for auction, we received interest from an institution on a particular specimen, at which point we removed the specimen from the auction, and it is now being added to that institution’s collection.”
    Comment: I will then suggest that any museums out there that are happy to house those deaccessioned specimens up for auction to immediately write to the SDNHM to show your interest. As long as the institution is AAM-accredited, the SDNHM wouldn’t discriminate any fellow research institutions, correct?

    Passage from official statement: “The deaccession was fully vetted through a process involving several steps, including review of our internal collections and deaccessioning policies, input from the American Alliance of Museums, and approval from the SDNHM Board of Directors.”
    Comment: Just because it follows the AAM guidelines or have an approval from people who may not necessarily be scientists, is it okay to sell those deaccessioned specimens that may be lost from science forever through the upcoming auction?

    Passage from official statement: “While these fossils have historical significance in that they were collected by Charles Sternberg, and it is our hope that they remain in the public trust, it is our opinion that they do not add significantly to the evolutionary and scientific history of these groups of organisms.”
    Comment: I must point out that this is a false statement because there is ample evidence suggesting that the Xiphactinus skeleton up for auction (Lot #1006) is the very same specimen referenced in a 1965 study* that was entitled “Anatomy and evolution of chirocentrid fishes.” Is it okay to sell the scientifically significant fossil fish specimen that may be lost to the private sector which will no longer allow the reproducibility of data presented in the study?

    Passage from official statement: “The sale of these fossils is scheduled for public auction on November 19, 2013.”
    Comment: Is it okay for the SDNHM to be remembered as the first (and hopefully the last) public museum that willingly sold its deaccessioned fossil specimens through public auction?

    Thank you for reading and for your consideration.
    Sincerely,
    Kenshu Shimada
    ______________________
    * = Bardack, D. 1965. Anatomy and evolution of chirocentrid fishes. The University of Kansas Paleontological Contributions, 10: 1-88.

  25. Ethan Cowgill
    November 16, 2013

    My email to the SDNHM

    has come to my attention that some scientifically, and historically important fossils are going to be auctioned off. I’m not sure if it has already occurred, but if it hasn’t, then I would appreciate if you could do something. We’re talking about our heritage here. One of the ancient treasures being auctioned off is a Xiphactinus specimen, which are exceedingly rare, and are scientifically prized. Understanding the creatures and ecology of the creatures of the sea of Kansas (the sea in which Xiphactinus lived) is one of the most important paleoecological topics today. The western interior seaway is seriously aiding climate scientists researching global warming. To allow the sale of these relics is a disgrace to any natural history museum. Allowing this auction is the equivalent of a U.S president napping through a nuclear attack. This is exactly what an institution such as this such unconditionally forbid. Please, preserve our heritage.

    -Ethan Cowgill, 9th grader SLC UT

  26. Dan Chure
    November 17, 2013

    It has been reported that the Chasmosaurus skull has been transferred to the Tyrrell Museum because it cam from that area. Interesting choice of words “transferred”. Might it mean “sold to”? Otherwise why not “transfer” the Kansas material to the Sternberg Museum?

  27. evodevo
    November 17, 2013

    Hey! Privatization! What’s not to like, right, Libertarians?!

  28. Sandy Carlson
    November 18, 2013

    As President of the Paleontological Society, I just fired off a message on the SDNHM website, echoing many of the sentiments expressed by others above. I hope that all messages from the community have some effect, and that it isn’t too late to make a difference.

  29. Frank Landis
    November 18, 2013

    The board of directors for SDNHM is at http://www.sdnhm.org/archive/about/directors.html, and it’s worth checking to see if any of these people are involved in your local institutions.

    I belong to a group that supports the SDNHM herbarium, which is a critical local depository. We’re going to be having some talks, although fortunately, type specimens of plants don’t fetch the same amount of money at auction as do fossils. Still, this is quite worrisome.

  30. Kleo Pullin
    November 18, 2013

    I wrote a blog and sent a letter to the AAM. I don’t know what kind of public funding they or the SDNHM receive, but it should be questioned if it is being used to deaccess scientific specimens.

    Their accreditation contact page is here:

    http://www.aam-us.org/resources/assessment-programs/accreditation/contact

    I also wonder if any of these materials were collected on public lands, during a time when it mattered?

    It does appear that the SDNHM made little to no effort to contact the most obvious place the collection could find a home, the Sternberg Museum of Natural History (http://sternberg.fhsu.edu/). I suspect that a small museum with limited funds could not reach those lucrative minimum bids.

    Here is my letter to the AAM.

    Dear Ms. Twersky,

    I am a paleontology student, and I recently learned about the San Diego Museum of Natural History’s deaccession and sale (tomorrow) of a fossil that a number of vertebrate paleontologists consider to be important to science.

    Fossils are important materials in the sciences. It is sometimes possible to replace a botanical specimen with one of hundreds of others; but a fossil may be one of only a few, particularly a nearly-complete vertebrate fossil. Unlike the science done in chemistry, where the chemicals may be repurchased, an apparatus rebuilt, and the experiment repeated, a paleontologist’s data is within the specimens (a comparison I got from another publication in a flurry of reading about this deaccession), and confirming or changing the conclusions from an observation requires that the next scientist also have access to the fossil. If a scientifically important fossil is sold to a private bidder, science loses access to the data contained within that fossil.

    “Fossils are material objects that contain scientific knowledge within them or in their context.” Implementing the Public Trust in Paleontological Resources, by Joseph L. Sax, 2001, UCB.

    In reading about the museum’s accreditation, it appears that maintaining the public trust is an important issue in the ethical management of a collection.

    “Taken as a whole, museum collections and exhibition materials represent the world’s natural and cultural common wealth. … It is also incumbent upon [museums] to preserve that inheritance for posterity.” AAM Best Practices, Code of Ethics for Museums.

    From an interview in a Kansas newspaper, and in spite of their statement to the contrary, it appears that the SDMNH did not bother to contact obvious museums who might maintain these specimens in the public trust.

    I believe that the San Diego Museum of Natural History has acted unethically as a steward of the public trust in this matter, and I ask that the AAM consider whether this is the case.

    My blog on the matter is at http://community.geosociety.org/BlogsMain/BlogViewer/?BlogKey=965749c0-017d-4fa6-8c9f-895414689a94. It includes links to a New York Times article and a National Geographic blog about this deaccession.

    Sincerely,

    Kleo Pullin

  31. Steven McDonald
    November 19, 2013

    As a member of the SDNHM Board of Directors, and a past President who was involved in the drafting of the deaccession policy in accordance with American Alliance of Museums (AAM), I can assure you all that the deaccession was fully vetted through a process involving several steps, including review of the SDNHM’s internal collections and deaccessioning policies, as well as input from the AAM. This specific deaccession was approved by the full Board after substantial discussion.
    As a Board member, and speaking solely for myself, I fully understand that there is controversy regarding the sale of fossils. For example, the controversial sale of the Tyrannosaurus Rex “Sue” is still fresh in my mind, although Sue ended up at the Field Museum, who stepped up to protect that treasure.
    While the specific fossils at issue may have historical significance in that they were collected by Charles Sternberg, I am not aware that any of them were scientifically unique, or that any of them would add significantly to the evolutionary history of these groups of organisms. Funds secured through this deaccessioning would have been used to purchase significant specimens from private collections to bring them back into the public domain.
    While there may be controversy over deaccessioning anything, and potentially differences of opinion as to the significance of certain items, I strongly believe that the SDNHM’s actions were in full compliance with the letter and spirit of applicable ethical standards — standards which I, and the rest of the SDNHM Board, take very seriously.
    Because of the controversy, the SDNHM has withdrawn the fossils from the auction and is re-evaluating how to proceed. I appreciate the passion of all involved with protecting the integrity of public collections throughout the nation, and hope that this discussion will raise the awareness of all in that regard. I also hope that those who take the time to understand the specific facts and considerations with respect to the SDNHM’s actions will appreciate that those actions were taken completely in good faith in the best interests not only of the SDNHM, but of science, with full recognition of the ethical and policy issues that are involved.

  32. Mark
    November 19, 2013

    Saying you will never visit SDNHM because of these actions doesn’t make sense to me. It only makes similar sales more likely in the future. If you are so enthusiastic of natural history, wouldn’t it make more sense if people said they would buy a family membership if the sale is cancelled?

  33. Maggie
    November 20, 2013

    Update! Fossils have been withdrawn from auction (posted 11/18):
    http://www.sdnhm.org/blog/blog_details/fossils-withdrawn-from-auction/9/

    But I don’t think the conversation on this issue ends with decision to withdraw these fossils.

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