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Museum ethics evolve

CSUS-aided hunt reveals conflicts with collecting.

By Carrie Peyton Dahlberg - Bee Staff Writer

Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, September 23, 2007
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A1

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The revelation that California State University, Sacramento, helped would- be donors hunt dozens of African animals for a proposed museum has become so alien to most U.S. museums that it has been making e-mail rounds among shocked curators.

Yet hunter-driven collections are also so deeply woven into museum tradition that within the past 10 years, even the august Smithsonian Institution has come under fire for trying to import an endangered sheep killed by a $20 million donor. It abandoned the effort amid criticism.

"In the old days, this is just plain how it worked," said Robert Faucett, collections manager for ornithology at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle. "But these are not the old days."

From pottery to paintings, fossils to funeral relics, museums navigate a landscape studded with ethical questions. Their answers still are evolving, and sometimes differ from city to city and curator to curator.

Sacramento State's aborted plan for a natural history museum involved discussions of a $2.4 million donation and hundreds of trophy animals to be given to the university by Sacramento auto dealer Paul Snider and his wife, Renee, both avid big game hunters.

As the proposal unfolded, university President Alexander Gonzalez twice wrote the government of Tanzania asking for permission to let the Sniders hunt 84 different birds, mammals and reptiles for the museum. Three were on an international "red list" of species at risk of extinction, and Gonzalez since has said he should have scrutinized the issue more closely.

The episode illustrates just one of the ways that changing attitudes affect what's put on display at the 17,500 museums that amuse children and fascinate adults around the United States.

"In the days of scientific imperialism, one could go out and pretty much run roughshod over any local sensibilities. Now, we don't want to do that," said Glenn Storrs, assistant vice president for natural history and science at the Cincinnati Museum Center.

Just this month, Yale University pledged to return some -- but not all -- of the artifacts that came into university hands after being taken from the Inca mountain city of Machu Picchu in Peru nearly 100 years ago. Other nations are demanding their treasures back, and some forbid the export of cultural or biological resources.

"It's very difficult to navigate this," said Hans Sues, the Smithsonian's associate director for research and collections.

While many museums once might have snapped up, say, a spectacular painting that came with a murky history during World War II, now more are likelier to say no thanks, Sues said.

"It is very difficult sometimes for donor relations," he added. "You have someone who can do a lot of good for your museum, and it can be hard to explain why a proffered gift is inappropriate."

Major museums keep two kinds of collections: exhibits to entertain and enlighten the public, and scientific specimens to support current and future research.

In the natural sciences, museum researchers capture frogs and salamanders from stream banks, snare birds in mist nets, shoot the biggest mammals and trap the smaller ones. Sometimes they take only blood or tissue samples. Sometimes they take lives.

"I have thought long and hard about every animal I've ever euthanized, and I've killed a lot," said John Simmons, who spent decades collecting specimens for museums and has written books on the subject.

Simmons' standard, echoed by many curators: Make sure the scientific purpose for animal collection is pressing and well-reasoned.

Researchers argue that collecting cannot stop entirely, because they are preserving today's biological heritage for future generations. They say they share collections internationally, collect DNA samples from living animals, and take other steps to keep deaths to a minimum.

"It's widely regarded in the field as a legitimate choice to have credentialed scientists selectively collect animals or plants for specific, well-thought-out research purposes," said Elizabeth Merritt of the American Association of Museums.

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About the writer:

  • The Bee's Carrie Peyton Dahlberg can be reached at (916) 321-1086 or Staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

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