Monday, 26 July 2010

Open ground

The article on the big Sotheby's fossil auction in Paris in Saturday's Independent had a comment from a conservator at the Natural History Museum in London that I found a little disappointing.

The quote:
"We try not to buy on the commercial market. For a start we have limited funds, but we also don't particularly want to encourage the sale of fossils that may be dug up without the details of the find being recorded, which would mean the loss of important scientific information."

It's not like it's a vitriolic attack on the fossil trade or anything, but I do see this as being a bit negative. There is a long history of commercial fossil collecting and it has always had a vital part to play in the development of science. Mary Anning is a fine example, as is Stan Wood for that matter. For a while there may have been a slight tendency for some in the academic world to regard fossil dealers as a necessary evil, or even an outright threat to scientific discovery, but this opinion has generally waned and the benefits of working with the trade is mostly acknowledged now.

The provision of material by professional collectors ensures a steady supply of new finds, and at a time when most museums are under considerable financial pressure it makes no sense to discourage this. Although Mrs Cornish points out that the NHM has limited funds, it still enjoys a more privileged position in this regard than the majority of museums with geological collections. Most bodies would find it difficult to raise money for fossil-collecting expeditions and even if they could, there's no guarantee of finding anything of great value. In most circumstances it makes financial and practical sense to get the pick of the material from the trade. Most collectors will make sure the important finds go to science for sensible sums and plenty donate material that is of interest.

My main point, I suppose, is that it is unfair to assume professional collectors will gather their material in a careless manner, ignorant of best practice. Clearly there will always be examples of geological vandalism and theft, but this will be almost impossible to eradicate. I would have thought it would be far more beneficial to actively encourage 'proper' collecting. It's great that museums foster relationships with local amateur collectors, but this might well be extended to professionals. The relatively recent publication of the Scottish Fossil Code by Scottish Natural Heritage was the result of a lengthy consultation with representatives of all aspects of palaeontology. Amateur collectors, commercial collectors, dealers and academics were all asked for their views. The outcome was refreshingly positive - encouraging people to go out and look for fossils using the guidelines set out clearly in the code. This can help ensure the preservation of the vital geological information. Ultimately, if nobody goes out and digs it up, nobody gets to see it, study it, learn from it. And it's lost.

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