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Interview with AMNH President Sean Decatur
Ethical collecting at museums, informal science education, and more
This ran on my blog over at Science.
In April, Sean Decatur became the new president of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. I spoke to him about the challenges that museums face regarding their collections and ethics, and how museums nurture a science-informed society. Today’s editorial in Science highlights his views expressed to me in a recent conversation and shown below (lightly edited for clarity).
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Holden Thorp: My first question is why did you decide to switch to working at a museum?
Sean Decatur: In my career, both science research and science education have been central components—both my work as a biochemist and biophysical chemist—and in terms of engaging undergraduates in understanding biochemistry and science. Coming to the museum gives me an opportunity to further that integration of science, research, and education. The AMNH is a research institution as well as a museum, with research scientists working across five divisions, including anthropology, vertebrate zoology, invertebrate zoology, paleontology, and physical sciences (earth science and astrophysics). Folks are involved in externally funded extramural research and publication and working on problems that are of critical interest to the scientific community. But we also work on topics of interest to the broader public and we combine that with an effort to bring science to a general audience, including our visitors. We also have programs that are aimed at students from preschool through graduate school. So being involved in an institution that brings together science research, science education, and public engagement of science is really a natural transition from the rest of my career.
Holden Thorp: What's it like to be a researcher at a museum compared to a university? You have to bring in your own salary or does it work differently?
Sean Decatur: Fundamentally, it's actually quite similar to the work at a university in terms of the support that comes from the institution. In terms of salary, I think most of our curator faculty are on 10-month appointments. So it’s similar to a university appointment and expectations about support from the institution in terms of lab space and basic infrastructure for research. I'd say the key difference is that most of our researchers are engaged in some form of collecting as part of their work. And so an expectation of, and really a central part of, their responsibility is the curation and the support of the care for that collection, as well as the support for how that collection is brought to bear in exhibition, both in terms of permanent exhibition and temporary exhibition. At a university, folks would be heavily involved in teaching, maybe undergraduate or graduate teaching. Here, some of our curators do teach in our graduate program and they might teach at neighboring institutions, but a lot of their responsibility on the education front is in the form of organizing exhibitions and connecting with our education programs.
Holden Thorp: Why are these collections so important? I mean, why keep all those bugs?
Sean Decatur: Yes, for Lepidoptera alone, I think we have 1.3 million specimens.
We have a lot of collections of a lot of specimens, I think roughly 34 million specimens and objects overall. The collection, especially the biological collection, really tells the story of life on the planet. If we are interested in understanding biodiversity and changes in biodiversity—certainly a sense that global biodiversity is declining and changing rapidly—then we have to know the history, and that history is within our collection. And so there’s real value to having specimens of particular species that are collected over time, and some of our collections date back 150 years You can really follow changes that have happened in species that might have been collected from the same geography, over the course of more than a century now.
There’s also value in having a broad collection that brings in a variety of species so that evolutionary relationships can be mapped and understood. There’s the great discovery that happens when new species or new relationships are found that overturn an understanding of what evolutionary trees had been determined or understood before. There are still new species being identified, some of which are uncovered in active expeditions by our researchers, and some that are discovered in the collections that are here in the cabinets—perhaps someone does a new genomic study or just more closely scrutinizes a specimen in a slightly different way. Both the breadth and depth of the collection are really powerful and give an overall comprehensive story of life on the planet.
Holden Thorp: There’s so much emphasis on where these specimens came from and who are the right people to keep them. I know you just started, but this is a hot issue that I'm sure you thought about before you came into the job. Tell us how you think about that. It's a big issue for us at the journal because when people send us papers about specimens that don't have clear provenance, we wrestle with this too.
Sean Decatur: The general question of ethically responsible collecting is a critical issue in the field right now. And certainly the standards of collecting, the standards of collaboration, especially with host countries around the collection of specimens, is something that has changed and shifted over time. I think that right now our scientists really look to form partnerships and collaborations in their work and do it in a way that is quite different than 150 years ago when the museum was starting. That includes collaborations not only in terms of agreements about ownership of items being collected, but collaborations that involve the engagement of students and faculty from the partner nations and institutions where we're collecting.
So it’s not at all uncommon—in fact, it’s fairly typical for folks who are collecting in a country—to work with an institution and to have students from that institution involved in the project to make it a true two-way collaboration with students moving in both directions along the development of a project. There should be clear expectations about when and where specimens may stay in a host country when samples may be the right way to get information, and what the rules are that govern that. These are all things that are essential to have clearly defined in partnerships. I think our scientists and practice in the field largely have evolved to make sure that there’s some clarity around these relationships when we work abroad.
Holden Thorp: And when somebody says the AMNH shouldn't have the specimen, how do you go about figuring out whether it should be returned?
Sean Decatur: For objects collected that belong to North American Indigenous groups, that would fall under NAGPRA [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] rules. There’s a clear process that exists for repatriation, and we have committed resources to make sure that we can develop partnerships with, and deal with representatives from, Indigenous groups that have a claim of ownership to objects that are in the museum’s collection and proceeding with that and making sure that we are being ethically responsible in returning items that were not collected under or collected in the past under terms that were not up to the ethical standards that we have today. That’s an obligation for us to make sure that we carry out responsibility as well.
Holden Thorp: Well, you're being very direct and transparent about this, for which I commend you. Not everybody in your line of work feels comfortable answering these questions on the record.
Sean Decatur: I'd say the work is difficult to do well, and it’s the commitment to making sure that we are carrying out our work ethically that certainly I believe very strongly in. I know my colleagues do as well. There's simultaneously a commitment to make sure that it's more than lip service. It’s more than a simplistic approach to repatriation. There’s more to returning items as a repatriation process than just putting them in the mail.
It’s also about developing a good and trusting relationship that is not only about the return of the objects but is about healing and moving forward from the past. And that’s the spirit with which we’re approaching this.
Holden Thorp: I think it's an incredible opportunity and responsibility to be tasked with. Okay, so let’s switch to the Gilder Center. I know you're not the person who conceived of it, but you got to be the person who helped cut the ribbon.
Sean Decatur: It is great to show up at an institution at the very end of a project. It is a new building at AMNH. I should probably start with the architecture, which was designed by Jeanne Gang and her colleagues at Studio Gang. The architecture is aimed to really inspire a sense of wonder about the natural world and give a sense of a natural setting, as if it was carved out of stone or carved out of a cave. It is a building that combines the three main areas of work at the museum—exhibition, collection and research, and education. It aims to be a space where we can integrate all those things. On the exhibition front, there's a heavy emphasis on insects, and a new exhibition dedicated to insects and what we call the Solomon Family Insectarium. It's a place where both specimens from the collection and live insects are part of telling the larger story of the importance of this group of animals on the planet, both historically and in current times. This ranges from the impact on health and disease, what we learn from social behavior, and what we learn about changes in the environment from observations of insects. For folks who want to play with butterflies, there also is a butterfly vivarium for that experience, which is already proving to be super popular. On the science front, there's storage for our collection, but for the first time, the ability for visitors to observe scientists working with items from the collection and what we call the collections core. So the goal is to give visitors a sense not only for the objects and specimens, but also of how scientists are using them.
What are the stories of how objects were discovered, and how are they being put to use to study contemporary scientific problems? And then there's education space. There are 18 newly renovated classrooms as part of the complex. They serve students from preschool up through precollege. There are classrooms dedicated to elementary school students within the school year—classes in residence in the museum for an extended period of time. A class may meet at the museum for a week. Teachers and students would work in subjects including STEM-related fields, language arts, and social studies, using resources of the museum as touchpoints. This will provide a much deeper experience than a field trip.
For older students, there are facilities for high school students that are dedicated to data analytics and opportunities to get experience in health-related fields and other STEM fields that are adjacent to work that goes on at the museum. These programs are focused on workforce preparation and career development. This is aligned with programs that aim to give apprenticeship experiences to high school students in New York City. The idea is to use the exhibitions and the research facilities in service of education from pre-K through career preparation.
Holden Thorp: What does it say about K-12 education? What void are you also filling when it comes to science education?
Sean Decatur: Clearly there's a larger national interest in strengthening science education, both in the preparation of students who enter the workforce and STEM-related fields and in further advancing education in science. But there is also the fundamental need for well-educated citizens who understand science and the impact of science on the world as well as on policy and decisions we have to make within the democracy. So, there's a need in science education, but there's also a need to find ways to make the science process much more visible to students so that science isn't reduced to memorization of facts. Science education should be about, at least in my view, understanding the process of discovery and the process of describing a phenomenon and the development of technologies.
That can give confidence in what science has to tell us about the world. You can't really develop that confidence unless there's an understanding of what the process is like. The museum offers a great opportunity for that, partially because there are objects that tend to capture excitement and wonder. I must admit that I still walk through the insectarium and look at the range of beetles that are in the collection and it just inspires a sense of wonder about the natural world. That's just very cool for folks to see. I've been able to overhear conversations of elementary school kids who are, say, looking at that cabinet of beetles and are questioning why does this one look that way and this one look another way.
What are the things that they have in common? They're going through that process of observation and hypothesis generation. To me, that's what it means to teach science and help people understand what science is about. The museum makes the process of science not only come alive, but brings people into the process of what it's like to be a scientist. I think that’s just the ideal model for science education.
Holden Thorp: I couldn't agree more. I write a lot about how most of the political problems we have with science are because we haven't done a good job of explaining the scientific process. There's a famous quote from John Maddox who had my job at Nature for a long time. Somebody asked him how many papers in Nature are wrong? John said, “All of them.”
Sean Decatur: Right.
Holden Thorp: Because they're all to be revised, right? Science is an evolving, messy human process where we make mistakes, but where we also make perfectly good conclusions based on the evidence that we happen to have right now.
Sean Decatur: Right.
Holden Thorp: So, what are the specific ways we could get that across?
Sean Decatur: Some of it is in the way that exhibitions at a place like AMNH and informal science education institutions can work to your point. There's the story of how we display T. rex skeletons. At least in my memory of 30 or 40 years ago, T. rex skeletons were all upright and now T. rex is shown lowered with a spine largely parallel to the ground. That's a good example of a process of scientific discovery that captures the attention of many kids who are obsessed with dinosaurs. Yet I think it's not about just looking at the skeleton—it's about how do you know which way to orient it.
What's the evidence and what's the information? Those are things that people can really begin to understand about the scientific process and draw conclusions about how science works in other areas. I also think that we have an obligation to take on difficult issues of critical importance to the lives of people. There's work we do with the museum to show what evidence is behind the human impact on the climate. That ranges from showing core samples from the Arctic, which is physical evidence around shrinking, showing the decrease in the depth of the ice caps, or showing atmospheric photographs and data that reflect changes in the atmosphere and how that's impacting what we experience on the planet.
I think that this is a place where knowing the data and allowing people to understand why we draw the conclusions from the data is important to develop that sense of trust and confidence in what the scientists are telling us about the state of the planet. I'd say they're examples of hope and positive impact at the same time.
What are the examples of species that had been endangered, but where conservation efforts have helped to save and revive, and what's that story about? What are places where mitigation for environmental damage has been successful and how do we know that? There are scientists who are studying changes in corals over time, which tells us a great deal about ocean health. How do we look at that larger history to understand the very real crisis that the planet is in now? How do we also find information that tells us what the impacts are of mitigation? I think that showing the data that explains the crisis while at the same time also showing the data that point to where we can either take action or have some degree of hope is important for institutions to do.
Holden Thorp: Yeah. Perfect. Okay. So last question. We write a lot about science careers and the scientific workforce, and one of the things I'm always reminding people of is that for PhDs, the faculty position is the alternative career. Everything else constitutes careers because there are very few PhDs who go on to tenure track jobs at research universities. What advice and insights do you have about, from what you've observed so far, people getting their PhD, but also even undergrad degrees who want to get into the museum and informal science education world?
Sean Decatur: One of the things that's just been exciting to me as I've learned more about not only this museum but the museum field in general is just understanding the range of jobs and career opportunities that exist. When you have a collection of 30-plus million things, you need people who can care for them in lots of different ways. I'd say that the folks who characterize an image and care for objects of the collection are people who have strong interests and experience in science but are able to apply it in different ways. We have postdoctoral fellows who bridge science research and science education, people who are interested in continuing to do some work in the lab, or they may do work on expeditions and collecting, but also do some work in education. There are positions that exist in the museum on that front.
And there are positions that exist in terms of understanding how you make science come alive to a broader audience. What are the ways and what are the types of decisions you make about showing or explaining, structuring the story of science that can make a broad range of different audiences interested? There are lots of opportunities at a natural history museum, and it is something for folks who are coming out of an undergraduate program or looking for places to do internships as a place to consider.
Holden Thorp: Anything else you wanted to say?
Sean Decatur: Just that I hope folks visit, if they're in New York.
Holden Thorp: Yes, absolutely.
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