Paleontology in Museums and Institutes in the 21st Century

Douglas H. Erwin (Smithsonian Institution, Department of Paleobiology, MRC 121, Washington DC 20560-0001, USA).


Museums and institutes have long been the public's first contact with paleontology. The broad public support of paleontology reflects the fascination people, particularly children, develop with exposure to worlds of the past. The unique and irreplaceable role of museums lies in the importance of objects as a spur to public imagination, as a basis for scientific research, and as a record of the history of life. The importance of objects should never be underestimated and indeed is likely to grow in the future as a salutary counterweight to the expansion of other media. Museums thus offer paleontology a vital link to the public and must continue their important role in educational activities. Beyond these exhibit and educational roles, however, museums and research institutes serve as important centers for specimen-based research, in documenting and preserving our record of life on earth, and in the development of databases to collate and distribute this record. The advent of electronic forms of communication, particularly the World Wide Web, has fragmented the traditional customers of museums and forced museums to adjust exhibit strategies, but these also provide new forums for the distribution of exhibits, research, and information on collections. This changing environment will continue to challenge the preservation of core values of museums and institute.

Our discussions began with the recognition that the fundamental basis of all paleontological research is specimens and collections. These specimens may exist in the field, but much of our knowledge of them is with reference to material held in museum collections. Since the collections of individual researchers are ephemeral, museums and research institutions serve as the ultimate repositories for our documentation of the history of life, in addition to their role documenting past discoveries and as reference for future studies.

Two key themes emerged as the foundation for our collective view of the future of museum and institutes. First, the dynamism and drive of museums are derived from the research activities of the staff and visiting scientists. A museum without an active research staff is severely disadvantaged in the production and generation of intellectually engaging exhibits, in timely and accurate educational and outreach activities, and in the development and maintenance of exhibits. An energetic scientific staff is the foundation for the growth of collections as new opportunities arise and new scientific questions demand new collecting strategies. Since all of these activities require that the scientific staff be actively engaged in their fields rather than being simply passive observers, museums must provide the time and support necessary for their scientific staff to be active researchers. For museum paleontologists, this imposes a reciprocal responsibility to actively participate in exhibit, education, and outreach activities. The substantive content in each of these areas is the responsibility of museum scientists.

The second key theme is that museums provide the intersection between the general public and fossils. The contact with actual specimens provides immediacy to the message of museums that is not possible in any other medium. Consequently, museums play a primary role in conveying the excitement of the history of life, methods of scientific inquiry, and the vital importance of collections to the public.


As the engine that drives the vitality of museums, museum-based scientific research faces significant challenges in the next several decades. Museum research has traditionally emphasized specimen-based, systematic research and, to a lesser extent, biostratigraphic studies. More recently, the scope of research at museums and institutions has broadened to include a range of biodiversity research, including systematics, phylogenetic analysis, paleoecology and paleoenvironmental studies, and biogeography. Specimen-based research remains the common thread underlying each of these areas, and future museum-based studies will continue this emphasis. Yet the focus of paleontological research has shifted over the past few decades, as reflected elsewhere in this issue, and will continue to do so in the future. The continued strength and scientific relevance of museums will require their research to reflect these changes. If museum research were to become the locus of systematics to the exclusion of other research, it risks becoming an irrelevant backwater. The intellectual vitality of museum research thus requires museum scientists to preserve their specimen-based emphasis within the changing context of paleontological research. As paleontology moves from descriptive studies and historical narrative to a greater emphasis on process-based inquiry, systematic studies will increasingly serve as a basis to address other questions, rather than as an end in themselves. Through this transition, the emphasis will remain on biodiversity but change from chronicling that diversity through time to understanding the processes which underlie shifting patterns of diversity.


Museums possess a clear advantage over virtually every other medium in communicating with the general public: real specimens. Engaging exhibits dominated by real specimens remain very attractive to the general public. A variety of museums are discovering new avenues for exhibition, including more interactive installations and the use of models and reconstructions; and all have an important in conveying the history of life. Yet the competitive advantage of museums lies in their ability to offer a close look at specimens.

These exhibits form only the foundation of museum outreach, education, and exhibit activity. Many museums have long provided Fossil Day activities, where curatorial staff will identify specimens for members of the public, but more recent opportunities are more diverse. These include classroom experiences for universities, teachers, other curators and amateur collectors and advanced training or retraining for industry and for the general public. For example, a variety of museums in the United States now offer formal training programs in paleontology for the general public. These both inform the interested public about paleontology and serve as both a recruitment and training tool for new museum volunteers. Volunteers are a ready source of enthusiastic labor for collection management, labeling, inventory, design of web sites, and a host of other activities. During a time of declining resources, volunteers are likely to have an increasing role at many institutions. Other institutions have developed extensive relationships with regional fossil enthusiasts. Amateur fossil collectors have long had an important role in discovering new localities and important specimens. By fostering a good working relationship with such groups, museum staff can provide welcome scientific background, enhance collections, and generate good will for the institution and for paleontology in general.

As the number of systematists in universities continues to decline, museums are likely to find an increasing role in training the next generation of systematists through university partnerships. Many museum scientists have long left such training to universities, but such an approach is no longer viable in many countries. Instead, specialists must be willing proactively to pass on their systematic expertise to another generation. The collective wisdom of systematic specialists is as vital a resource as the collections themselves, and many museums need to encourage the preservation of this information.


The heart of any museum is the collections. Collections document the history of life; they possess both recognized and unrecognized information about the history of life; and they provide the foundation for much of the research activity at museums. Fostering the recognition that collections are a public trust for future generations may help build support for collections. More proactively, museum paleontologists need to demonstrate the link between collections and activities of interest to the general public. For example, the fossil record provides critical information on the history of past response to episodes of climatic change—and the source of that information is often museum collections.

Several trends facing museum collections should be a source of concern for the entire paleontological community. Perhaps the most troubling is the issue of orphaned collections—collections that have been abandoned by the death of a researcher or the dismantling of a museum or university collection. The most troubling recent example is the virtual elimination of the Paleontology and Stratigraphy Branch of the US Geological Survey with virtually no provision for the future of their significant collections (a problem that has since been alleviated, if not wholly resolved). Collections require space and active curation, yet many museums lack the facilities and resources to assume responsibility for large orphaned collections. The paleontological community will need to develop a plan for triage of these collections to ensure that irreplaceable information and specimens, particularly type specimens, are not lost. Regrettably, since storing a collection requires money for space, cabinets, drawers, and labels, museum curators are likely to be increasingly faced with difficult decisions about retaining or deaccessioning existing material as well.

Second, collections require active and professional management. One member proposed a corollary to the second law of thermodynamics: that there exists an inverse relationship between the number of curators and collections management staff and the entropy of collections. The paleontological community needs to take an active role in promoting the professional development of collections managers and to work with them in the management of collections.

We consider collections and databases as two different sources of information about the fossil record, each with an important role in museum activities. Electronic communication facilitates the transfer of collection information to users who would otherwise have no opportunity to visit collections. It is difficult to project how the database area will develop (which is covered in Topic S), but several trends seem clear. The development of computerized transactions databases will facilitate loan requests, and requires a minimum level of data collection, including taxon name, locality, and stratigraphic information. The collection of additional information potentially produces a far more useful database, but clear consideration must be given to the purpose of such a database. There are those who advocate the unconsidered accumulation of information on all museum specimens. Yet any museum professional is well aware that locality information may be suspect, taxonomic identifications are often incomplete or flawed, and stratigraphic correlations change over time, among other difficulties. Databases can serve an important role both in collection management and as a research tool, but if they are poorly designed or contain erroneous information, the resulting product may require the investment of an enormous amount of time for little purpose. Thus we urge developers to consider carefully the purpose of the database, the minimum level of acceptable information, and the critical issue of information accuracy.


The paleontological units of many museums have branched into a variety of other activities, several of them explicitly commercial. These include the provision of biostratigraphic consulting services and other activities for industry as well as the long-standing production of fossil casts for both research and sale to the public. We had too little information on these activities to provide any indication of their development over the coming decades.

Museums provide a variety of benefits to society, although these are often not explicitly recognized. Museums provide an excellent opportunity to insert the history of life into general culture, so that a knowledge of the splendor of the history of life is as much of culture as art, music, and history.

Delegates: Museums and Institutes

  • Douglas H. Erwin, Topic Coordinator
  • Prof. Willi Ziegler, Topic Coordinator
  • Dr. Giovanni Pinna
  • Dr. Sun Weiguo

    Other discussants:
  • Dr. Tatsuo Oji
  • Dr. Michael J. Benton
  • Dr. Norbert Schimdt-Kittler
  • Dr. Dolf Seilacher
  • Dr. Tamara Nemirovska
  • Dr. Norman MacLeod
  • Prof. Yanan Shen

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