“Smart Collecting”: A New Collecting Culture
Guest post by Adele Crane
During the 1993 outbreak of a novel hantavirus in the Four Corners region of the United States, an effort to locate the origin of the virus included investigating both human and animal samples in medical and natural history collections. A 1978 frozen tissue sample linked the outbreak pathogen to its natural reservoir in the deer mouse. Although it seems redundant to extoll the widespread applications of scientific collections in this forum, this example brings up several very important points. The 1978 sample was never collected to provide the missing link between species, nor was it meant to be the basis for predicting an outbreak. However, this does show that without holistic and thorough sampling, collections cannot be used to their fullest potential.
This past October, some of the world’s experts on emerging infectious diseases met at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to discuss scientific collections’ role in disease research and response. Among conversations on how to apply collections in novel ways and streamline disease response – including a presentation of the Four Corners hantavirus – several attendees called for a new collecting culture. Although those assembled were not limited to natural history institutions, we developed the ideas for how to “collect smart” for wider-reaching, sustainable, and well-rounded collections.
Smart collecting techniques are a part of this new collecting culture that intends to maximize the value and use of collections. How can we be smart and frugal about sampling and maintenance? Additionally, how can we expand our collections with consideration for future use? We need ingenuity to connect different types of collections to answer challenging questions. Due to limited resources (funding, personnel, interest, etc.), a new culture of collecting works to maximize the use and value of collections.
Workshop participants agreed that the following concepts would increase this utility effectively:
- Holistic sampling, including keeping specimens for a geographically and temporally broad range and preserving component parts associated with the specimen (e.g., hosts, parasites, DNA, reservoirs);
- Connecting through databases and online systems; and
- Sustaining through collaboration between collections and institutions.
Holistic sampling is already a goal, if not a rule, in natural history museums. Smart curatorial practices, however, will help maintain proper sampling techniques. First, collections need to stretch across time and space, as well as have emphases on particular sites. Secondly, associated samples, such as a parasite and its host, need to remain connected. Simply put, samples are far more powerful tools to answer new questions when they are part of an interconnected scientific resource that can trace a specimen from its original collection to its derived data. While acquiring the interest and funding to maintain or expand a collection is no easy task, holistic sampling creates collections that can accommodate our future needs, from conservation efforts to predicting the next outbreak.
Connecting Across Collections
A critical aspect of a modern sustainable collecting culture is maintaining the connections between samples, data, and research. First, access to an online database immediately increases the reach of the institution and expands the capacity to connect various disciplines in research. One good example is ARCTOS, a collection management system that integrates specimens and information on collection location and time, publications, storage, and other metadata. ARCTOS can accommodate information collected during holistic sampling and acts as an open portal to museums’ specimens.
Second, broader systems are needed to connect researchers and curators to each other. Databases – such as GRBio, the Global Registry of Biodiversity Repositories, and GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility – operate on a global level. These online systems manage information from thousands of institutions and collections, raising awareness and accessibility of collections and specimens. Such databases extend the reach of collections beyond disciplinary and institutional boundaries.
Communication and Collaboration
The final recommendation made in October was the call for more collaboration, an invitation to start and continue the discussion of collecting. Connecting to other collections or museums would ease the resource strain of creating and preserving a well-rounded collection. Students and researchers alike should be drawn into collections science, across disciplines, and between institutions. Crossing these boundaries allows for surprising use of specimens. One such example is in quantifying heavy metals in the environment. These researchers traced the increase of mercury contamination since preindustrial times by studying seabird collections from natural history museums. Another example is when scientists tracked human migration patterns through changes in the herpesvirus genome. SPNHC and Scientific Collections International are in the perfect place to promote discussions on interdisciplinary uses of collections. Workshops and meetings allow for the spread of new ideas and the formation of new relationships.
A New Collecting Culture
This interpretation of “collecting smart” does not just mean pressing more plants or filling more jars with ethanol. The culture of collecting needs to be one of sustainability and maximization. That is, unfortunately, easier said than done, particularly in a world that has huge costs associated with collecting, and even prestigious institutions are on shaky grounds. Scientific collections are an investment for the future, and we can maintain viable and sustainable collections that will adapt to future needs. Holistic sampling, an online network of samples, collections and resources, and collaboration among colleagues, both new and established, all lead toward a new collecting culture. We house amazing research and education opportunities and, hopefully, a smarter way to collect will maintain that tradition.
Adele Crane is the Program Assistant for Scientific Collections International (SciColl) which is housed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. She manages the SciColl blog and other day-to-day program operations.
Next time on Cracking the Collections:
February 10 – Taormina Lepore presents a Natural History Notes post on collections in research, education, and outreach.
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