Never, ever remove labels from a museum specimen. This is a universal rule for collection managers and curators. Labels tell us much more than what it is actually written on them; they are testimonies of the history of the specimen. But what about the labels pinned in the bottom of entomological drawers? These we replace with modern, printed labels, because species names change and because we merge collections. But the thing is, these labels also tell stories. Look closely at this drawer.
There are several labels for every row of specimens. Two for genus names, two or three for species names, written by – as far as I can see- four different hands. From this I know that four collections were combined and the person who did it decided to keep all the original labels. Well done! Because of the type of drawer and the handwrittings, I believe this part of the collection has remained untouched sinds the 1940s.
Now, what if I want to recurate this drawer and integrate the RMNH specimens with those from other collections? I can’t possibly have a row of 10 or 15 labels for the species name. On the other hand, by de-constructing the drawer I loose information. One way we solve this problem is by giving each specimen a label reading “ex coll. RMNH” [= from collection RMNH]. But still, I loose information: the paper, the lines around it, the handwriting, the pins and the order of the labels tell me about the period when the collection was put together.
In order to document the history of the collection, I need to record the drawers before recurating them, making a “virtual” collection. Whole-drawer imaging can be easily done by photographing it. At Naturalis we also have the possibility of making very high-resolution images using the SatScan© by SmartDrive. Because my aim is to keep historical information, I only need to photograph a few drawers. Besides the order and shape of the labels, I also want to document who wrote them and who owned these collections, linking the labels to biographical notes.
Only a tiny portion of this information from old labels is recorded in our museum databases, mostly with the photographs. If we want to make this information accessible, we also need to disclose it. That is, it needs to be published in some way. Type catalogues and articles in specialized journals are a good way to go. So are museum websites and curator’s blogs. See, for example, the sites of the Natural History Museum and Naturalis Biodiversity Center, or the posts 19th century natural history in Collect & Connect.
While this makes a lot of sense to me, it is not standard museum practice. Natural history museums are scientific institutions. Logically, their focus lays on biological and geological sciences. Every curator and museum manager has some – or a lot of- unique knowledge about the history of the collection under his or her care, but not all of us has the time or the tools to register and publish this information. As museum staff shrinks and work accumulates, documenting history ranks near the bottom of our priorities… and yet, such loss of knowledge is a monumental shame. It is, after all, our cultural heritage.