Here We Go Again…

Hey there every peoples!

You know, I keep getting followers. Once in a while I get a message saying that someone is now following my little blog here. And I don’t get why. My posts are sporadic and often overlong. And lately they have consisted of little more than whiney screeds. No wonder I hardly get any comments. But what can I do? I am what I am. And what I am is an aspiring fossil hunter with depression.

It is very difficult to handle. And little things can set it off, often in a domino pattern. It can be especially bad when it concerns the one thing that I am deeply passionate about and want to pursue for the rest of my life. My whole life has been in anticipation of finally going out into the field. But a couple snags and the system I never can. This crap has manifested itself in the continuing debate between academics and commercial collectors and my pathetic attempts to engage in said debate.

The first was on Brian Switek’s Laelaps. He was discussing a new documentary called “Dinosaur 13”. He film details the Sue fiasco and the effect it had on the commercial aspect of fossils. I decided to voice my opinion on a couple of lines that he wrote:

I’ve ranted about this topic plenty over on my blog so I’ll just stick to a couple points.

“– from depleting entire sites to valuable specimens going off to private collections where no one can see them.”- Simple fact of the matter is, the vast majority of fossils, from unseemly fragments to whole skeletons, are never seen by anyone save for the occasional scientist. The only time people may see them is when they are in the viewable preparation lab (and not all museums have those). We are constantly reminded that what we see on display is only a fraction of the collection, and then are left completely in the dark about what the collection could possibly consist of. The tired excuse is “museums don’t have space to display everything”. Yes that is true, but there are ways around this. Rotate specimens out, have open houses, and publish in open access. Best of all, you can have an online database! Some museums have those, but even the best leave much to be desired (namely, few to no pictures of the actual specimens!). Museums say fossils represent our heritage. But most people don’t know the true extent of their heritage because most is locked away, unseen, in some warehouse. That needs to change.

“And that’s not to mention that these dinosaurs sometimes go to collections or institutions far from home, such as a Diplodocus from Wyoming recently sold to an unfinished museum in Denmark…”- Just how far is “far from home”? Do you mean land of origin or just the country? Pretty much all my region’s fossils are, in fact, outside the region! And guess what: very very few of them are display. The rest are hidden away in the collections. Our own museums have so many dinosaur fossils as it is. So what’s wrong with some going to museums outside the country, to nations who don’t have the rich fossil deposits we do? As long as there is good local representation (unlike my home region), then maybe it’s not so bad when we occasionally let a fossil leave.

Not the best argument, but good enough right? I was swiftly reminded why I don’t engage in debate of any kind when this guy decided to chime in:

You’d not guess from Doug’s comment that that one of the functions of a proper natural history museum’s collecting items is to have them conserved and studied and not just displaying them to the public. The main problem scientists have with important specimens going into private collections is not that the number of people who are not studying them but get to see them is so much smaller than if they are on display in a museum but is that there is no reasonable guarantee of access for scientists to the specimen when it is in a private collection.

I’m particularly amused by the ‘something must be done’ about museums not displaying more of their specimens, which is not going to happen if museums are paying big bucks to fossil dealers for specimens.

It would be nice if museums could display more of their specimens (and if the public had an interest beyond that in the more charismatic ones), but it would be even nicer if they had the funds to ensure proper conservation and study of their specimens. Having to compete with fossil dealers is not going to help them do it.

He’s probably right. I say that not because I agree with him, but because I’m never right about anything. However, I feel compelled to take it apart:

You’d not guess from Doug’s comment that that one of the functions of a proper natural history museum’s collecting items is to have them conserved and studied and not just displaying them to the public.

Personally, I think you can’t have one without the other. If you have a lot of public displays but no collections and research then you’re just a common visitor center. But if you have research and collections with no public displays or programs, then you’re some stuffy institute hoarding the treasures of the natural world. Luckily most do have both, but I feel the public exposure could be improved. (And he seemed to conveniently ignore my suggestions for remedying the situation)

But if the public aspect is never given any real thought, why bother with public displays and programs at all? Museums are always using language like “public trust”, “our heritage”, and the like. I have long bought into and supported the public trust argument, but it has been wearing thin as of late. Just what does “holding it in the public trust” mean? I seriously don’t think I’ve ever found a straight answer. But the problem, as I see it, is that entire chapters of fossil history go unnoticed because museums don’t have the space to display them and access to the collections is strictly limited. And I’m not just talking the scraps and fragments that make up a solid portion of most museum’s collections; I mean there are complete, beautifully preserved specimens representing lesser known species and regions, but the public has no idea they exist because museums choose to only display a few prime pieces. Which leads us to:

(and if the public had an interest beyond that in the more charismatic ones)

And whose fault is that? Surely the public bears some responsibility for being so fickle, but I think the other side of the problem is the museums themselves. So many of them (especially the major ones) always display complete, pristine skeletons from the same places (Eocene Wyoming, Oligocene South Dakota, Miocene Nebraska). You know, a quote from Nostalgia Critic describes the situation perfectly:

Have you ever considered the possibility that maybe people don’t know what’s best for them? And that by continually giving them the same crap they’ll never know what’s different, so they’ll just keep asking for the same crap?

The public may be obsessed with big and flashy, but museums are not helping the problem by only displaying whole skeletons of the most marketable species. Doing so not only severely limits what you can display, but it also presents a bad image. People imagine paleontology has going out and always finding a complete skeleton. Hell, complete skeletons fetch the highest prices on the commercial market because people seem to think they are only things worth finding. What is more, by only displaying big charismatic stuff you leave out significant chunks of the earth’s past. You are failing to tell the story of life big time by only focusing on the big, complete stuff. And as I pointed out above there is loads of complete and charismatic specimens that remain locked away and out of sight. For example:

Smilodon fatalis skull discovered in Bee County, Texas. From the Smithsonian’s online collections database

This is the skull of Smilodon from the collections of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. It comes from Texas. Skulls this whole and pristine are extremely rare and valuable. And what does the museum have on display? A cast of a skeleton from Rancho La Brea. Like every other museum. I talked in my Carpenteria Tar Pits post about how we shouldn’t focus so much on one site or area because it is regional and thus doesn’t speak for places elsewhere. Having that Texas skull on display would be unique; no one else can display it. And I’m sure Texans would get a swell of pride seeing a piece of their state’s heritage displayed in one of the greatest museums in the world. But why be different when same sells?

Having to compete with fossil dealers is not going to help them do it.

You’re the one saying you have to compete. I have already talked about potential middle ground in previous posts. So have others, who are probably much better than I am at explaining it.

I understand the need for fossils to be conserved. It is what I hope to do with the Grand Vision. But museums need to do more to make fossils public if the “public trust” approach is to ever have any real merit. I’m sure he’s right, since I’m never right about anything. It’s what I get for opening my big mouth.

However, that guy’s comment is the lesser prod of my mental anguish. The other came when I tried to voice my opinion in a debate way above my pay grade. It was in the comments section of a video debate about the fossil trade. I was greeted with this:

The laws ban non-permit-holders from collecting on public lands. Any land that is open for citizens to walk over, and enjoy for other purposes, is still open for visual prospecting. You are welcome to look for fossils, you just cannot collect them. If you do discover something important, you can take photos and email them to someone who does have a permit. Museums would much rather see photos of a potential specimen than have someone bring in fragments, which removes them from their taphonomic context in the original locality. Also, if you develop a good relationship with a museum, then sometimes the museum can add you to their permit as an approved research associate, even without a “fancy degree”.

“Fancy degrees” are a way of demonstrating that a person has devoted significant study to a field. Just as people want to go to a doctor that has earned an MD, and people want their engineers and mechanics to be certified, the government requires that someone collecting on government land must have certification in the form of an advanced degree or a job at an accredited museum, and that the fossils collected must end up in an accredited repository so that they will always be available for scientific research, and, for the large interesting specimens, public display and enjoyment.

Once again there is really no point in following up because let’s face it, this is me we’re talking about. But that won’t stop me from trying.

You are welcome to look for fossils, you just cannot collect them.

Look, I’m trying to start a museum. How am I supposed to accomplish that if I can never collect anything? Too many of my homeland’s fossils have already been taken away. Repatriation of said fossils is a fevered delusion only a simpleton like me could ever think was even remotely possible. If I’m to ever have any chance of a Central Coast museum, I need to start finding my own material.

If you do discover something important, you can take photos and email them to someone who does have a permit. Museums would much rather see photos of a potential specimen than have someone bring in fragments, which removes them from their taphonomic context in the original locality.

You really think that will work? I have thought of that as a possible solution to this whole mess, but just how feasible is it? A museum’s curators have duties that extend beyond just collecting stuff. If I’m constantly emailing them about stuff I find, then they won’t have time to collect them all in between their other duties. And considering the remoteness of most fossil localities, it would take them awhile to get out there, and the specimen could very well be gone by then because I’m not even allowed to stabilize and jacket it (to ensure it would survive until they could get to it). There was a fossil here in SLO County that I tried to get several scientists interested in. No takers. So even if I did what you suggested, is there really any guarantee they would come to collect it?

And again, how will that help me in my efforts to start my own museum? Not only am I not collecting anything for my museum’s collection, but it would be leaving the region. That is wholly antithetical to what I’m trying to accomplish.

Also, if you develop a good relationship with a museum, then sometimes the museum can add you to their permit as an approved research associate, even without a “fancy degree”.

Tried that before. I have built good relationships with museums, but something tells me I couldn’t get on their permit because I lack the fancy degree. And don’t trot out the tired old “volunteer at a museum”. I have discussed plenty about why that isn’t really feasible for me at the moment (finances, having to relocate, and the fact that it’s not even a sure thing). I don’t have an easy opportunity to volunteer. I have tried desperately to offer my services to museums and their paleontologists, and it’s always brushed off and ignored. “Volunteer at a museum” has become a hollow, meaningless response meant to immediately dismiss the problem without any kind of thought. It’s basically a talking point more than anything.

I’m starting to get weary of academics and the like complaining about not having enough bodies in the field to find fossils. Dr. Dave Whistler once said we need to get more people into Cuyama Valley. Denver Fowler once said the purpose of their “Alamosaurus is one of the biggest dinosaurs known” paper was to try and get people interested in the Ojo Alamo formation. Well you know what? I am interested. I am willing to go out and look. And at my own expense even, since I’m not part of any outfit. Paleontologists are often complaining that more fossils are lost to erosion than what we can currently find because there isn’t enough man power. There would be if amateurs like me were allowed to prospect and collect. But if you would rather leave fossils out to rot because we don’t meet yours and the government’s extremely high standards, then you don’t get to complain.

“Fancy degrees” are a way of demonstrating that a person has devoted significant study to a field. Just as people want to go to a doctor that has earned an MD, and people want their engineers and mechanics to be certified, the government requires that someone collecting on government land must have certification in the form of an advanced degree or a job at an accredited museum, and that the fossils collected must end up in an accredited repository so that they will always be available for scientific research, and, for the large interesting specimens, public display and enjoyment.

And we’re back to this again. I fully understand the need for collateral data. I try to keep the best records I can when I collect. I understand the need for a repository. That doesn’t bother me. That’s something I could eventually work towards. But this insistence on the fancy degree… Apparently you can be a seasoned veteran of the field with years of experience and the tools and knowledge to follow the procedures of paleontology to the letter; but if you don’t have that fancy degree, than you’re shit out of luck.

Look, the fancy degree just isn’t an option for me. You any idea what I have to do before I can even transfer to a university? Biology, physics, chemistry, geometry, trigonometry, precalculus, and calculus. All just to transfer. Biology wouldn’t be so bad since I know a fare bit about it. But all the other stuff… My learning disability really gimps my math skills. And all those courses are extremely math heavy. I tried talking trigonometry. On average half my test would be blank when I turned it in. Math lab and other DSPS tools weren’t much help. Never mind just trying to learn how to do it. There were core concepts I was not grasping, because anything above algebra requires a kind of abstract thought that my learning disability does not permit. So I cannot pursue that fancy degree. And according to the world, that’s just tough shit. The requirement for proper curation is something I could eventually acquire. The rigid and callous insistence on the fancy degree kills everything I hope to achieve before I even had a chance to pursue it.

Folks, I honestly don’t know what to think anymore. For so long, I thought the academics were on the right side. I even sought to join in my own way, maybe even bring about some of the changes I have talked about over the years. But now, I don’t know. I find myself sympathizing with the commercial dealers not because I agree with their practices, but because I seem to be villanized as much as them. I thought my cause was just. I thought I could join in the honored crusade to protect, study, and share the mysteries and marvels of our ancient past. But I guess I was wrong. Without the fancy degree, I am a nobody. Because I didn’t go to the solemn halls of academia, I couldn’t possibly be a paleontologist. Because a fancy degree is the only way to be a paleontologist, I am but an irresponsible hack, a pathetic wannabe who cannot do any good because he isn’t part of the elite.

So what do I do? Do I just accept I’ll never be able to follow my dream of creating my own museum? Do I simply resign myself to wandering the badlands snapping shots of fossils only for others to scoop up and lock away? Do I continue to blindly follow the law even though it’s bullshit? Or do I throw caution to the wind and collect anyway, breaking the law and becoming (quite possibly even more of) an outcast? Do I continue to follow the scientists I respect and aspire to be like? Or do I throw myself in with the commercial folks who I have been lumped in with? Or do I just remove myself from the world all together? Press the cold steel and with one little jerk loose the crimson tide? Perhaps my disappearance would solve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction. One less whiny and deranged hack in the world mucking things up for the proper folk. Of course, that’s assuming the world would even notice I was gone. Not thoroughly convinced it would.

I just spent a great of time venting. All of it wrong headed for sure, because I never seem to understand anything to actually be able to form a respectable opinion. It usually just ends with me being in the wrong and often getting me in hot water with folks I care about. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do. Growing up I was constantly bombarded with “positive thinking”, saying you can do whatever you want if you work hard enough. Turns out that was a lie. No matter what you do, there will always be arbitrary and malevolent forces keeping you from going anywhere. My entire life has been in the pursuit of paleontology. The Grand Vision is what defines me. If I can’t follow that, if the world is so hell bent on taking that from me, then I have no idea where to go, what to do. But it certainly doesn’t sound like a world worth being a part of.

Till next time

2 thoughts on “Here We Go Again…

  1. Hi, I just found your blog tonight so I have only read a few entries so far… so bear that in mind when you read my half-baked comments.
    I have a small Civil War museum in Vermont. It’s not fancy, but there are some interesting objects, pictures, and lots information building context around that object. Almost every piece was researched by me. Some visitors spend hours in there.
    The number one question I am asked is, “Where did you get all this stuff?” The answer is, “One piece at a time.” Little of it was easy or quick, not on a tiny budget, with no history degree. But it all added up much quicker than I expected!
    So that is my advice to you –One piece at a time. Join all the Mineral clubs you can and learn all you can. Many clubs have collecting trips to otherwise closed locations. There are often some very knowledgeable people in these clubs. Find some sources for reputable dealers. They are out there. One piece at a time may be all you can do… but it does add up. What is your goal… to have the respect and admiration of people who are not now giving you the time of day? Or is it to create a museum? Then work on making a museum… one piece at a time.
    So take this advice as you like. At least it was free. And I sincerely wish you the best of luck!

  2. If you have read my previous post you know that I am emphatic about treating paleontology as a hobby not a career. The paleontology community is cannibalistic and opportunities few creating a malestrom of depression, anxiety, and in some extreme cases mental illness. Paleontology has made me and many others I went to school with very unhappy.

    With that being said, what would be the mission of your museum? Can you fulfill it using replicas for your displays? I hardily recommend them because they often look better than the real thing, can hold up to rough treatment better than the real thing (unless they are made of plaster), can be insured more easily than the real thing, and most importantly are more accessible than the real thing.

    If you have to have the real thing then start researching on what it is you want to collect. If you have a research paper in mind apply for a collection permit. If you get rejected, use geologic maps to pinpoint where the formations you are interested are and a property boundary base map to find land ownership. Property boundary basemaps are recorded at county level and can be obtained from the recorder’s, assessor’s or land surveyor’s offices. Start contacting land owners for permission to prospect their land, but get their permission in writing. One of the most important things I learned getting my degree is keep good records, write down everything you do or say in your field notebook, save your e-mails, and cover your ass.

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