Fossils Belong to Everyone

Hey there every peoples!

I seem to have gotten into hot water with certain folks (they’ll probably call this post stupid as well). But I’ll deal with them later. Before i did i really wanted to talk about something that i have wanted to for a long time. It is about a problem that is quite pervasive in museums and one that needs to be rectified. Because it has repercussions for us all.

To help you understand the problem, i’m going to tell you a little story. After being stabbed in the back by a lazy, ignorant commercialist the Grand Vision took a serious hit. After a while I thought i had a solution. Since i can’t collect fossils, most Central Coast specimens are locked away in distant museums, and no funding, I came up with a different way to share my vision for paleontology: a virtual museum. If i can’t create a physical museum (at least for now), then I could create a museum in cyberspace. I could still bring Central Coast specimens to light without them actually leaving the museum they were housed in. And this would help raise awareness to not just the general public but to scientists as well about specimens they most likely never knew existed. I thought it was a great idea. I started working on it right away. I even presented a poster about it at the annual meeting of the Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontology. But my solution to the Grand Vision problem was shot down by the end of the conference.

The majority of Central Coast specimens are housed in two places: The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the California Museum of Paleontology at UC Berkeley. To build the “virtual collections”, i needed to get into their collections to photograph specimens. So i approached people from both institutions about my project. And what was i told? “We can’t let you do that because of copyright issues”. “You can use a few images, but for the scale you’re talking about we would rather have it on our site”. Before the conference, i even contacted the collections manager at the L.A. Museum so i could have more Central Coast specimens at the conference. He brushed me off (he “wished me luck” with the project, instead of doing something that would actually help it). He said i could use what is on display. That is hardly representative of the fossil wealth of the Central Coast. And wanting to keep it in house? How is that better? Their online database is garbage. Museums always complain that they can only display a tiny fraction of their collections. Online databases (like my museum) can help with that. But you won’t let anyone else do it why? Here is someone willing to do the same for free but you turn them down because if you can’t do it then no one can! Why does it matter if it is on your site or mine? Either way the information is being made accessible to all!

But the other reason is much more egregious. Are you actually telling me that specimens are actually copyrighted? WHY? How can you even do that? In case you can’t tell the implication is here, let me spell it out for you. By copyrighting specimens, the museum is basically announcing that it is their private property. Museums always describe specimens as “our heritage”, that it is being held in the “public trust”. Those words lose their luster when you find out that the specimens are copyrighted, turning everyone’s heritage into their property. It ceases to belong to the people. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim that it is “our heritage” and that it is “in the public trust” if you just hoard it and shut out the very people it is supposed to belong to. Obviously you can’t just let everyone into the collections. But by copyrighting specimens (i have heard this even being done against scientists), you are not only marking them as YOURS, but you are also preventing others from sharing them with everyone else. So just how does this ownership thing work? Specimens found on public lands are said to belong to the nation. But if the fossils are owned are owned in the sense that the are the property of someone, then i guess this:


Needs to be renamed “the government’s T. rex”. I doubt that would go over well.

That actually brings up an interesting question. Fossils found on government lands (BLM, Forest Service, National Parks, etc) are legally the property of the government, with the museums holding the specimens in trust. I wonder what the government agencies would think about museums copyrighting their specimens? Is it right (legally, morally) to copyright specimens that don’t technically belong to you?

And it doesn’t help your case when you deny people with actual scientific reasons to visit the collections. I have tried repeatedly to get into Berkeley because i have wanted to investigate a specimen of theirs. According to their online database (while there is a lot of room for improvement, it is still one of the best online databases of any museum), they have a vertebra of Megatherium from Santa Barbara county. This is a very interesting and potentially important specimen. So I wanted to look it over and find out if it really did belong to Megatherium. I figured this could also be my first publication (I figured it best to start small, doing specimen reports and the like). Except i never heard back from the collection manager. No matter how many times i emailed her, all i got was crickets. I may not have the fancy piece of paper, but i am trying to do legitimate research here. The specimen is from the Central Coast, meaning it is part of my heritage. Apparently I’m not allowed to explore my heritage, be it just photographing specimens for my virtual museum or trying to further science by shining light on an unknown specimen. And you call yourself a museum?

L.A. is no better. First, a little background. I have been in several collections, but by far the best has been the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology. The curator, Andy Farke, allows me to go through the collections on my own. He even lets me photograph specimens and put them up on my virtual museum. Probably because he is one of the only people who understands the value of open access (including the potential to garner interest in your institution). The last time i was there i came across a small collection of fossils from Red Rock Canyon. Mostly fragments, but identifiable fragments, including a nice jaw from a fox-sized dog. So I mentioned this stuff to Andy, proposing that I take them over to the L.A. Museum to try and identify them. Why L.A.? They have the largest and most comprehensive collection from Red Rock Canyon. Andy said it wasn’t very high on their list of priorities so i was free to do so. So i contacted the collections manager, telling his i wanted to use the Red Rock Canyon collection to identify specimens from the Alf Museum. Never heard back. Again, I have a real reason to visit the collections, on behalf of another museum no less. Apparently that is not even worth a response. Again we have to ask the question: how can this be billed as “everyone’s heritage” if their exposure is so heavily restricted?

So what are we supposed to do? Well some might think selling fossils or opening up public lands are good alternatives. Except they aren’t. They are actually atrocious ideas. For starters, neither commercialists nor private collectors keep field notes, so even if any of those specimens were to find their way to a museum, they would have been robbed of much of their scientific value. Also they don’t have proper curation facilities. The fossils could detieriorate or even get destroyed in their possession. Not having a curation facility also means those specimen’s fates are uncertain, potentially getting sold or traded off; or getting inherited by a relative who either keeps it, sells it, or just throws it away. And those solutions don’t bring specimens to the public. They bring them to the homes of whoever can afford them or found them first. Those specimens will only be seen by them and their house guests. Even if they allow scientists to see it, it is still in private hands. Not too long ago, at a get-together hosted by my old geology teacher, one of the former students (and classmate) showed us a fossil owned by some guy. It is a partially preserved shark skeleton from Santa Barbara county (Refugio Beach, i think). Such a rare and valuable specimen should be in a museum so it could be studied by scientists and enjoyed by the public. But it can’t because some guy decided he needed it more. The person showing the picture said the guy let the L.A. Museum scan it; “so they at least have something”. That is hardly something. A cast can’t be x-rayed/CT scanned. You can’t do any kind of chemical analysis on a cast. You can’t use the matrix on a cast to try and figure out where is came from. Why does he need the original? It should be the other way around. The collector gets the cast and the museum gets the original. If the purpose is for it to sit around your living room so you can show it off to your buddies… a cast does that job equally well. Commercialists and private collectors only care about themselves and god knows how many specimens have been lost because of them.

Although that greed could explain why specimens are copyrighted. They are obviously afraid that if you post photos of their specimens freely, someone might use them to make money! We want that money! Well then who ever posted the photos needs to point out that if any for-profit use needs to be authorized by the museum housing the specimen. And while the most photogenic specimens would likely be targeted for commercial use, i doubt the same could be said for all the tooth and bone fragments that make up the majority of museum collections. I mean are you seriously telling me you are blocking open access because you think this will happen:

fossil fragment quarterly

The new hit magazine?

And get ready to hear the Anza Borrego story again. At 2013 SVP, i had heard that the new fossil repository at Anza Borrego Desert State Park wanted all specimens returned to them. The L.A. Museum had a large collection, which i heard they fought tooth and nail to keep. But apparently Anza Borrego won out. And then guess what? That following spring the L.A. Museum was doing a field trip to Anza Borrego. Granted I don’t have the full story, but that sounds like a jaded institution bitterly trying to replace what it has lost. I mean yes you lost some of your collection, but shouldn’t you at least be glad they are going to a good home? If these fossils are truly “our heritage”, then them moving shouldn’t be such a big deal. Especially since they are going to another well maintained curation facility. This, if true, sounds like a case of someone made because they lost something belonging to THEM. Those were THEIR fossils! Again, just stuff i heard from others. But if true, it is just another sad case of a museum viewing specimens as property instead of a shared heritage.

I still feel like the best place for fossils is in a museum. But if they are truly the heritage of everyone, then it seems there are practices and attitudes that just need to die. Online databases can help fossils to become accessible to all. Only then can people finally enjoy their heritage. But that won’t happen if museums shoot down any attempt to do so because they think the specimens are their private property (as indicated by copyrighting specimens) or because they want to keep it in house. Furthermore, you are failing as a library of nature if you don’t allow people to use them for research and other legitimate activities. You can keep doing that if you want, but then you can no longer claim that the specimens are “our shared heritage” or that they are held in the “public trust”. Because if it only belongs to you, then it doesn’t belong to every one. If you truly believe fossils belong to everyone, then prove it. Quit copyrighting specimens. Quit denying access to people trying to do actual science just because you don’t think they are good enough. There are people out there who can and want to help people get in tough with their heritage. But they never will if you cling to this faulty notion that the specimens belong to you and only you. If we are in this together (as implied by “our heritage”), then we need to actually start working together. We can all benefit. But no one does when you only want to benefit yourself.

Till next time!

1 thought on “Fossils Belong to Everyone

  1. Years ago I came across a very large (maybe 5′ x 20′) chunk of rock chock full of fossil Dendraster on a road that went to Vandenberg AFB. Soon after that the road was closed to the public so I don’t know what happened to this find, but it would have made a great museum piece.

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