LACM trades in their wasps to become a SuperFly collection

This is an inventive and, I think, necessary strategy for natural history collections as they lay off curators and cut back on research:

We are doing something a little daring, but certainly exciting here at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. We have decided to specialize on flies.

…we found a first partner in the Utah State University, especially with Dr. James Pitts. There, Dr. Wilford Hansen has built an excellent collection of mostly Neotropical Diptera. The current staff of their entomology department, however, is more interested in Hymenoptera, and this spring we are doing a large-scale exchange of USU Diptera for LACM Hymenoptera (exclusive of ants and bees).

This exchange includes about 600 drawers of material on each side. It more than doubles our holdings of general Diptera, not including our already major collections of Phoridae, Blephariceridae, and Neotropical Psychodidae. It also makes USU a major Hymenoptera collection, a truly win-win arrangement.

Ideally, our society would recognize basic biological knowledge to be important enough to fully fund natural history collections. Failing such a commitment, though, museums must take steps to protect their irreplaceable specimens as resources dry up. One way is to increase specialization, moving collections around so that each museum only holds specimens of active interest to whatever remains of their vestigial research staff.

The Los Angeles museum holds one of the world’s largest and most important collections of ants, thanks to Roy Snelling’s work in Central America and western North America. For the time being it seems the ants will remain on site.

8 thoughts on “LACM trades in their wasps to become a SuperFly collection”

  1. I fear for the ant collections at Harvard and LACM among others. I’ve had this fear since the generation of Wilson, Snelling, et al. started to retire or pass. I feel a profound sadness when it is made obvious that, for many, these collections are but a budgetary item.

    1. This actually seems to me to be a primary issue with taxon-specific museums – what happens if no researcher is available to replace them? Rather than only a small portion of the collection becoming “irrelevant” to a budget committee and therefore at risk of being nixed, the entire collection becomes so.

      Also, it seems that a proliferation of such museums would strongly discourage collaborative work in the same way that only having specialized departments (e.g. Department of Myrmecology) would.

  2. Except those museums are not taxon specific. They are especially strong in some areas but their general collections are pretty good, too. This is often the case for natural history collections – they have a lot of stuff but are usually strong in some areas. I singled those out because I’m an ant nerd. Everything else I said still applies, though. Also, what if the collection is, say, one of the two or three best in the world for a specific taxon? To me it is more about how we generally view natural history collections, not necessarily what specifically is in them.

  3. Hey guys, thanks for your interest! Especially, I thank Alex for covering this issue.

    I want to emphasize that we are not doing this because something is “wrong” in L.A. Rather, things are going really well there, both for me and our institution. We are doing it because it is a fun, exciting way to make our collections excel – both LACM and USU.

    Great blog site Alex.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Brian. I actually had the Field in the back of my mind when writing this, as they are now facing a similar ax to the one that hit LACM about 10 years ago. But the strategy of specialization is laudable. Perhaps we are on track to basically have one diversified national collection (Smithsonian), and a series of regional taxon-centered centered ones.

  4. I’m curious what factors drive collections in the first place? Is it better to collect one small group, but to collect it in depth, or to have the collection that spans the greatest diversity?

    I ask because it seems this news above is a sign of something bad (i.e. forcing museums to specialize instead of diversify), but why is this bad?

  5. What worries me about this is, notwithstanding that no position are lost in this particular deal, in general it still seems like we end up with fewer employed taxonomists. Correct me if I’m missing something.

  6. A little late to the party, but I think concerns about this driving further cuts in funding for taxonomists are exaggerated – the cuts are happening anyway.

    On the upside, specialization can be a great thing for a museum, as it can result not only in a concommitant specialization of visiting scientists, but an increase in their visits as well. Private collections are almost always specialized and in many cases become among the best in the world for a very specific taxon. If I know a certain museum has specialized in my taxon of interest, I am much more likely to channel my visitation efforts there then spread them out across a larger number of museums, each not completely sateisfying my needs.

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