The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest by Jack Nisbet

I am fascinated by natural history collections, so the title of this book caught my eye.  I never would have believed that the story of the namesake of the Douglas fir could be so interesting!  David Douglas was much more than a botanist and his adventures made me long for a time when the country was open for exploration.  Douglas was described as a man of “great activity, undaunted courage, singular abstemiousness and energetic zeal” (Nisbet, 2009) and he definitely lives up to that description in this biography.  He visited the Galapagos a decade before Darwin, explored the Pacific Northwest, and investigated the volcanoes of Hawaii.

Douglas’ story is compelling and the practices of a collector at the time are interesting.  Douglas was usually welcomed and assisted by those he came in contact with, but even in the 1820’s some New York residents were angered at his collecting and accused him of removing the only populations of some rare plants.  One of Douglas’ objectives as he collected was to find new ornamental plants for the gardens of Europe.  This book would be a great place to begin a discussion about the ethics of collecting and how people facilitate the movement of species.

The world of plants is very diverse.  I had to look up some botanical and scientific terms, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they easily could have been defined in the text.  I was also disappointed in the lack of maps showing Douglas’ travels.  Anyone who has traveled in the area can probably picture the places described and imagine the distances, but my experiences in the Pacific Northwest are limited and I wanted to know where Douglas was on a map as his travels progressed.  Drawings of specimens would also enhance the text of this book.

Anyone with an interest in botany, the Pacific Northwest or exploration will find The Collector worthwhile.  Take the time as you read to look up unfamiliar terms and photos of the plants and animals described in the text.  Make the book an adventure. Travel in the footsteps of an explorer in an unsettled country where anything is possible and discovery happens every day.

Further exploration of David Douglas’ life:

The David Douglas Society

Finding David Douglas

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Adapting Learning From Objects: A Teacher’s Guide to natural history specimens

Learning From Objects: A Teacher’s Guide by Gail Durbin, Susan Morris, and Sue Wilkinson (1996) is a slim volume focused on teaching with man-made objects, but the concepts could be applied to natural history specimens.  The authors assert that objects provide creative and emotional stimulus and aid the memory because physical sensations, experiences, and emotions may be more permanent than facts or ideas learned orally or visually.  Visitors to natural history museums come to see the specimens.  Allowing visitors more opportunities to interact with the specimens should lead to more learning and better retention.

The authors offer a formula for investigating objects that includes questions related to physical features, construction, function, design, and value.  Other than physical features (What does it look and feel like?), the remaining categories might not seem to translate well to natural history specimens, but a little creative thinking is all that is necessary.

Construction – Although biological and geological specimens are not constructed by people, they are constructed nonetheless.  Questions about construction (How was it made?) can lead visitors to look more closely at specimens to see beyond the obvious.  Was the specimen constructed by geological or biological methods?  Is it stable in room-temperature conditions without special treatment?  What stage of development does it represent?  What limbs and sense organs, if any, does it possess?

Function – A specimen may not have a function (What was it made for?) in the way a manufactured object does, but it was once part of a system in which it performed a function.  Was the specimen predator, prey, or both?  Did the specimen play a part in the building or destruction of a landmass?  Did the specimen provide a service to other members of its environment or did it require the services of others?

Design – Design of natural objects may not be intentional, but evolution or physical and chemical processes contribute to their design.  Questions of design (Is it well designed?) in nature might trend toward survivability.  Does the specimen’s design suit its environment and lifestyle?  Do its colors assist it in hiding or attracting food or mates?  Design may also reflect chemical or physical properties.  What is the specimen composed of?  Is it colorful?  Is the design pleasing to you?  Is it pleasing to others?

Value – People tend to associate man-made objects with a monetary value.  However, value (What is it worth?) can also be expressed in sentiment or degree of contribution to a society.  The value of natural history specimens can sometimes be estimated or even precisely determined in monetary terms.  But often the value of these specimens lies in their research potential or their ability to transmit ideas.  What is a specimen worth to a scientist, a student, or the person who discovered it?  Think about the value of the group the specimen represents.   What contributions do the animals represented by this specimen make that benefit the planet or people?  Why are the animals or minerals represented by this specimen important to you?

Incorporating questions such as these in exhibits and programs will enhance the learning from natural history specimens.  However, eliciting such questions from visitors requires even more thought.  Durbin et. al. offer advice on developing skills that are necessary when working with objects.  The skills described include looking, describing, recording, questioning, classifying, relating form to function, formulating and testing hypotheses, and constructing knowledge from fragments of a specimen.  The lesson ideas given in the text for developing these skills can be directly translated to natural history specimens and could become a part of a museum exhibit or program.  Not only do these activities provide impetus for visitors to look more closely at objects, they develop observation, deduction, language, and recording skills in the participants.

The final section of Learning From Objects offers instruction on the selection of objects that might be best for teaching and issues related to their use.  Neither rarity nor perfection is necessary to elicit questions.  Original specimens are preferred, but in the case of fragile, perishable, dangerous, or rare specimens, the use of replicas is appropriate.  Conservation of specimens should be a part of the lesson and visitors might be asked to consider why a given specimen is worth conserving even if the cost of conservation is relatively high.  Discussion of conservation methods and costs are encouraged.  Specimens from a variety of disciplines can help visitors understand what they mean to themselves and others.  One visitor’s fear of snakes could be assuaged by another’s appreciation of them.   Selecting a series of specimens to demonstrate a chronology can develop sorting and classification skills and demonstrate continuity, change, and progress.  These topics can be directly related to taxonomy, evolution, ontogeny, and plate tectonics among other natural history themes.

Learning From Objects: A Teacher’s Guide can be adapted to benefit natural history museum exhibits and programs.  I advise anyone who is creating a specimen-centered program or exhibit to read it and make use of the ideas it incorporates.

Works Cited

Durbin, G., Morris, S., & Wilkinson, S. (1996). Learning From Objects: A Teacher’s Guide. (M. Corbishley, Ed.) English Heritage.

Book Review: Fragments of the World: Uses of Museum Collections by Suzanne Keene

$46.95 on Amazon ($35.21 for Kindle edition)

This book came to me at just the right time.  The need to address the cost of maintaining a collection against its usefulness to the institution and society in general has been much in my thoughts and this book helped me to see that I am not the only one thinking about it.  Ms. Keene covers all of the bases: What good is this stuff?  Who does it belong to?  How well should it be cared for?  Who cares about it and why?  Who should pay for its care?  Who gets to use it?  Should we add to it, keep it in stasis, or dispose of it?

Backed by real-world examples from collections in multiple disciplines and locations, Ms. Keene attempts to defend the need for collections as providing cultural keys and mirrors.  She reflects upon the usefulness of objects in education and research, but more than that the ways in which objects can provide a creative spark, something I would like to see more museums advertise and own.  She also touches upon the responsibility of institutions to care for their collections as well as to make them accessible and relevant in order that others will see them as important and worth funding.  She takes a viewpoint that might be seen as heretical by museums when she separates collections from their institutions in asserting that “collections are all too easily confused with museums, but they are far more durable and valuable than the museum that happens to house them, perhaps temporarily”.  But it wouldn’t be a good read if there wasn’t a bit of controversy!

I recommend this book to anyone who manages or curates a collection, but even more to anyone who exhibits, educates or administers a museum either as staff or trustee.  Those who work with the collection are usually already aware of its value and usefulness, but those who manage the institution may be far removed from the potential it holds and this book might inspire them to visit the shelves and cabinets that hold the treasures of their institution and lead them to seek ways to bring it safely into the light.