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Tuatara: Volume 1, Issue 3, September 1948

Biology in New Zealand Museums

Biology in New Zealand Museums

Before launching into an account of the prospects offered in museums in this country for biologists it is necessary to explain the haphazard way in which our several large museums developed and the equally fortuitous way in which, until recently, they were staffed.

Of the four main institutions, Auckland was founded as a public museum by the local scientific body known as the Auckland Institute. For the first half century its Secretary and Curator was a botanist with wide interests, but it was not until 1914 that a zoologist was added to the staff. In 25 years of expansion since 1923 the Auckland Museum has increased its scientific staff, and at present both Director and Assistant-Director supervise sections of the Zoological collections. The senior scientific assistant is an ethnologist, and in addition there are a zoologist, geologist, and botanist with departmental responsibilities and graded salaries.

The Dominion Museum, formerly the Colonial Museum, was founded to house infant scientific departments of government, such as the Geological Survey and that of Colonial Analyst. Later, it was opened to the public and finally assumed its present function as a public museum. Since its staff developed past the stage of having a single omniscient director there have been varying numbers of biologists and seldom fewer than three. Now in process of re-organization delayed by the war, the Dominion Museum has at present three senior officers supervising zoological collections in addition to administrative duties, two additional zoologists, two assistant entomologists, and plans for filling vacancies in departments of ethnology, botany, and geology.

Museums in the South Island centres, with very fine collections, have been handicapped in staffing by most inadequate endowment and income. The Canterbury Museum, which is now emerging from this period, has at present one zoologist with special duties in entomology. Otago Museum, with some prospect also of stabilizing its income soon at a satisfactory level, has at present no scientific staff specializing in biological sciences.

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Prospects of an improvement in the staffing of southern museums are good, and it is also likely that some uniformity of salary scale will be recommended by the recently formed Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand. There remains a general weakness in that few museums are yet able to appoint junior assistants as trainees in departments already supervised by experienced seniors, but the next few years should see an improvement in this respect.

Within the limiting factors referred to above, the scope of work in Museums is varied. Public museums have as a primary duty education based on research. Education is through display and the more intimate public relation involved in dealing with enquiries and popular lecturing. The members of the scientific staff should, therefore, have some flair for one or other of these aspects of the work. Technical problems of display are looked after in larger museums by a specialist staff; but they in turn depend on the scientific staff for some selection of material and an outline of the story to be presented.

Successful display, however, is often the last step of a process that begins with collecting. This involves knowing what to collect, where to get it, and how to deal with it when collected. In New Zealand most museum biologists are their own collectors and some provision is usually made in budget and time-table for field work. From larger museums a small team sometimes can be sent out, with mutual advantage to its members. When a collection is brought back its permanent preservation must be attended to, and if identifications have not been possible in the field they must be done so that material can be classified. The next duty is storage in the case of study material and proper cataloguing as it is incorporated.

Because so many groups in New Zealand are yet imperfectly known, research in museums tends to be mainly taxonomic; and there is no doubt that it is in this field that museums are best able to supplement the work of other research institutions as well as satisfying a wide popular demand. This does not mean that other branches of biological enquiry are discouraged, but simply that, as routine duties involve the constant handling of collections, taxonomic problems are always cropping up. Work on morphology and life histories also can be carried out under museum conditions, but it is difficult except in ones own time to concentrate on work in the experimental fields of physiology, genetics, or economic biology.

I might sum up by saying that some specialist interest should be developed by a museum biologist, but that it should not outweigh a professional interest in collections and their care, nor in those broader aspects of natural history through which a museum maintains its reciprocal relations with the public.