Museum musings

This is off-topic for shell enthusiasts, but may be a well-known complaint for fellow-researchers.

On the discussion page of the Netherlands Malacological Society reference was made to an article this weekend in the The Washington Post related to the local natural history museum. It reads as follows:

“The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History is a treasure. It is the world’s largest natural history museum, it draws 5.8 million visits a year, and it is a staple of any tourist’s itinerary in the District.

And it is dying.

It is dying slowly but not painlessly. The hordes of tourists who pass through it each day may not notice it, but those who work there do. The old natural history library is now a half-empty interactive space. Where once there were exhibits packed with specimens, now there are videos, photographs and the odd lonely actual object in a glass case. Signs that used to announce “Mammal Hall” or “Paleontology Hall” now advertise donors begged for the money to pay for the displays.

These are merely cosmetic changes. Far more insidious are the changes occurring behind the scenes.

The heart of a natural history museum ought to be research [italics added]. Yet, over the decades, the number of staff doing research has dwindled. Consider the Department of Invertebrate Zoology: It is the largest department within the museum, with more than 30 million specimens. Thirty years ago, it had more than 20 curators; today it has eight. That’s the same number that “crustacea,” a sub-department of invertebrate zoology, had 30 years ago.

The decline in the number of curators has a very simple cause: money, or, rather, the lack of it. For a generation, funding for the Smithsonian as a whole has remained stagnant (after accounting for inflation); it was $840 million in fiscal 2016. But the Smithsonian has five more museums than it did 30 years ago.

The effects of this have been as crippling to the Smithsonian as they were predictable. Wages froze, curators who retired were not replaced and those who remained spent more time fundraising than researching.

A philistine might look at this and say, who cares? Who cares if there is only one person studying starfish in the whole museum or if there is no shrimp expert in the building?

We are living on the brink of what is expected to be the largest mass extinction since the loss of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. It is only the sixth major mass extinction in Earth’s 4.5 billion-year history. To fully understand the scope of the disaster that mankind is unleashing and to understand its effects on ecosystems and on ourselves, we need qualified naturalists.

Historically, these scientists have been found in natural history museums such as the National Museum of Natural History. They are men and women who spend lifetimes studying groups of organisms, understanding their evolutionary and life stories, their anatomy and how they affect us. Without naturalists, biologists cannot do their work. Ecologists, anatomists and geneticists require naturalists for their work to make sense. Policymakers require naturalists if they want their environmental policy to have any sound basis. Yet by refusing to fund natural history museums, the government is foolishly depriving itself and mankind of naturalists upon whom all this knowledge is based”.
The writer – a student who did recently an internship at the museum but has continued his studies abroad – ends his story by pleading for the relocation of innovation funds to natural history museums. Whether this will work in the U.S.A. or not, I’m skeptical about the outcome. No parliamentarian is to vote for it.

One of the reactions on the NMV website reveals that in the Netherlands between 2000 and 2016 40% of the taxonomic researchers in natural history museums have been laid off respectively retired and were not replaced. It shows how Naturalis and other museums are showing shiny things to the public (the staff of PR and communications people no doubt must have enormously grown in the same period), but neglecting their ‘core business’ in a scandalous way. IMHO not parliamentarians but the management of museums are to blame for this situation.

In the Dutch situation, a fossil dinosaur has been b(r)ought as a trophy for the public. I wonder if the management is aware that the museum itself is becoming a dying ‘dinosaur’….

Brazilian cave species

Salvador et al. recently reported on a sample of land snails from caves in southern Sao Paulo state, Brazil. One of the species appeared to be new: Bahiensis ribeirensis (Odontostomidae).


This material is from the same locality as the paper reported in my post yesterday; curious to see this being separated…

Salvador, R.B., Cavallari, D.C. & Simone, L.R.L., 2016. A taxonomical study on a sample of land snails from Alto Ribeira State Park (Sao Paulo, Brazil), with description of a new species. – Archiv für Molluskenkunde 145: 59–68.

A new Gonyostomus species

Simone just published another brief paper describing a new Brazilian species. “Gonyostomus elinae is a new species collected from the Caboclos region of São Paulo, Brazil, extending the distribution of the genus south to the cavern environment of the central Atlantic rainforest. The new species differs from the other three species in the genus in having a different colour pattern of the shell, a wider umbilicus, smoother sculpture, and a wider aperture having a straight inner lip. The species can be already classified as endangered”.


Simone, L.R.L., 2016. A new species of the genus Gonyostomus from Brazil (Gastropoda, Stylommatophora, Strophocheilidae). – Spixiana 39: 11–13.

New paper published

Dautzenberg again! After my paper on the autographs in the Dautzenberg archives, a second paper on this malacologist was published yesterday. It is based on Dautzenberg’s reprint administration, which allowed a reconstruction of his contacts network and an analysis with regards to different aspects; one of these was the ‘status’ of each person (‘amateur’, ‘professional’ or ‘dealer’).


The paper was published in a special number of Basteria, dedicated to Rob M. Moolenbeek.

A snail with an U-loop

Cornu aspersum (O.F. Müller, 1774) is a common European snail with a ground colour of yellowish brown , and mostly with some darker spiral bands and irregular light and dark blotches (Jansen, 2015). Recently in a Dutch zoo a new tropical greenhouse was installed with plants imported from Costa Rica. Herman Creemers sent me a picture of snails collected in this greenhouse (on the right side), together with some specimens from the Netherlands (on the left side). He wondered if this species was known from Costa Rica or not.


Barrientos (2003) has given an overview of Costa Rican species and said: “El escargot, Helix aspersa [the old name], fue introducido has más de 100 años y está restringido a jardines urbanos en San José”; the species is thus more than a century present in Costa Rica, but still restricted to gardens in the capital. The different coloration of shells presumably originating from Costa Rica, imported together with plants, is somewhat different. This might be due to the prolonged isolation, but only detailed DNA research could tell whether some divergence has occurred or not.

Barrientos, Z., 2003. Estado actual del conocimiento y la conservación de los moluscos continetales de Costa Rica. – Revista de Biologia Tropical 51, Supplemento 3: 285–292.
Jansen, A.W., 2015. Veldgis slakken en mossels. Zeist, KNNV, 272 pp.

New paper published

Freshly pressed (but in bytes only): a new paper on the drawings of Vietnames land- and freshwater snails that was found in the Bavay archive, and the person who initiated this.


We have added biographical data and a list of eponyms of Victor Demange, who was a contact of Bavay.

Breure, A.S.H. & Ablett, J.D. The ‘Demange drawings’: known and unknown malacological contributions of Victor Demange (1870-1940). — Folia conchyliologica 36: 1–9. 95_demange

Crossing the border

The borders of a discipline are often quite interesting, also because less research has been done and one can try out novel approaches. Some time ago I did this with the project on snails in art, and this time I ventured to explore the social sciences to get more insight in the history of malacology. Last week I crossed the border in a double meaning, not only to the domain of the social sciences, but also to Germany where I participated in the 10. Trier Summer School on Social Network Analysis.


The week consisted of two days on the theory of social network analysis (SNA), and 3.5 days of application with different software programmes and own research projects. And as the whole course was in German, my mastering of that language did improve as there is no progress without exercise🙂

As I have elaborated here, malacologists operate (and have operated), like all scientists, in a social network. The question is what research questions are possible, especially when focussing on the 19th and early 20th centuries? For a better understanding of how malacology as a discipline developed, it would e.g. be interesting to understand how the links between malacologists in the past were functioning (see here), and who played an important role or acted as a broker between different parts of the network. But the question is how to reconstruct these links from the past that tied together the malacologists in an ancient science network.

Since historical research depends on the quality of the data sources, I was happy to have had access to the Dautzenberg archive (Breure, 2015, in press), and to work on the Crosse archive. This allowed for a validation of the idea that eponyms are a proxy for contacts between malacologists. Eponyms have been given, especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries as a tradition, to collectors providing material and to collegial authors. The validation process (Breure, in preparation) proved to confirm the idea that eponyms may act as a proxy for contacts, provided that contextual information is used.


The figure above is the result of gathering the eponyms given and received by six French malacologists: Crosse, Drouët, Mittre, Morelet, and Petit de la Saussaye. The size of the name reflects the importance in the network, as calculated by statistics in Gephi. Interesting is that Morelet is the most important person in the network of six, and not Crosse as one might have expected.

These results are interesting enough to attempt a follow-up on this interdisciplinary avenue. To be continued…

Breure, A.S.H., 2015. The malacological handwritings in the autograph collection of the Ph. Dautzenberg archives, Brussels. — Folio Conchyliologica 33: 1–111.
Breure, A.S.H., in press. Philippe Dautzenberg (1849–1935) and his time, towards the reconstruction of an ancient science network. — Basteria 80 (in press). Preprint available at DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.3672.4726