Why donate your fossils to a museum?
"Basements and attics, passions and fanatics"
by Mark Renz
“Why should I give a university my finds? They’ll only store them in a basement where no one can see them!”
How many times had I heard such a response when I asked if a fossil collector was going to donate his or her finds to a museum?
They were right in one sense. If you donate an important find to a university, there is a good chance it will never be seen by the wide inquisitive eyes of the public. Instead, it will be stored in a drawer or a cabinet where only scientific researchers can have access to it. Okay…so? What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that the best place for important fossils? How else can significant finds be studied if not filed in an orderly, safe fashion where the appropriate researchers can access them?
On the flip side, let’s follow an important fossil from the finger tips of the amateur scraping it out of the dirt to a decision by that amateur to keep the fossil for his or her own personal enjoyment. Let’s say I just found a horse (equus) jaw with 2 canine teeth in the right mandible. It would be a first, since equus only have 1 canine per quadrant. Wow! It’s got to be valuable! Of course a university can have it…IF they agree to pay me big bucks for it. If not, I will place it in a cabinet to show anyone who visits my home, or I will sell it to another collector.
Instead of selling the jaw, I keep it. Five years later, I lose interest in fossil hunting and take up collecting lent from commercial landromat dryers. I’ve had the fossils for a while now and still can’t see getting rid of them, so I pack them into shoe boxes and stuff them into a corner of my attic. There they sit for 15 more years until I croak from lent exposure. My wife passes too, so relatives come in to sell all we own. At a garage sale, a $5 price tag is placed on the horse jaw and it is sold to a man looking for something unusual to use as a paper weight.
I guess I see it as a no-brainer that if you’re faced with keeping a scientifically valuable fossil and selling it or hoarding it, you just do the right thing. But I didn’t always think so.
When I first started collecting vertebrate fossils about 10 years ago, I recall being able to exhibit all of my finds of the first few months on one large dinner plate. As my collection grew, it gradually spilled out of the dinner plate and onto my dining room table, then poured down the hall and into two other rooms, eventually occupying nearly every square foot of my house. Fortunately, I was single at the time so I didn’t have to concern myself with a mate who might appreciate a house with more modern décor.
As I added even more volume to my collection, I began to realize that this is precisely what that late curmudgeon of a philosopher Henry David Thoreau was talking about when he concluded that building up material possessions just gives a person more things to dust.
Really, who was I trying to impress? Had I become a testosterone-crazed modern equivalent of the paleo big game hunter, venturing out into the wilderness to kill wild beasts of yesteryear? I may have been resurrecting instead of killing, but was I still trying to seduce the ladies and intimidate the men in the same way today’s hunter might hang an alligator hide or moose rack above his fireplace? Probably.
After a while I began to feel selfish, like everything I was doing was for me, but not really for anyone else. I had long hoped I could leave the world a better place for my having passed through it, but hopes and wishes are easily dashed by daily temptations of instant gratification for one‘s ego.
Take the following missed opportunity. Finding a 20 foot giant ground sloth is not an everyday occurrence. In the 1990s, I stumbled onto half of such a critter in a shallow creek about 60 miles north of my home. Consider one of the claw cores of this beasty vegetarian is over 18 inches and that doesn‘t include the outer claw, which probably extended at least another 18 inches. That‘s nearly twice the size of a T-Rex claw.
I didn’t know a lot about fossils then, but I knew enough to know that this find was significant. I offered it to a senior biologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History, who for some reason, didn’t seem interested. A few years later, I had bills that needed paying and someone offered me big money for the claws -- $9,500 to be exact. So I sold them. I felt a tremendous guilt. Just because one museum didn’t want the bones didn’t mean another museum wouldn’t have found them useful. But now it didn’t matter. The claws were gone. All I kept were resin replicas.
My next opportunity to think beyond self happened less than a year later.
A friend and I were driving along a back country road when we noticed a phosphate mining operation had exposed big piles of dirt. Sharks teeth, we thought! Surely the piles were loaded with sharks teeth. I looked beyond one of the piles and into the pit where the teeth had been buried for 10 million years. Poking out of the bank was the nearly complete skeleton of a 12-foot cousin to a manatee known as a dugong.
“Hmmm, what do we do?” I asked my friend. The property we were on didn’t belong to us. Should we dig like madmen and sneak the fossils out before we got caught by someone? Or confess to the land owner that we trespassed and ask if we could contact the Florida Museum of Natural History about the discovery? I knew there was only one thing we could do.
I called a mine representative and confessed. I told her that we would love to excavate the remains and donate them to the Museum, but we would also be happy to step back and let the museum unearth the bones. First, she scolded us for trespassing. But then she granted us a two week pass and, with the help of volunteers, we managed to remove the dugong.
For a few years it resided in a file cabinet in the basement of the Museum -- where it belonged. But in 2010, FLMNH allowed the skeleton to be placed on permanent loan to the Clewiston Museum and displayed along with the fossils my all volunteer group and I uncovered in Hendry County. Everybody benefits: the state studied the bones and then freed up that space for new finds, the bones were returned to Hendry County where they were found which meant local communities could share their educational value, and I wrote a book about the site.
The Museum’s Perspective
“When specimens are in an accredited museum collection they are preserved forever so that scientists around the world can come and study these specimens,” said Hulbert. “They are accessible to anyone. They are then useful in scientific studies as well as public displays. Displays in a private collection may be useful temporarily but as things pass from generation to generation, or economic conditions change in a person’s lifetime, they don’t get the stability that having that having the fossils in a major museum collection offers. So that is why our museum is essentially the official fossil collection of the state of Florida. The fossils belong to the entire population of Florida. We are the caretakers. And what we’re trying to do is preserve these aspects of this prehistory. So until someone invents a time machine, this is what we’re going to have to live with to know what Florida was like millions of years ago.”
For more on the dugong, click here
For more on the LaBelle mammoths, click here