A few days ago, Andy Farke posed the following question on twitter:
If fossils are part of our planet’s heritage, and belong to all of us, are museum restrictions on photos ethical?
Farke clarified that he was referring specifically to fossils held in collections, especially those collected on federal land and/or with public funding. Following the same sound logic that makes open access scientific publication a necessity, any scientific work using public resources should be accessible to everyone, including objects in collections.* The question had arisen because some museums bar researchers utilizing collections from using photographs in their published articles (or charge a fee for the privilege). This is a valid concern, but I don’t have enough experience with scientific publishing to explore it properly. Instead, I’d like to hijack the question in order to discuss the murky identity of fossil mounts.
*I’m going to disregard for-profit museums for the time being, suffice it to say such collections exist and can be useful for research as well.
As was already pointed out in response to Farke’s initial question, the public’s right to access photographs of some fossil collections should not necessarily extend to museum exhibits. Any modern museum exhibit worth its salt is far more than specimens on shelves. Exhibits are immersive experiences that use specimens to illustrate a story. A great deal of creative work goes into designing and fabricating an exhibit, and it is not unreasonable for museums to claim ownership of any reproductions, including photographs, if they so choose.
Fossil mounts, however, are a different beast. These structures are difficult to categorize because they are intended both to educate and to entertain. They may incorporate real fossils, or casts taken directly from them, but I would argue that fossil mounts are primarily constructed pieces. With the exception of some more recently extinct mammal taxa, most mounts are composites of casts, sculpted elements and original fossils collected in different places at different times. Steel armatures are custom-made not only to support the specimens but to appropriately fill the exhibit space. Mounts like the striking Barosaurus and Allosaurus encounter in the Roosevelt rotunda at AMNH (above) are designed to make an aesthetic impression as well as to inform. Overall, mounts require a substantial investment of time, labor, money and artistic skill to create and maintain. Experienced researchers typically guide the construction process and the contributions of knowledgeable scientists cannot be overstated, but fossil specimens certainly do not come out of the ground mount-ready. There is a great deal more to making a good mount than stringing vertebrae together in the right order.
A direct comparison can be made between fossil mounts and the taxidermied animals that are also a staple at natural history museums. A taxidermy mount also incorporates a scientific specimen, the animal’s skin, which if collected using public resources should be accessible to all. Like fossil mounts, however, taxidermy pieces require extensive artistic and technical skill to create, from the steel or wood armature to the clay model that build’s out the animal’s musculature to the eyes and mouth, which are typically sculpted from scratch. It is worth quoting Rachel Poliquin’s excellent The Breathless Zoo at length:
As dead and mounted animals, [taxidermy mounts] are thoroughly cultural objects; yet as pieces of nature, [they] are thoroughly beyond culture. Animal or object? Animal and object? This is the irresolvable tension that defines all taxidermy. (Poliquin 2012, 5-6)
I firmly believe that the results of scientific inquiry belong in the public domain, and it follows that restrictions on the photographic reproduction of collections specimens are inappropriate. Nevertheless, fossil mounts and taxidermied animals are the products of artisans as much as of researchers, and the right to credit and control over this work ought to be respected. This middle ground is awkward to negotiate, and as Poliquin puts it, a means to please all parties might be “irresolvable.”
To make a non-committal final point, I’d like to mention that it is tempting to be too uptight about copyright, particularly in a museum setting. This past October, I had the pleasure to give a presentation with Alexis Fekete at the Kansas Museum Association’s annual conference. The most interesting part of our session (which was about how web 2.0 tools can help museums) was when audience members, mostly representing small history museums, voiced concerns over making their photography collections available online. There was apprehension about making it too easy for people to copy and sell pictures without permission, which I assume is the primary reasoning behind other museums’ policies prohibiting the publication of fossil images. I’m skeptical, however, that this is the most pressing concern. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I have no problem with getting information disseminated to genuinely interested people. Creating awareness and enthusiasm for content is part of the general mission of museums, and I’d hate to see overzealous copyright barriers get in the way of that.
Poliquin, R. 2012. The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.