A misunderstanding of the nature and function of modern zoological museums is still all too prevalent despite the remarkable growth in the size and number of these institutions during the last quarter-century and the appearance of a large body of literature on the subjects, which they represent.   The common conception is that they are enlarged editions of the old dime museum, —a repository for freaks and curios, a place where spinal shivers may be acquired by looking at a monster in a glass jar. That the museum is "a temple of the muses", a place of study, and a repository of things that have an immediate relation to literature, science and art, and that the zoological museum at its best is a laboratory where biological problems are investigated and an educational institution in that it attempts to demonstrate man's biological environment, are conceptions which spread but slowly.

The pseudodoxal notion of the nature of museums of zoology retards their development, but it at least has the redeeming feature of insuring the director with a sense of humor against finding his work dull. It is not always possible to tactfully refuse an heirloom in the form of a hair wreath or painted conch shell, or to explain why mermaids and double-headed calves are not on exhibition, and the members of the staff have often to listen as patiently as may be to caustic comments upon their institution because of the absence of horrors in the exhibition rooms. It should be recognized that a collection of abnormal and curious animals and plants no more constitute a natural history museum in the modern sense than a collection of half-finished and glaringly imperfect objects of art would constitute a respectable art museum.

Practically all museums try to instruct the public by means of exhibits installed in the building or sent out as loans, but, since it is fundamentally a place of study and a repository of things that have an intimate relation to literature, science and art, it is clear that the institution should not be considered as synonymous with the exhibits. Paradoxical as it may seem, the more stress that is laid on investigation the more fully will the museum justify its name.

This does not mean that education should be entirely neglected, indeed it is impossible for most museums to neglect it and receive sufficient support from the public. It does mean, however, that no absolute ratio between investigation and education can be established,  and that even though the administrators keep clearly in mind the two functions of museums this ratio will be influenced by the nature of the institution,  whether municipal, state, national, private, or university.

This can be demonstrated in the recent growth of natural history museums. It develops that the municipal, state and national museums must devote a relatively large proportion of their resources to education because of the large number of tax-paying visitors; that the privately endowed museums often emphasize exhibits for the reason that the donor desires a conspicuous monument to his generosity; and that the university may emphasize research and limit educational work quite largely to the display of specimens for the use of classes which are being taught in the University.

The Museum of Zoology of the University of Michigan is primarily a university museum and its policy is largely based on this fact. It is planned to give first attention to the acquisition of materials for research and to the pursuit of scientific studies, and to arrange the exhibitions primarily for the use of students of zoology. This policy has had to be elaborated for the reason that the Museum has come to assume some of the functions of a state museum. Since the University is a state university and there is no state museum, the people of Michigan have a right to look to the Museum of Zoology for assistance as they seek assistance from other departments of the University and the state bureaus. This means that a considerable amount of information on the natural history of Michigan must be available, and that educational work in addition to the exhibits provided for university students should be attempted. This situation is met by devoting most of the resources available for investigation to the study of the natural history of the state, by supplying study collections to the schools and students in Michigan, and by furnishing detailed information on natural history subjects to those who desire it.

All of the resources are not devoted to local problems, for the reason that neither animals nor biological problems are influenced by political boundaries, and, to work out satisfactorily many local problems and also to be able to have as members of the museum staff specialists of experience and broad training, it is necessary to have material which will provide greater facilities for study than that which can be obtained in such a restricted area as one state. The work done outside of the state differs, however,  from that done in Michigan in that the object of the former is to obtains specimens for illustrative purposes and material in groups on which members of the staff are specializing, while the object of the Michigan work is to obtain detailed data on the entire fauna.

The results of a consistent adherence to the policy just outlined during the last ten years are now becoming evident in the collections, publications and extension work. A summary of these results will very well describe the Museum of Zoology as it is today.

(1) Very large collections representing many groups have been accumulated. The specimens in these collections are carefully labeled and catalogued for scientific studies; they are mostly stored in the laboratories to prevent deterioration, and are accessible for study only under the super-vision of members of the staff.

(2) A small number of exhibits are installed in the building, and as rapidly as possible they are being arranged for the use of students. These are not without interest to the general public, particularly if the visitor is sufficiently interested to read the labels and attempt to learn the meaning of the groups.

(3) A number of loan collections have been made up and are sent to the schools of the state upon request, and many loans of study specimens are made to specialists each year.

(4) A creditable number of scientific papers have appeared, and the Museum now has two series of publications—the "Occasional Papers" and the "Miscellaneous Publications". In the former series 48 numbers have been issued during the four years since it was founded; in the latter two papers have been published, the first in 1916.

It is now an axiom among museum men that a "finished museum is a dead museum". It is to be hoped that the Museum of Zoology will never be finished; and there is every reason to believe that the pursuit of the present policy will result in the building up of a great institution that will not only contribute mush to the biological sciences but will also meet the needs of the University and the people of Michigan.

The Michigan Alumnus

February 1918, Page 310

Museum of Zoology