Two scientific collections at the University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM) are being divested to make way for renovations of the campus track stadium. One includes millions of fish specimens, and the other is an herbarium of 500,000 plants, both representing not only an archive of the state’s biodiversity, but a major scientific research resource. The ULM Museum of Natural History initially shared the news in a Facebook post, stating that the university had given it 48 hours to find a new space for the collections on campus. This original statement was shared by John Overholt on Twitter:
The museum has since posted an amended statement on its Facebook, clarifying the 48-hour window and the potential destruction of the collections if no home was found, as well as the reduction in state appropriations for the university by “more than 50% since 2008”:
A 48 hour deadline was set only to find space on campus to relocate the collections. If no space is found, the collections need to be donated to other institutions by mid-July. In the unlikely case that no new home could be found, disposal would be required to meet the construction deadlines for the renovation of Brown Stadium.
ULM also shared a press release on its official Facebook page, confirming the “donation,” and the April start of the track stadium renovations. According to this statement, Eric A. Pani, vice president for academic affairs, last week “told leaders of the College of Arts, Education and Sciences, which manages the museum, of the decision,” with the 48 hours being “to determine if space on campus could be found and the entire collection retained.”
In a message from Pani sent to faculty and staff, shared by the ULM student news site the Hawkeye, he said that the collections have not “been used by our students and faculty much in the last few years, except for instructional purposes,” leading him to conclude “that the scientific integrity of the museum’s research collection will be better preserved at another institution that has the resources needed to house and care for it adequately.” Pani told the News Star that ULM has received several offers from institutions, some of them in-state, interested in taking the collections.
According to the News Star, the research collections “were placed at Brown Stadium three or four years ago,” with “long-term plans to move them back to the main part of the campus.” Unfortunately, those plans have been aborted, and a project to expand the museum, as the Washington Post reported yesterday, has been postponed, while the focus on university sports facilities goes forward.
Back in February, the museum shared a Facebook post affirming the importance of the fish collection, noting that it was the third largest university-based collection of its kind in the world, represented all 50 states, served hundreds of researchers, and was dedicated in 2010 to Neil H. Douglas, the ULM ichthyologist who spent decades collecting many of the specimens. Hyperallergic’s request for comment from ULM was not returned at the time of this writing.
The eradication of a university’s science collections under pressure of limited state funding, and the emphasis on the money-making power of sports (ULM called the stadium’s renovation “an economic development boost for the region” in its release), is far from limited to Louisiana. During Hyperallergic’s recent visit to the herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden, which has taken on many of these “orphan” plant collections, its assistant curator Dr. Matthew C. Pace said it was “very challenging to make the case at these small universities that its herbarium should be kept.” Back in 2015, the journal Nature reported that more than “100 North American herbaria have closed since 1997, leaving just over 600 remaining.” Last year, the National Science Foundation paused its Collections in Support of Biological Research program that supports “orphaned” collections, while the Trump administration’s 2018 budget would cut down federal spending on basic science by 10.5%.
Fish collections, with their delicate specimens and flammable spirits, and herbaria, with their need for climate-control, are not cheap to maintain. Yet collections like those at ULM are most valuable in the places they represent. As long as they remain, decades of research on Louisiana’s biodiversity are available to students and local researchers, offering a natural portrait of their state.