“[The collections] answer to a lot of people,” says Rich Zack. “They answer a lot of questions, and at times they can generate funds, but it’s not a steady stream of funds. Often you’re answering small questions from hundreds of people.” Any one of those hundreds might get along OK if the collections shut down, “but because we serve so many, it would be a major loss,” says Zack.
Anthropologist Karen Lupo, whose students make frequent use of the Conner Museum’s bone collection, says she was disturbed to learn that WSU once considered closing the Conner. With new analytical techniques making collections more valuable than ever before, she says, getting rid of them now would be woefully short-sighted.
“Do you really want to be the one that pressed the button and flushed it away because ‘it wasn’t making enough money’? And then later we find out that, ‘oh, we should have saved that’?”
She shakes her head.
“We can’t let these go. We just can’t.”
What’s so great about having really old specimens?
The value of having so many specimens, and such old specimens, can be perplexing for the general public.
“Someone says, ‘why do we need those insects that were collected in 1910?” says Rich Zack. “‘Why do we really need to know any of this stuff? This doesn’t add to our ability to get money for biofuel research or whatever the next big thing is going to be.'”
He says even the oldest specimens in the James Collection have potential benefits for agriculture. Whenever a new pest turns up in fields, a farmer or extension agent or Zack himself will go looking for it among the old specimens. Did it arrive in the area recently? Or has it been here along?
“Say we’ve got those back to 1910,” says Zack. “What’s changing that’s causing it now to become a pest, when it hadn’t been for a hundred years? What’s going on? [Having the old specimens] allows you to start asking questions that make a little more sense, because you’ve got at least some preliminary information from which you can formulate those questions.”