Fossils are remnants from the past, and museums are for keeping things for the future. In fossil museums, we have a double guarantee for durability! Of course fossils predate museums which have existed only since the 17th century. Their heyday came in the 19th century, fueled by national pride in exploration and curiosity about natural history.
In their founding phase, temple-like museums stored tangible evidence for scientific reliability. Material was accumulated from avid amateur collectors — such as schoolteachers and clergymen, adding to their income — working on temporarily exposed fossiliferous deposits along the many new railway lines. Curators had a relatively large staff of (mostly self-taught) technicians. The first excavations of fossils for their own sake took place.
Next came a consolidation phase. Excavations became more refined and curators more specialized and less accessible. In the 1950s, exhibits commonly still sported their carefully transcribed Indian ink notices written more than 50 years before, as exhibitions certainly were not the first priority of conservators. Indeed, curators were mainly interested in producing monographs and less concerned with unsorted and puzzling materials, not realizing that such content can make museums the best place to hunt for significant new discoveries.
Unsurprisingly, public attendance waned. I remember a Scandinavian museum with excellent collections, but the display cases could not be opened, even for study purposes. So we hung around for three days in the lofty and well-lit — but sadly visitorless — premises. This invasion caused quite a stir; upon learning we were Dutch the administration put up ‘No cigar smoking’ signs everywhere supposing every Hollander was an inveterate smoker (we were not). And a beautiful north Italian fossil museum, which I thought I had to myself. I enjoyed its timeless atmosphere and did not notice an overweight guard asleep on a bench in the shade of a fossil palm tree. My shuffling around awoke her with a wild shriek that rattled my nerves, and the bones of a giant aquatic turtle, but had no other effects in this mortuary.
A third phase of museum practice now took over as public financial support sagged, and the number of paying visitors became paramount. Presentation was professionalized, lighting and display emphasized, and functional anatomy and ecology were new issues. The scant visitors of old would necessarily bring in their own interests and stories, but the numerous new public largely consisted of schoolchildren and lay people that needed packaged themes and expected interactive displays. To this day, education remains a museum’s cash cow. Instead of the static systematic subdivision of fossil material, the visitor participates in the evolutionary stampede from Proterozoic Gunflint algae to Neanderthal humans. Incomplete local collections are augmented with casts of key specimens, incomplete imaginations with lurid video presentations.
My mentor, the venerated Professor von Koenigswald, was a leading mammal palaeontologist and considered fossils, shells, and teeth to be elegant mementos from a remote past. So he gave not a second glance to bones; such things were for doctors treating victims of alpine sports. Skulls, though, fascinated him — he surrounded himself with Tyrolean skulls decorated with red roses and blue gentians — and his deep dedication to the beauty of palaeontological specimens was genuine and enticing. He loved to tell the public tall stories about his specimens and the science of palaeontology.
I love small museums animated by dedicated enthusiasts. A small, communal, museum in a tiny German village comes to mind. Patiently, a single family of fossil gatherers collected material over the course of many years from a quarry in their municipality. Their (mostly unspectacular) finds were thoroughly studied by serious researchers and are now on view in the village hall. Information is offered in unrelenting scientific jargon to the tourist that drops in on a rainy day. And yet: this works! People leave impressed by the family’s dedication and inspired by the involvement of the palaeontologists, expressing themselves in their clumsy professional lingo.
Such small museums are sadly vulnerable to neglect and closure. Meanwhile larger fossil museums may change beyond recognition. What remains is the lure of the fossils themselves. Let’s sort out these remains with curiosity, and cherish these wonders as the crown jewels of our science.