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Good Reads  Reference  Collections Management  Curation & Exhibition

Curators Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums

Biography / Memoir
By: Lance Grande(Author)
412 pages, 146 colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations
Curators is a mature and revelatory portrait of this profession that is beautifully presented.
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  • Curators ISBN: 9780226192758 Hardback Mar 2017 In stock
Price: £34.99
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About this book

Over the centuries, natural history museums have evolved from being little more than musty repositories of stuffed animals and pinned bugs, to being crucial generators of new scientific knowledge. They have also become vibrant educational centres, full of engaging exhibits that share those discoveries with students and an enthusiastic general public.

At the heart of it all from the very start have been curators. Yet after three decades as a natural history curator, Lance Grande found that he still had to explain to people what he does. Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums is the answer – and, oh, what an answer it is: lively, exciting, up-to-date, it offers a portrait of curators and their research like none we've seen, one that conveys the intellectual excitement and the educational and social value of curation. Grande uses the personal story of his own career – most of it spent at Chicago's storied Field Museum – to structure his account as he explores the value of research and collections, the importance of public engagement, changing ecological and ethical considerations, and the impact of rapidly improving technology. Throughout, we are guided by Grande's keen sense of mission, of a job where the why is always as important as the what.

This beautifully written and richly illustrated book is a clear-eyed but loving account of natural history museums, their curators, and their ever-expanding roles in the twenty-first century.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Revelatory memoir that is beautifully presented
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 20 Mar 2019 Written for Hardback

    One fond memory I have of studying biology at Leiden University in the Netherlands was a behind-the-scenes tour for first-year students at the then brand new location of Naturalis Biodiversity Center. This included a tour of the main tower housing the scientific collection normally off-limits to the general public. This is the domain of the museum curator, but their work involves much more than spending time amidst storage cabinets. To get a good idea just how diverse this job is, look no further than this lively and beautifully presented memoir. Here, Lance Grande tells of his career of more than thirty years as a curator at the Field Museum in Chicago.

    Grande originally studied fish palaeontology at the American Museum of Natural History, and in September 1983 was hired as a curator of fossil fishes at the Field Museum. The first few chapters tell of his early interest in natural history and palaeontology, including his work digging up fossil fish in Wyoming. He has written much more about the wonderfully preserved fossil assemblages found here in The Lost World of Fossil Lake.

    But much more than his own story, Grande introduces the reader to the colourful cast of colleagues that were influential in developing his career. This includes eccentric, larger-than-life characters such as Shelton Pleasants Applegate who studied fossil fish in Mexico, or the golden-tongued Willy Bemis, who could talk any sport fisherman out of a fish skeleton in exchange for a first-class filleting job.

    A large chapter deals with a particularly well-publicised episode that tangentially involved both the Field Museum and Grande himself: the T. rex skeleton nicknamed Sue. The tumultuous story of how this fossil was excavated and became the subject of a custody battle involving the Department of Justice and the FBI has been told at length elsewhere (see e.g. Rex Appeal and Tyrannosaurus Sue). Grande adds a unique and even-handed side to this story from the perspective of a curator – both when he was questioned regarding previous dealings with the fossil hunter who dug up this specimen, and, more significantly, when the Field Museum acquired this fossil when it was auctioned off.

    Grande honours many other colleagues, including a whirlwind chapter that gives short introductions to his current fellow curators at the museum, as well as past curators such as the famed herpetologist Karl Patterson Schmidt. To his credit, even when he touches on his time as vice president and lays bare the details of executive management or the financial woes of a large museum in a time of economic crisis, he manages to captivate.

    A final three chapters cover more sensitive topics such as dealing with human remains and their repatriation, and the importance of museums and their collections for ongoing conservation efforts. The latter topic is one that I touched on in my review of Christopher Kemp’s wonderfully written The Lost Species. Museum collections provide unique snapshots of species diversity throughout recent history and are vital repositories when describing new species. The Field Museum stands out in particular for the Rapid Biological Inventories they do nowadays, where a team of zoologists and botanists is blitzed into a tropical location to do a taxonomic inventory in the course of a few weeks, after which they draw up an advisory report in several languages. These have more than once led to the establishment of protected areas in tropical countries.

    Grande does not avoid the difficult topic of collection ethics. Like many other museums of a similar age (the Field Museum was established in 1893), their collections were in large part brought together during a time when people did not yet frown as much on plunder, colonialism, and hunting. Grande is frank in discussing this and does not attempt to hide the troubled past of some collections, but also highlights current practices that meet far higher ethical standards. Even so, there were chapters that made me feel conflicted. In his chapter on the Hall of Gems, he describes the lengths they went to to ensure that all the minerals sourced were ethically mined. But Grande seems to be okay attending the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo with Willy Bemis to obtain skeletons of deep-sea fish. One can argue that these sport fishing events will happen anyway, whether or not two museum curators try and take away some of the scraps for museum collections. But something tells me that if they approached trophy hunters in Africa in the same fashion to obtain skeletons of lions or elephants, there would be a public outcry.

    Having said that, the fact that Grande covers these complexities – the shades of grey you have to deal with at times, the unique occasions where there are no precedents – makes Curators a revelatory and mature portrait of his profession. I also need to add here that it is a beautifully presented book. The publisher really went to town on Curators, producing a chunky, full-colour book printed on thick, high-quality paper, with each chapter followed by sizable sections of colour photos. If you enjoyed Richard Fortey’s Dry Store Room No. 1, or Kemp’s work mentioned above, or you are fascinated by museums, then this book comes highly recommended.
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Lance Grande is the Negaunee Distinguished Service Curator at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, where he conducts research on fishes, paleontology, and evolutionary biology. He is the author of more than one hundred books and scientific articles, including The Lost World of Fossil Lake: Scenes from Deep Time and Gems and Gemstones: Timeless Natural Beauty of the Mineral World.

Biography / Memoir
By: Lance Grande(Author)
412 pages, 146 colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations
Curators is a mature and revelatory portrait of this profession that is beautifully presented.
Media reviews

"Curators is both an autobiography and a hymn to some of Grande's more remarkable predecessors and colleagues. He is generous in their praise [...] Sadly, the importance of science centred on museum collections is losing traction [...] This is tragic. Creeping philistinism values only the bottom line, and there is little money to be made in (say) fish evolution. Maybe Grande's book will help to reverse the trend."
– Richard Fortey, Nature

"In Curators, one of our leading paleontologists, Lance Grande, takes us behind the scenes of a great museum. Their precious collections and hidden corridors hold tales of adventure, debate, and global exploration all in the search for knowledge. Curators reveals the national treasures that are our natural history museums and tells the stories of how they hold secrets of our past, but also keys to the future."
– Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish

"Think of natural history museums, and spectacular displays of monstrous dinosaurs, gorgeous minerals and archeological finds pop into our minds. But few people realize what goes on behind the scenes: Who collects those specimens? Who gets them ready to be put on display? Who interprets what the specimens mean? Without the scientists on staff of the larger natural museums, none of this would be possible. In Curators, Lance Grande, a veteran paleontologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, vividly brings the lives, times and hard work of the scientists of his and other natural museums out into the open. It is must reading for all of us who love these wonderful caverns dedicated to understanding the history of life and of the earth itself."
– Niles Eldredge, emeritus curator, American Museum of Natural History

"Lance Grande has lived his life as a natural museum curator, a profession that emerged in the nineteenth century. His memoir shines a bright light on this profession, its roots, and its place in the twenty-first century. Through the lens of his own experience as an expert on fossil fish, Grande has crafted a narrative that grows, along with his career, to encompass the breadth of Chicago's fabled Field Museum and to argue for the relevance of natural history in our time. Blasting through dusty stereotypes, he passionately shows just how interesting it can be to live the surprisingly splendid life of a curator."
– Kirk Johnson, director, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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