Museums, meh?

In October 2014 on October 20, 2014 at 2:26 pm


Sarah: I love museums. I get a kick out of the science, the history and the culture found in museums large and small, local and international, rich and poor.

But I know not everyone is the same as me. I get that many people would rather not spend an afternoon browsing amongst stuffed mammals, touching geological samples or listening to sounds from the Antarctic. That’s ok, I can deal.

But even if you’d rather wash your hair than visit a biodiversity gallery, I hope the following story will convince you that museums are important.

In 2013, South Australian scientist John Long was working in a museum in Estonia. John is a palaeontologist, and an expert in mapping out how us humans managed to evolve from vertebrates which occupied our world millions and millions of years ago.

Checking out miscellaneous samples that had been sitting around in boxes and not perceived to be of much value, he picked up fossilised bones from a fish. This fish had lived in the seas around Scotland millions of years ago. And something clicked. This fish had a clasper! A clasper is a small boney structure which early male fishy vertebrates used to help deposit sperm inside early female fishy vertebrates. The exciting thing was that this fossil placed penetrative ‘boy on girl’ sex way back in time — 385 million years back, to be precise — and far earlier than it had previously been believed to be happening.

The discovery triggered a detailed analysis of other fossils of the same species and a major paper in the top-ranked journal Nature. It will possibly change how scientists think about sex, evolution, genes, and biodiversity. Yeah, it’s big.

But from my point of view there’s another exciting part of the story. Stuff in museums is valuable. Stuff in museums holds secrets just waiting to be told. Stuff in museums can change our lives! If we could just get a bit more funding around to allow scientists with appropriate training to get in there and work through those boxes.

Here’s a story I wrote on this exciting finding for The Lead South Australia.

  1. An excellent reminder! These days we associate museums with places where we go to look at old stuff (or don’t go, depending on preference), and forget that they came about as institutions for preserving materials from our history, and for researching them. In the 19th century they were quite different 🙂

  2. Thanks Signe. I am completely fascinated with museums truth be told. I did some work for the South Australian Museum a couple of years ago, and to see all the samples they have and the history just sitting there (including expertise of retired but still volunteering scientists)…makes me dizzy!

  3. […] Stuff in museums is exciting, according to Sarah Keenihan. […]

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