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COLLECTING BY MUSEUMS


Before the twentieth century governments and aristocrats were the sponsors of most expeditions to the Neotropics, the materials collected going to museums to be described, preserved, and displayed.  The museums themselves were passive, having little say in where expeditions went or what they collected.  In the twentieth century, however, that began to change in the United States, with our major museums taking the lead in organizing and directing fieldwork. The trend had begun earlier, with Spencer F. Baird at the Smithsonian, who equipped and directed the naturalists on the major U.S. Army expeditions in the American West, while also recruiting and mentoring collectors all over the western hemisphere – W. H. Hudson being but one example. Baird’s successors continued in the same vein, so that by the time Frank Chapman arrived at the American Museum of Natural History, sponsoring expeditions was an accepted role for American museums. Financing was provided by newly wealthy American industrialists (as well as some “old money” from men like Theodore Roosevelt), who often got their names attached to the expeditions and the resulting publications without themselves venturing into the wild (Roosevelt being a notable exception). Museums well known for their sponsorship of expeditions to the Neotropics include the American Museum of Natural History, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and the Field Museum in Chicago. But smaller institutions got into the act, as well: The New York Zoological Society sponsored William Beebe; the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh supported Meb Carriker; and on the other coast the California Academy of Sciences sent expeditions to the Galápagos and other locations in the Pacific.

The greatest haul of avian materials for an American museum came not from an expedition, however, but from what might be better characterized as a raid. The opportunity arose when Walter Rothschild, who had in his personal museum at Tring the greatest collection of zoological specimens ever assembled by a single person, ran into financial difficulties. Not because of failed investments – the Rothschild banking interests were doing very well, thank you – but because of blackmail. He had carried on an affair with an English peeress, who, along with her husband, decided to exploit the Rothschild family’s fear of scandal. Rothschild never married, but he could not bear the thought that his mother, a formidable and dominating woman, should know of his indiscretion. So he made quiet overtures to sell his birds, the most valuable part of his collection. Frank Chapman jumped at the chance. With $225,000 donated by the family of recently deceased Harry Payne Whitney, a long-time supporter of the museum, the transaction was completed in early 1932. Robert Cushman Murphy was dispatched to Tring to oversee the transfer of roughly 280,000 specimens, including the types (specimens from which species were originally described) of two thousand species – one in five of the world’s birds. It is hard to overstate the significance of that acquisition. David Snow, who used the Rothschild collection for his research on cotingas and manakins, made this assessment: “Now that man’s increasing destruction of his natural environment has made it impossible, or if possible undesirable, to collect birds on the scale and in the variety that was possible fifty or more years ago, collections such as Lord Rothschild’s represent a store of biological data that is literally irreplaceable” (Rothschild 1983, 140).

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