NABOKV-L post 0020256, Tue, 29 Jun 2010 20:51:19 -0400

Nabokov would have been a good Entomology Curator ...

Nabokov would have been a good Entomology Curator

June 16th, 2010 | Author: maxbarclay

Today I was reading a biography of Vladimir Nabokov, the famous Russian-American novelist, best known for Lolita. It is a little known fact that, as well as being a prolific author, Nabokov was an entomologist with a special interest in the blue butterflies (Lycaenidae). He is known, in entomological circles at least, for preferring his scientific work to his literary, and apparently his loving wife Vera had occasionally to chase him from his microscope to his typewriter.

I was particularly struck by his statement of a long-cherished ambition:

“I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum“

(Vladimir Nabokov- from ‘Strong Opinions‘)

It is nice to see my choice of career (well, lepidoptera instead of coleoptera, but not much different) being the envy of someone who had made such a profound success, intellectually, critically and indeed financially, of their life! It certainly reinforces my long standing belief that being an entomological curator in a major museum is the Best Job in the World! I am a little less sure about ‘obscure’ (perhaps it is quiet when compared to the life of a highly acclaimed prizewinning novelist, but curation is really quite high profile- nobody would read an estate agent’s blog, but I optimistically assume that somebody will read this!).

One of the most unusual features of being an entomological curator is the opportunity to leave, in Longfellow’s words, ’footprints on the sands of time‘; good curators have a reasonable certainty of being remembered, in their field at least, for a century or two after their deaths, simply because of their association with the Collection. The curator is fortunate in that he or she can be a part of, and can steer and influence, improve and promote, something that is far more important than any human being. The Collection is the distillation of the intellectual efforts of hundreds of people over hundreds of years; centuries of human lifetimes have gone into building up this vast resource and archive of knowledge, and our role is to be its custodians, its mouthpieces, its interface with the scientific community and the world. It is a job that carries great privilege but also great responsibility.

The responsibilities of a natural history curator are threefold, to the past, the present and the future. To the past, we have the duty to preserve, protect and perpetuate the collections that have been left to us by previous generations, to make sure that our predecessors’ lives’ works are well looked after and cared for, and that their reputations are kept alive by continued scientific study of their materials.

To the present we have the responsibility to provide access to the collections in our care, to make specimens available to people who need them, to make sure we never inhibit or impede scientific progress by denying access to information or materials (while at the same time ensuring their safety for future work).

To the future we have several responsibilities; to use the collections to inspire a next generation of scientists and collectors, and to make the collections, through fieldwork, identification, exchanges and other means, a permanent and comprehensive-as-possible archive of the biodiversity of the planet, a ‘representative summary of the natural world’. It is the comprehensiveness of the Collection that defines its value to the hundreds of scientists that consult it every year. This archiving of biodiversity has never been as important as it is today, in this time of vanishing species and habitats. I always imagine some hypothetical distant-future scientists sitting around saying “what did they do during the age of biodiversity? Did they go out into these wonderful places that still existed then and collect, so that we can study their specimens! No, most of them just sat around and let it all burn, and now we’ll never know what was in those forests!”.

It is based on these philosophies that I evaluate my performance in any given year. How many visitors accessed the Collection, and from how far afield did they come? How many specimens were sent out on loan to experts, and how many of them were returned identified? How many specimens and collections were presented to the Collection? How many new species did we add to the Collection that were not represented here before? Many of the new species we add are not just new to the Collection, but are also new species for Science, and the more Types we have, the more relevant and interesting we are to the community.

I will leave the final words to Nabokov, who discusses his thoughts below in his poem about discovering a new butterfly, labelling it with the traditional red labels that indicate an original Type specimen, and depositing it in one of the great collections.

Uncompromising as ever, he declares that art, earthly power, religion and literature all pale into insignificance compared to the importance of documenting and archiving the biodiversity of the Earth.

Yes, Nabokov would have been a good curator!

“Dark Pictures, thrones and stones that pilgrims kiss
And poems that take a thousand years to die
But ape the immortality of this
Red label on a little butterfly.”
Vladimir Nabokov, concluding stanza of ‘A Discovery’ 1941.

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