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VIEWPOINT: We can save the Brockhouse animal collection
Guest column by Sioux Falls City Councilor Greg Neitzert
The decision to close the Brockhouse Collection of taxidermy animals at the Delbridge Museum of Natural History on the campus of the Great Plains Zoo – and the stated reason for doing so – has sent shockwaves worldwide. A front-page story in the New York Times and statements from prestigious natural history museums and organizations are a testament to the significance of this collection.
The zoo website, prior to the closure of the museum, stated that the “Delbridge Museum of Natural History is home to a one-in-the-world collection” in which “many of the species are deeply endangered” and “38 of the specimens are vanishing species and are invaluable as an educational resource.” These specimens possess scientific, educational and historic value. They are works of art. They provide a permanent three-dimensional record of each species, which may no longer exist now or in the future. In many cases, this is the only way many will see these animals up close. Disposal of a “one-in-the-world” collection that can never be replaced would be a tragedy.
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The city and the zoo made the unprecedented decision to close the collection to the public based on the alleged “danger to the public” and “potential liability” based on the presence of arsenic in the artifacts. This decision shocked the museum world. Arsenic in natural history collections is quite common and extends well beyond taxidermy. The chemical was used for centuries as a preservative to prevent deterioration of artifacts. The Institute for Natural History Arts (INHA) whose board includes members of the world’s most prestigious natural history museums sent a letter to the Mayor and City Council stating “the presence of arsenic in collections is nothing new; there is a long history of its use in preservation. Museums have successfully managed this issue in the past by consulting with qualified professionals, and by adopting policies to mitigate potential risk.” The City Council and Mayor have received letters from other organizations expressing a similar viewpoint, including the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), an international organization devoted to the preservation, conservation, and management of natural history collections. In short, there is no precedent or scientific basis to close an exhibit let alone to dispose of a collection based on the presence of arsenic. Arsenic in taxidermy is an easily managed risk and poses minimal risk to the public.
A work group was assembled by the administration to “develop a plan for the surplus” of the collection. Surplus is the legal mechanism city government must follow to dispose of an asset. The work group must reject the administration’s predetermined outcome that the collection must be disposed of and the non-scientific premise that arsenic in taxidermy presents a danger that cannot be mitigated. To its credit, the work group has requested that experts assess the collection to determine the cost of restoration. Expert museum conservators around the world have offered their assistance. Based on best practices in the museum world, we must do two things: First, we must engage a museum conservator who specializes in taxidermy to conduct a full condition survey of the collection, which would include potential options and costs for restoration of each artifact. Hiring a general taxidermist, as the city and zoo have done, is not appropriate. They do not have the training or experience to properly assess artifacts of this significance. Second, we must engage an industrial hygienist who can provide us consultation and recommendations to protect the public and zoo staff. Solutions to mitigate risk are likely much less complicated and costly than the city fears. As it stands today, the city and zoo are making decisions based on fear and speculation. In the event we decide as a city we no longer wish to maintain this collection, we must work to change state law so that we can donate the collection to an accredited museum. The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections has stated that “at present there are several institutions who have expressed to the Society interest in accepting the Delbridge collection, either in whole or in part.”
We are the caretakers of an irreplaceable collection. When we accepted this gift, we agreed to display it permanently for the benefit of the public. We have an ethical duty to preserve it for future generations. We must not destroy it. If we rally around that principle, and we consult the experts, who stand ready and willing to assist, we can save this collection.
Greg Neitzert is a two-term Sioux Falls City Councilor, representing the city’s Northwest District.