An Open Letter to the San Diego Natural History Museum

On November 19, 2013 the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM) is set to sell 11 fossils on public auction through Bonhams. Six of these fossils were collected by Charles H. Sternberg from the chalks of western Kansas (note that the Canadian chasmosaur dinosaur skull has been withdrawn from auction), and so have significant historical and scientific value. Specimens like the large Xiphactinus have been studied by researchers and been included in scientific publications. The selling of fossils is a direct breech of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s code of ethics. On the subject of commercial sale or trade, the Member Bylaw on Ethics Statement reads:

“The barter, sale or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into, or keeps them within, a public trust. Any other trade or commerce in scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is inconsistent with the foregoing, in that it deprives both the public and professionals of important specimens, which are part of our natural heritage.”

Below is the letter I sent to the SDNHM expressing my concern over the sale of fossils. This is not a matter of amateur vs. professional paleontologist, or even commercial collecting, but is about the role of museums in safeguarding our natural history collections.  For a public, federally recognized repository to sell fossils into private collections (sadly, museums just don’t have the financial resources to purchase fossils) violates the very essence of a museum. If sold, these spectacular specimens will be lost from public education and scientific research forever.  This is a crucial issue for paleontologists, museum professionals, and members of our community who trust us to care for and preserve our human and natural history heritage.

Please feel free to leave comments on this thread and/or share this thread with others.  If you wish to send comments directly to the San Diego Natural History Museum speaking out against selling these fossils, you can contact them here.

Please feel free to contact me, as well.

Thank you for your concern,

Laura Wilson
Chief Curator/Curator of Paleontology
Sternberg Museum of Natural History
Fort Hays State University

**It should be noted that the decision to sell these fossils was not made by paleontology or science staff at the San Diego museum, but by the Museum President, Board of Directors, and other administrators.

The Xiphactinus mount on auction by the San Diego Natural History Museum. Collected by Charles H. Sternberg and accessioned into SDNHM in the 1920s. Image taken from the Bonhams catalog (linked above).


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