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Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums

Over the centuries, natural history museums have evolved from being little more than musty repositories of stuffed animals and pinned bugs, to being crucial generators of new scientific knowledge. They have also become vibrant educational centers, full of engaging exhibits that share those discoveries with students and an enthusiastic general public.
At the heart of it all from the very start have been curators. Yet after three decades as a natural history curator, Lance Grande found that he still had to explain to people what he does. This book is the answer—and, oh, what an answer it is: lively, exciting, up-to-date, it offers a portrait of curators and their research  like none we’ve seen, one that conveys the intellectual excitement and the educational and social value of curation. Grande uses the personal story of his own career—most of it spent at Chicago’s storied Field Museum—to structure his account as he explores the value of research and collections, the importance of public engagement, changing ecological and ethical considerations, and the impact of rapidly improving technology. Throughout, we are guided by Grande’s keen sense of mission, of a job where the why is always as important as the what.
This beautifully written and richly illustrated book is a clear-eyed but loving account of natural history museums, their curators, and their ever-expanding roles in the twenty-first century.

432 pages | 146 color plates | 6 1/2 x 9 1/2 | © 2017

Biological Sciences: Biology--Systematics, Evolutionary Biology, Natural History, Paleobiology, Geology, and Paleontology


"Curators is both an autobiography and a hymn to some of Grande's more remarkable predecessors and colleagues. He is generous in their praise. . . . Sadly, the importance of science centred on museum collections is losing traction. . . . This is tragic. Creeping philistinism values only the bottom line, and there is little money to be made in (say) fish evolution. Maybe Grande’s book will help to reverse the trend."

Richard Fortey | Nature

"Grande's book provides fascinating insight into a domain of scientific work, which displays its results on the museum’s exhibition floor, but which seems to be mostly practised behind exhibition doors. Grande not only opens these doors, but demonstrates that the 'backstage' of natural history museums extends far beyond the walls of the museum and into a wide range of social spaces."

Archives of Natural History

"In Curators, one of our leading paleontologists, Lance Grande, takes us behind the scenes of a great museum. Their precious collections and hidden corridors hold tales of adventure, debate, and global exploration all in the search for knowledge. Curators reveals the national treasures that are our natural history museums and tells the stories of how they hold secrets of our past, but also keys to the future."

Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish

"Think of natural history museums, and spectacular displays of monstrous dinosaurs, gorgeous minerals and archeological finds pop into our minds. But few people realize what goes on behind the scenes: Who collects those specimens? Who gets them ready to be put on display? Who interprets what the specimens mean? Without the scientists on staff of the larger natural museums, none of this would be possible. In Curators, Lance Grande, a veteran paleontologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, vividly brings the lives, times and hard work of the scientists of his and other natural museums out into the open. It is must reading for all of us who love these wonderful caverns dedicated to understanding the history of life and of the earth itself."

Niles Eldredge, emeritus curator, American Museum of Natural History

"Lance Grande has lived his life as a natural museum curator, a profession that emerged in the nineteenth century. His memoir shines a bright light on this profession, its roots, and its place in the twenty-first century. Through the lens of his own experience as an expert on fossil fish, Grande has crafted a narrative that grows, along with his career, to encompass the breadth of Chicago's fabled Field Museum and to argue for the relevance of natural history in our time. Blasting through dusty stereotypes, he passionately shows just how interesting it can be to live the surprisingly splendid life of a curator."

Kirk Johnson, director, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Table of Contents

Preface: Curators of Natural History and Human Culture

1 Moving toward the Life of a Curator
2 Beginning a Curatorial Career
3 Staking Out a Field Site in Wyoming
4 Mexico and the Hotel NSF
5 Radioactive Rayfins, the Fish Rodeo, and Developing a Global Research Program
6 A Dino Named SUE
7 Adventures of My Curatorial Colleagues from the Field
8 The Spirit of K-P Schmidt and the Hazards of Herpetology
9 Executive Management
10 Exhibition and the Hall of Gems
11 Grave Concerns
12 Hunting—and Conserving—Lions
13 Saving the Planet’s Ecosystems
14 Where Do We Go from Here?

Notes, Added Commentary, References, and Figure Credits

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