The Mission of the Auburn University Museum of Natural History is to document, understand, and preserve biodiversity in order to educate people of all ages about our planet’s rich natural history.
The Auburn University Museum of Natural History will inspire young and old to study and learn the biodiversity of the planet around them through research around the globe that documents and describes the world’s biota and through biodiversity education and outreach. AUMNH will maintain and embellish its gateway to biodiversity through continued databasing of its collections, establishing educational resources, and developing educational displays throughout Auburn University that demonstrate the importance of the state’s biota. Through its Alabama Natural Heritage Program Section, AUMNH will maintain and distribute data on rare plants and animals of Alabama, and will study the changing distributions of the rare biota of the state. AUMNH will develop a Center of Biodiversity that unites the research and outreach sections of all of the natural sciences within Auburn University and will establish displays in available areas within COSAM buildings and the Arboretum as steps in eventually developing a display museum. We will inspire an appreciation of nature and the environment so that we might better conserve it for future generations.
Article 1. Introduction.
The greatest resource on our planet is its biological diversity. The term biodiversity is used to characterize the variety of life on Earth spanning multiple hierarchical levels from molecules, to genes, whole organisms, and ecosystems. Despite over two centuries of taxonomic research, we know relatively little about our planet’s diversity; for example, by some estimates only 10-20% of animal diversity has actually been described. Paradoxically, humans are dependent upon the essential services that this little-known diversity provides. Clean air and water, pollination of plants, natural pharmaceuticals, control of disease, and sources of food are fundamental to our existence and are provided by the diverse organisms that inhabit our planet. Even so, Earth’s biodiversity is declining at a precipitous rate as a consequence of human-related activities (destruction of habitat, invasive species, pollution, over-population, and over-harvesting).
Alabama is one of the most diverse states in the US with respect to its natural heritage (flora, fauna, ecology, and range of geological formations). For example, the state contains the richest fauna of amphibians, reptiles, and mollusks east of the Mississippi River, is second only to Tennessee in its diversity of freshwater fishes, and also ranks second in the eastern US in richness of fossil deposits. Correspondingly, Alabama has the greatest proportion of federally listed endangered species in the Southeast.
Natural history collections play an important role in documenting biodiversity and such collections greatly facilitate its accessibility of this biodiversity to the general public through exhibits, outreach, and publications; the AUMNH is ideally positioned to showcase the pivotal role that Alabama plays in preserving southeastern biodiversity. As summarized by Winston (2007), collections are a significant asset – they support interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research; are a non-renewable resource; are highly cost-effective; play an important role in medicine, public health, and security; are used to document the effects of climatic change; are integral to organismal-based education in the biological sciences; have aesthetic value; and are the foundation of taxonomic research. Simply put, collections document the richness and beauty of our natural heritage. As a museum whose home is a land-grant institution, it is our obligation as good stewards of the environment to play a significant role in research, education, and outreach that might help to forestall the loss of our biodiversity.
The Auburn University Museum of Natural History seeks to promote biodiversity research, education, and outreach through exemplary stewardship and interpretation of our natural-heritage collections. The AUMNH will promote significant organismal-based research in ecology, evolution, taxonomy, phylogenetics, and behavior with a particular emphasis on documenting and preserving Alabama’s biological resources. Through cutting-edge research and painstaking documentation of holdings in our research collections, we will aim to provide insight into how to manage and protect these resources, and will further aim to provide training for students of all ages interested in biodiversity centered careers. Through the Alabama Natural Heritage Program, we will further monitor and study threatened organisms in the Southeast. The AUMNH also aspires to enhance the outreach component of its mission through development and curation of natural history exhibits that likewise focus on the natural heritage of Alabama and the southeastern region of the United States.
Article 2. Current Status of the AUMNH
2.1. Personnel. Currently, the AUMNH faculty cadre comprises several curators: Jonathan Armbruster (Professor and Curator of Fishes, Museum Director), S. Ash Bullard (Associate Professor and Curator of Parasites), Stephen Dobson (Professor and Curator of Mammals), Leslie Goertzen (Associate Professor and Curator of Plants; Herbarium Director), Kenneth Halanych (Professor and Curator of Marine and Aquatic Invertebrates), Nathaniel Hardy (Associate Professor and Curator of Entomology), Jamie Oaks (Assistant Professor and Curator of Herpetology), Geoff Hill (Professor and Curator of Ornithology), Charles Ray (Research Fellow IV and Curator of Entomology), Daniel Warner (Assistant Professor and Curator of Herpetology), and Ray Wilhite (Lab Coordinator and Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology). A number of Curatorial Associates have been informally named across DBS and a number of other departments on campus, and we will be further codifying these positions upon acceptance of the museum bylaws. Collectively, the faculty associated with the AUMNH study a wide range of topics, including conservation, evolutionary biology, phylogenetics, taxonomy, diversification, speciation, ecological processes, behavior, and ecosystem function. The geographic scope of their work is likewise expansive; members of the faculty conduct biodiversity-related research throughout the world, with specimens accessioned from every continent and ocean. AUMNH faculty members provide instruction for most of the organismal-based courses in DBS taught at the undergraduate and graduate level and mentor graduate students.
AUMNH has five full-time staff positions dedicated to curation and care of the major collections as well as an outreach coordinator: collections managers for Fishes (David Werneke), Marine and Aquatic invertebrates (Nusrat Noor), terrestrial invertebrates (Dr. Melissa Callahan), tetrapods (David Laurencio), and the herbarium (Curtis Hansen), and outreach coordinator (Toni Bruner). In addition, the Alabama Natural Heritage Program is housed under the museum, and it has a zoologist (James Godwin), a botanist (Alfred Schotz), and a geographical information systems technician (Dr. Katie Lawson).
2.2. Collections. The AUMNH currently comprises five large collections (fishes, aquatic and marine invertebrates, insects, herpetology, and the herbarium) and several modest-sized collections (arachnids and myriapods, birds, mammals, and vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology). All collections are currently databased with Specify or are in the process of being digitized. Most of the collections are now available on aumnh.org as well as data aggregators such as fishnet2, herpnet, iDigBio, and GBIF.
2.3. Infrastructure. The collections are housed in a state-of-the-art collections facility built in 2014 (the Biodiversity Learning Center) which is attached to M. White Smith. In 2018, compactors were added to the alcohol collections through a grant from the National Science Foundation, alleviating most storage issues in the building.
2.4. Collections policies. See collections policies document.
Article 3. Strategic Directions
Auburn University has as its mission to serve the citizens of the state of Alabama through its instructional, research and outreach programs and prepare Alabamians to respond successfully to the challenges of a global economy. The strategic objectives of the AUMNH are aligned with the Auburn University goals of instruction, research, and outreach. Strategic directions outlined below are: 1) Collections and research, 2) Faculty, 3) Education, 4) Outreach and engagement, and 5) Diversify funding. Each subsection below briefly outlines the nature of the strategic objective and lists a set of goals and corresponding performance indicators. Individual strategic objectives are appended to indicate timing (Y = year, superscript denotes the year for initiation).
3.1. Collections and Research. Natural history collections continue to gain in importance with respect to documenting organismal diversity and distributions in the face of the biodiversity crisis as a consequence of habitat destruction and global climate change. The priority of the AUMNH is to serve as a data-rich repository for all natural heritage collections at Auburn University. Such a repository functions to archive, care, database, and make available these collections to the research community. Consequently, DBS, COSAM, and Auburn University should view the AUMNH and its holdings as an asset that provides an important and significant support role to the research and educational community. Support by the university, college, and department contributes to the success of the research mission by providing an outreach context for Broader Impacts and by providing important support through infrastructure and administration. The strategic objectives outlined below focus on collections care, support, acquisition, digitization, and facilitation of research.
3.1.1. Strategic objectives.
- Monetary support of the collections is vital to upkeep, maintenance, and access. We will pursue vigorously funds from the private sector, foundations, and granting agencies to support collections. Grants from the National Science Foundation that support infrastructure (CSBR), digitization (ADBC), and acquisition (systematics and survey and inventory grants) of collections are integral to the success of the AUMNH. Other national (ie. EPA) and state (ie. Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) are also important to the success of AUMNH. We also will argue that as an integral part of facilities and administration, a percentage of indirect cost from grants to support collections and collections-based research shall be returned to the AUMNH to support operations and management. Y1-5
- Acquisition of newly collected material is important to facilitate the growth of the AUMNH collections. We will increase the number of regional and international collecting expeditions. Collecting expeditions will be coordinated through museum staff, curators, and organismal-based courses. Y1-5
- We will continue to seek to acquire collections that have been orphaned from other institutions and universities. However, we will act responsibly to acquire only those collections with scientific, educational, or research value. Y1-5
- Numerous other units at Auburn University conduct collections-based research or research that results in acquisition of voucher specimens. Per our strategic goal to serve as a central repository for all collections, we will seek to consolidate natural history collections based on efforts from across the campus of Auburn University. We will achieve this goal by demonstrating to the university research community that it is cost effective, their collections will be well cared for, and that their data will be highly extensible through digitization efforts by the AUMNH. A policy is presented in 3.1.4 Y1-2
- Digitization of collections is integral to extending the utility and access of natural history collections. Moreover, grants to support collections and collections-based research demand strong data-management plans that require digitization, archiving, and accessibility of data from specimens. We will continue migration to the Specify platform, and have all collections searchable on data aggregators such as iDigBio and GBIF by year 3. Y1-3
- Tissue collections within recent decades have become important components of most natural history collections. The AUMNH will update its tissue facilities and ensure that all collections are cataloged and accessible online. Y1-3
- AUMNH will integrate staff at ALNHP into all aspects of collection building, maintenance, and student support. Y1-5
- AUMNH will increase its class offerings to include classes on museum curation, education, and study abroad. These classes will provide students with the knowledge of museum operation from specimen acquisition to use in a learning environment. Y1-2
- Museums provide an experience to members of the public. Although the museum does not currently have any real public displays, the museum will increase its visibility to the public through increased outreach opportunities. In particular, it will develop its own displays in DBS and/or at the Davis Arboretum, develop signage for natural areas on the biodiversity of the region in natural areas on campus, create a website dedicated to Natural History of Auburn University in conjunction with other campus units with natural areas or displays, have paid events that advertise the museum, and seek to either expand space into M. White Smith Hall in order to accommodate displays and/or to work with COSAM Development to build a Nature Center or a larger Natural History Museum to house displays. Y1-5
- These strategic goals can only be met with the development of a museum endowment. It is the museum’s five-year goal to develop a $1 million endowment to support collections growth and maintenance and additional funds to support displays.
- Support for collections will be evaluated by number of grant proposals submitted, dollars awarded by grants, allocation of dollars from overhead, and money generated via fundraising efforts.
- Growth of collections is evaluated annually by number of specimens and lots added to each collection.
- Evaluation of digitization efforts will be measured by successful integration into data aggregators and the presence of collections online.
- Presence across campus of AUMNH-tagged displays and signage will demonstrate outreach growth.
- Education efforts will be evaluated based on the number of programs and the number of education levels targeted.
3.1.3. Draft policy on specimens collected by Auburn University faculty.
Alabama occupies a unique position in the continental United States with its varied physiographic provinces ranging from coastal plains to the southern end of the Appalachian Mountain range. This is accented in the biodiversity that Alabama enjoys, the most in the eastern half of the country. The Auburn University Museum of Natural History (AUMNH) is poised to study and document that biodiversity and establish baselines for understanding changes that might occur as the planet evolves. With research collections in most of the biota found in Alabama, AUMNH is becoming a cornerstone of natural history research for the southeastern U.S. Further, AUMNH contains substantial holdings from other states and countries, making it an international repository of specimens. It is the mission of AUMNH to professionally curate specimens collected by Auburn University personnel. In order to keep and enhance the relevance of the collections and the reputation of the university, we have developed this policy to encourage AU faculty, students, and staff to deposit specimens collected in pursuit of AU sponsored research into AUMNH to the degree possible.
Whereas biological specimens have a financial value, and whereas biological specimens in and of themselves are not intellectual property, all natural history specimens collected by Auburn University employees during the course of their university responsibilities are the property of Auburn University. Such specimens should be deposited in the AUMNH at the completion of a research project subject to the following exceptions:
- Collections in conjunction with other institutions shall be equitably divided between the institutions. In this case, collection is the physical sample collection, i.e., institutions whose representatives took an active role in the collection process are authorized to maintain an equitable portion of the collected material.
- Voucher specimens may be placed in other institutions, but the majority of specimens should be placed at AUMNH.
- Biological specimens collected under National Park Service permits are, by law, property of the U.S. government and Park Service and will be managed in accordance with the applicable permit requirements.
- All transfers to other institutions, other than those required by federal permits, must be approved by the Director of the AUMNH.
In return for the specimens being deposited at AUMNH, AUMNH will provide the following.
- Professional curation of samples in a building that meets curation standards for the group of organisms.
- Space within the collections in perpetuity.
- Catalog numbers and other information, and digital storage of collection information that will be made available online through the AUMNH web portal and other data aggregators.
- Free access to the collections for AU personnel involved in collecting the specimens.
AUMNH will further encourage the following from AU personnel that will deposit specimens:
- Complete locality information and species identifications. This includes copies (paper or digital) of field notes.
- AU personnel to budget into grants and awards funds to initially curate the specimens (jars, alcohol, insect pins, herbarium paper, etc.).
3.2. Research and Faculty. In the museum Bylwas, we outline the rights and responsibilities of faculty members that hold the rank of Curator and Curatorial Associate. This section will provide department chairs and heads criteria upon which to evaluate the contributions of these faculty members to the museum.
3.2.1. Strategic objectives.
- Define duties and responsibilities of a curator and formalize procedures for appointment of curators (Section 6). Y1
- Assess productivity of AUMNH faculty members in curation, collections acquisition, publications, grant proposals submitted and funded, service to the museum at large, participation in educational and outreach activities that are related directly to the museum. Y1
- Provide funds to active members of the museum for graduate curatorial assistantships. Y1-5
- Provide funds for expeditions in order to increase the extent and importance of museum collections. Y1-5
- Performance benchmarks include: number and quality of publications, grants, and research presentations.
- Educational-performance benchmarks include: mentoring graduate and undergraduate students in museum- and curation-related activities and teaching or participating in courses that involve training in museum sciences.
- Additional benchmarks include contributions to acquisition of new specimens, processing of material for loans, digitization of collections, and other duties related to care and curation of specimens that can be quantified (e.g., time dedicated to activity, number of lots processed, number of specimens added to collections).
- Funds dispersed to faculty members and evaluation of productivity enhancements via these funds as evidenced by number of publications and submissions of related grant proposals.
3.3. Education. As part of Auburn University and the DBS, the AUMNH has a primary role in supporting undergraduate and graduate education. The museum should serve as a dynamic environment that attracts high-quality graduate students interested in collections-based research on biodiversity to Auburn University, and provide an environment that enhances their research experience and productivity. Likewise, the AUMNH should attract high-quality undergraduate students to its organismal-biology program and inspire these students to consider careers in natural history, ecology, evolution, and systematics. In addition, the AUMNH should attract high quality graduate students and offer support for their museum-based research. AUMNH should also develop programs for K-12 education that can be dispersed to students across the state.
3.3.1. Strategic objectives.
- Establish a museum-science course for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students. Y2
- Develop a unified program that is shared across all collections for involving undergraduate students in care and curation of the AUMNH collections. Y2
- Continue to recruit students from the DBS undergraduate program. Y1-5
- Continue to recruit high-quality graduate students interested in collections-based research. Y1-5
- Provide support for collections-based research to graduate students on a competitive basis, and find more dollars to support such research through grants and gifts. Y1-5
- In collaboration with instructors teaching organismal and conservation-related courses, further enhance use of the collections and associated data in instruction. Y2-3
- Recruit graduate students from underrepresented groups in science. The DBS graduate program is particularly depauperate with respect to diversity of its students; the organismal component of the program is not an exception. Given that enhancing student diversity is an objective of the DBS graduate program, we will seek funds to increase recruitment efforts on this front. For example, faculty members could arrange to give research and recruiting talks at historically black colleges in our proximity; travel would be supported by DBS. Y2-5
- Develop K-12 educational programs particularly targeting years in which natural science is taught (3rd, 7th, and high school). Make those programs available on the museum website and promote them to state schools. Y1-5
- Establishment of a museum-science course. Performance indicators will be number of students enrolled and evaluations of courses by students.
- Establishment of a formal program to recruit students; effectiveness evaluated on ability to increase participation by students.
- Increase in the number of and amount of support for graduate students doing collections-based research.
- Funds dispersed to graduate students and evaluation of productivity enhancements via these funds as evidenced by number of publications and related submissions of grant proposals.
- Increase in the number of courses supported by AUMNH collections.
- Increase in the number of graduate students from underrepresented groups enrolled in the graduate program.
- Demonstration of use of K-12 educational programs.
3.4. Outreach, education, and engagement. Outreach and engagement on behalf of the AUMNH will aim to fulfill three important roles through public interaction: 1) disseminate, to the citizens of Alabama, information on natural history and attendant human impacts to the region’s biodiversity; 2) profile ongoing organismal and collections-based research of AUMNH and DBS faculty, staff, and students, emphasizing their contributions in documenting and understanding Alabama and global biodiversity; 3) educate people of all ages through the use of formal lesson plans and informal education. Outreach, education, and engagement efforts will promote public awareness on these fronts using educational materials and lesson plans, public events, exhibits, and services geared toward a wide range of audiences and ages. Through such outreach platforms, the AUMNH will aim to acquaint our citizenry with their rich biodiversity, in an effort to instill appreciation and a sense of stewardship through heightened environmental awareness. Outreach efforts of the AUMNH will provide educational information on regional biota, habitats, ecology, and, more importantly, underscore scientific approaches used to study biodiversity, whether locally or worldwide. In addition to serving an important outreach goal, these objectives will greatly enhance the broader-impacts requirements of many granting agencies. Outreach, education, and engagement serve as a conduit for communicating the importance of collections and biodiversity related research, and thus, are integral to increasing funding for the collections and research from a diversity of sources.
Although the BLC is not designed to accommodate public exhibitions, it is a long-term goal of the AUMNH to provide a public venue for displaying natural history exhibits. Such a vision will likely require development of a decentralized model of a natural history museum where displays are placed with the collections as well as at other venues on campus and the region. Such a bold vision is not without precedence. Members of the DBS faculty, alumni, and upper administration have worked tirelessly in the past to realize such an aspiration. Consequently, the strategic objectives outlined below are divided into two phases. Phase one formulates a set of efforts that can be realized in the near term and are not contingent upon infrastructure. The second-phase objective will require significant funding, space, and likely major changes in staffing, leadership, and responsibilities of curators.
3.4.1. Strategic objectives.
- Maintain an online web presence that includes (but will not be limited to) information about the museum, the faculty, and individual areas of expertise, AUMNH activities (research and outreach), lesson plans developed in conjunction with the collection, information related to the flora and fauna of our region, and serve as access to collection databases. Y1-5
- Develop starter displays such as the Dinosaur Egg exhibit currently being constructed. Utilize, when possible, student help to build displays for capstone projects in art or interdisciplinary studies. Y1-3
- Host one biodiversity related event and associated guest speaker annually. Such an event would optimally be offered in conjunction with an existing occasion (Earth Day, Darwin’s Birthday, etc.). Y2
- Development of a major set of educational materials and host such materials online. This will be a set of learning modules that will teach the broad diversity of the state. Y1-2
- The number of visitors that visit the new displays.
- Deployment of learning modules and their use by schools.
- Successful hosting of at least one biodiversity-centric event annually.
3.5. Diversify funding. To fully realize the vision, mission, and goals outlined above we must seek funding from a diversity of sources. In the current economic climate, funding from the University and federal grants continues to remain scarce. As such, increased efforts must be made to seek funding from private individuals, foundations, and corporate endowments. Indeed, realization of the second-phase outreach and engagement goals will require significant streams of alternative funding to support a new museum building, the additional staff required, and associated educational programs and exhibits. It is particularly important to acknowledge that these activities, while centered mainly on outreach and engagement, likely will have a significant and positive impact on collections, faculty, and research through increased access to associated resources and infrastructure.
3.5.1. Strategic objectives.
- Broadly publicize the museum and its activities. It is imperative that local citizens are aware that the AUMNH exists and has plans to expand. Y1
- Continue to work with COSAM development and apprise them of the needs and potential for the museum project. Y1-5
- Host annually a mixer type of event to acquaint and update the administration of Auburn University, prominent alumni, local business leaders, and citizens with activities and plans of the AUMNH. These include the “Bones and Boos” held in October 2018/2019 (in conjunction with the Davis Arboretum and the College of Veterinary Medicine). Y1-2
- Generate an exhaustive list (a menu) that details for donors the items for which they can contribute. Such a list would include a range of potential contributions (from single pieces of equipment, to endowed curatorships, to funds to support the renovation or construction of an entire building). Y1-2
- Form a Museum Board to help to develop museum vision and to help promote the museum. Y1-2
- In consultation with the COSAM Development Office, generate a list of foundations and alternative funding sources from which we can seek funds to support the AUMNH. Y1-2
- Raise money to support the AUMNH collections, research, education, and outreach missions with the goal of developing three separate endowments: research, education, and displays with an ultimate goal of $1 million in each. Y1-5
- Success of PR campaign evaluated on the basis of the number of times AUMNH activities are highlighted by local and Auburn University news sources.
- Refinement of information packets for the COSAM Development team. Refinement of the packet based on feedback from the Development Office.
- Formal list of donor items generated and communicated to COSAM Development Office.
- Museum Board formed and meetings established.
- List of funding sources identified and number of proposals submitted.
- Amount of money raised to support missions of the AUMNH.