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The museums of natural sciences cannot cope: three scientists from Madrid touch 1.5 million insects each


Heads of the world's leading institutions warn of the lack of resources to complete the inventory of life and urge the creation of a single digitized global collection

The biologist Amparo Blay has a bunch of keys with which to access a fantasy world.

She opens a metal cabinet and some unlikely animals appear: violin beetles from Malaysia, identical to the instrument.

She opens another door a crack and takes out a tray with male hercules beetles, a monumental Central American insect the size of a hand, with a monstrous horn.

And Blay could be like this for the rest of her life.

She is curator of the collection of 5.5 million insects at the National Museum of Natural Sciences, in Madrid.

Her team—she and two other colleagues—have yet to catalog 80% of the specimens.

They touch a million and a half insects each.

The managers of 73 of the largest natural science museums in the world have launched a call for help on Thursday in the magazine


: the inventory of life is inaccessible via the internet or is not known at all.

The Madrid museum only exhibits 0.6% of its more than 11 million pieces, according to biologist Ignacio Doadrio, in charge of its collections.

Among the jewels on display is his famous stuffed Asian elephant, an animal that arrived alive in 1773 at the port of San Fernando (Cádiz) and traveled 800 kilometers through Spain, to the astonishment of the locals, until being received by King Carlos III. in one of his palaces.

The bulk of the collection of birds and mammals, however, is stored in an industrial estate in the Madrid town of Arganda del Rey, in two warehouses that suffered a flood in 2002 and damage from an explosion in 2017. Hundreds of masterpieces of scientific taxidermy, such as four brown bears stuffed a century ago by the brothers José María and Luis Benedito.

A showcase with stuffed mammals in the Madrid warehouses of the National Museum of Natural Sciences, this Thursday. Álvaro García

Those responsible for the 73 museums have given accounts.

Its institutions —headed by the giants of Washington, London, and New York— guard almost 1,150 million pieces, with just 4,500 scientists.

They touch about 250,000 pieces per researcher.

Amparo Blay, two years from retirement, snorts when she mentions that incomprehensible task.

“It seems to me that I don't have time”, she jokes in her laboratory.

Her husband, butterfly expert Antonio Vives, retired two years ago and continues to religiously go every morning to help his wife catalog the millions of insects that are missing.

A productive day can record a few dozen specimens.

There are conveyor belts that could speed up the process, but the museum doesn't have them.

The paleontologist Kirk Johnson, an expert in dinosaurs and director of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, has coordinated the work of the 73 institutions, from some thirty countries.

The team stresses that, after three centuries of scientific research, only 2.2 million species of living beings have been described and named, a tiny fraction of the estimated 15 million that exist on Earth.

The signatories consider that their collections are "an unparalleled source of information" to study the effects of climate change, investigate invasive species, conserve wildlife and even prepare for future pandemics: their specimens hide microbes from other times.

However, only 16% of its pieces are cataloged digitally —almost never with a photo— and barely 0,

2% of its biological collections have accessible genetic information.

The authors demand more resources and urge the creation of a single digitized world collection.

Specimens from the amphibian and reptile collection of the National Museum of Natural Sciences. Álvaro García

Showcase of the warehouses of the National Museum of Natural Sciences at its headquarters in Madrid. Álvaro García

The entomologist Amparo Blay, this Thursday, at her work table. Álvaro García

Skeleton of a python captured in 1886 in the Philippines, in its original box. Álvaro García

A tray with violin beetles from Malaysia. Álvaro García

Collections of insects pending cataloging, in the warehouses of the National Museum of Natural Sciences. Álvaro García

The biologist Ignacio Doadrio, this Thursday, in front of the cabinets that house the museum's fish collections. Álvaro García

Naturalized monkeys in the Madrid warehouses of the National Museum of Natural Sciences, in Madrid. Álvaro García

Trays of butterflies pending cataloging, in the laboratory of Amparo Blay. Álvaro García

The entomologist Amparo Blay, this Thursday, in an insect store at the National Museum of Natural Sciences, in Madrid. Álvaro García

Doadrio, 64, joined the museum as a volunteer when he was 18, to organize the thousands of boats with fish, shortly after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco.

“There were abandoned collections from 1936, full of mold, with rats in the corridors.

The museum has changed radically since I entered it”, celebrates the biologist.

Doadrio, however, has spent decades denouncing that the institution is dying due to lack of space and infrastructure.

The museum has been found since 1910 cornered in the Palace of Arts and Industry, in Madrid's Paseo de la Castellana.

Since then it has been shared headquarters with the School of Industrial Engineers, which occupies two thirds of the building.

Given the lack of space, the museum keeps a treasure in the two industrial warehouses of Arganda del Rey.

The Madrid institution belongs to the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), the largest science body in Spain.

For decades, Doadrio has seen a multitude of presidents of the Government, kings, mayors and ministers pass through the museum, who often promised to find solutions to agony.

The biologist recalls that the building that is now the Prado Museum was designed in 1785 by order of King Carlos III to exhibit collections of natural sciences, not paintings or statues.

It was his grandson Fernando VII who changed the script.

“This museum was founded with the Enlightenment.

And we have not found an enlightened government again.

We are still looking for it”, says Doadrio sardonically.

The biologist Ignacio Doadrio, responsible for the collections of the National Museum of Natural Sciences, photographed this Thursday. Álvaro García

In 2007, the magazine EL PAÍS Semanal published a report that caused an earthquake.

It was titled

The Museum of Horrors

and it showed outrageous photographs of the interior of the Arganda del Rey ships, with the hidden funds of the national museum lying on the ground.

A wild boar skeleton from 1768 loomed out of a toilet, among whale bones piled up in the sinks.

Doadrio, responsible for the collections since 2017, acknowledges that that report served to improve the conditions of the warehouses, but for little else.

“Now we receive 300,000 people a year, but we cannot receive more.

We have queues.

Madrid and the State itself are losing a huge potential tourism capacity, ”he says.

The director of the museum, Rafael Zardoya, and Doadrio himself sign the international appeal published in the magazine



Your institution has issued a statement this Thursday warning that "the information on the collections is not very accessible and is also at risk", referring to the group of 73 museums.

The note regrets "the lack of investment" and recalls the fires that destroyed the National Museum of Natural History of India, in 2016, and the National Museum of Brazil, in 2018.

The explosion of a nearby hazardous waste industrial plant in Arganda del Rey, on May 4, 2017, blew out several windows of one of the warehouses that guard the collections that do not fit in the Madrid museum, according to what the former director told this newspaper. , Santiago Merino.

The glass that fell inside broke empty display cases, but there was no damage to the scientific collections.

It was just a scare, but it could have been a catastrophe.

The fire at the National Museum of Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, destroyed 85% of its 20 million pieces.

Doadrio points out some stuffed poisonous snakes, hanging in a laboratory of the Madrid institution: “They were from the Rio de Janeiro museum.

They were donated to us before the fire.”

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2023-03-23

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