The other day I put up a little post on the Megalosaurus holotype. This is on display at the Museum in Oxford (yes another one) and is part of, I think, a growing trend of important specimens being on display. Berlin now has its Archaeopteryx out on display, the IVPP regularly put out holotypes of newly described specimens in the museum and these are not the only ones. There have always been major specimens on display around the world but to my eye, ever more, and more important / valuable specimens are coming out of the curatorial collections and into the display cabinets.
I feel rather ambivalent about this, on the one hand it is great to have scientifically interesting and important specimens out there and for people to see them and (hopefully) get excited by them. Having the real, actual specimen there makes something more tangible – it is better than a cast or a model. On the other hand though, while this will be appealing to the public, I suspect that it is only appealing to a very small minority: the average museum visitor will probably not notice, or care, if what they are looking at is a cast or an original or a holotype.
In that case is it really worth the risk of putting something this valuable out on display. They need to be protected from theft and accidental damage, can be vulnerable to humidity and temperature changes or even the light from the sun or camera flashes. None of this is easy or cheap, or even always feasible.
The trade off then is providing public excitement for perhaps only a limited part of the audience, against increased risk of the specimen. Obviously there are lots of things to take into account – if the museum is well stocked with impressive specimens then there is perhaps no great need to leave out something exceptional, whereas one can sympathise that a small museum with a lone ‘star’ specimen might want it out on display. One has to make individual assessments based on individual cases, but I am a little concerned about more and more specimens going on display. I am about as interested as one could be (on average) about nice fossils in museums and I’m generally more than satisfied seeing a good cast, why risk something as critical as an important holotype?