Not for sale
We are unaware what possessed the San Diego Natural History Museum almost 100 years to purchase a number of fossils collected by Charles Sternberg, as the museum's mission is "interpreting the region of southern and Baja California."
It isn't uncommon, as many museums throughout the world display artifacts uncovered by perhaps the most famous fossil-collecting family whose name adorns the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays. But the San Diego museum obviously isn't impressed with the large vertebrate fossil specimens in its collection, judging by a press release posted to its website.
"While these fossils have historical significance in that they were collected by Charles Sternberg," the release reads, "and it is our hope that they remain in the public trust, it is our opinion that they do not add significantly to the evolutionary and scientific history of these groups of organisms."
While we admit a certain parochial bias to all things Sternberg, we thought that dismissive statement rather insulting.
Others in the paleontological community did not share our sentiment. It could well be they were more focused on the San Diego museum's intent to sell the fossils at public auction.
An auction house in New York was scheduled to take bids this week on several Sternberg finds, including a 13-foot-long Xiphactinus, a 17-foot-long mosasaur, a mosasaur tail, a panel of swimming crinoids, a hadrosaur tail and a large Xiphactinus skull. The items could have fetched six figures collectively, which the museum planned to use to purchase other fossils, gems and minerals.
The scheduled sale generated criticism from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and paleontologists throughout the country, including representatives of the Sternberg Museum.
"Natural history specimens, once in public museum should stay there," said Laura Wilson, curator of paleontology at the Sternberg.
"Historically, I consider them all priceless," said Sternberg adjunct curator Mike Everhart, "because they were collected by Charles Sternberg."
The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology issued a reminder to the San Diego museum that: "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."
Unable to guarantee the auction wouldn't result in the precious fossils falling into private hands, the San Diego Natural History Museum pulled the pieces from the sale.
That was the correct call.
But there is one more step the museum should take in order to fully repent for its momentary lapse in judgment: Give the Sternberg items to the namesake facility in Hays. While the local museum might not have the cash its San Diego counterpart originally was seeking, it does have expertise and knowledge that could prove equally useful. And the goodwill that would be generated by such a generous donation would be priceless.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry