This past Tuesday, June 27, I donated my insect collection, all 115 Cornell drawers and 13 Schmidt boxes, if I counted correctly. The recipient institution is the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. They made a good case when myself and several other members of the Mile High Bug Club toured their new state-of-the-art collections facility a couple years ago. Oddly, I did not have mixed emotions about the move. It was time.
Jeff Stephenson, Collections Manager in the Zoology Department, and Dr. Frank Krell, Senior Curator of Entomology, came down to my home with a U-Haul van and we set to work loading it up. Much to my delight, they even took the cabinets the drawers were in, so that our spare bedroom is now much, much roomier.
Heidi never complained about my collection, in fact she has been very supportive, unlike some spouses or girlfriends of entomologists, so I have heard anyway. Still, it is a relief to have this burden lifted, like a proverbial albatross around one's neck. I did not have space to work on further organizing the specimens, and they were doing no one any good locked up in my home. Once integrated into the museum's collection, they will be available for loan to scientists researching different genera and species. They may eventually be imaged and put into a growing online database accessible to everyone, not just scientists. That pleases me greatly.
One does get a few perks when they make a donation of scientific specimens. There is some brief acclaim or notoriety when the museum makes public its acquisition of your material. This will take the form of a blog post and maybe a newsletter blurb sent to museum patrons and volunteers. Then there is the tax write-off. This will be interesting because the museum can only count specimens and give an overall description of the collection's condition, not an appraisal. Even that can take weeks if not months, understandably. Thankfully, the entomological community is full of people who have experience in such matters. Meanwhile, Heidi and I have not itemized, taking the Standard Deduction instead, so that will be another adventure, possibly worthy of another trip to a tax expert for our returns next year.
I did not donate the collection for any of those gratuities. I did it to further free myself from the label of "bug guy," and continue my growth as a writer and artist. I did it to continue downsizing my possessions, which become increasingly burdensome as one ages. Simplicity and travel take priority more and more, and I find myself wishing I had done this sooner. I'd rather visit friends and make new ones than collect more specimens. Some of my colleagues still reprimand me, if kindly, for failing to take specimens I have photographed in their habitat. Some discoveries can only be properly documented with a voucher: the creature itself.
I do wish that donating my collection would cure me of my "trophy mentality," the need to provide proof that my time spent afield is worth something, not just a "hobby" or trivial pursuit. I sometimes wonder whether a suntan is some people's proof of status that they can afford to vacation frequently, an almost literal badge of affluence.
When "citizen science" became a....thing, I found myself lamenting that volunteers were putting real scientists out of work. I still think that is true to a degree, but now there are platforms on the internet that allow people to make real, concrete contributions to scientific knowledge. Those databases need refinement to be sure, but it is a step in the right direction, and it is a wonderful tool in recruiting a new generation of scientists, and launching whole new careers for retired folks. I am proud to be a part of that community, whether I am considered an authority or not. It is a constant learning curve, and I am happy to help those behind me, as others ahead of me generously lend me a hand in return.
I am looking forward to the next chapter in my life, however it unfolds, and happy to conclude this one, which began seriously when I was about twelve years old. I heartily recommend the process of self-evaluation and charitable donation. It is a sign that you are a responsible, adult human being who can think beyond himself.