A New Page

By Michael W. Nickell

Published Nov 12th 2020 in Harold Williams's Essays


I came to Sibley Nature Center in early September 2006 as a contract artist to produce a mural project and serve as a volunteer. My academic and work history was in biology, art, and museum science, and I was most taken in by the “collections” of Sibley. The specimens were not technically collections, but rather an eclectic mixture of natural history specimens which were not curated, had no interpretation, and were inaccessible to visitors. Even though I was hired as an artist, there was a dormant museum scientist awakened to mount a one-person campaign to curate, or “care for” the “collections.” Sibley Nature Center was not incorporated as a museum, so initially my ideas and vision were met with skepticism and a little resistance. Persistence is a strength when I believe strongly enough in a cause, especially a cause centered around living or once living things.

What most distinguishes a museum from other educational, scientific, and aesthetic organizations is the institution’s relationship with its collections. It is assumed that physical objects/specimens have value. The Institute of Museum and Library Services defines a museum as an institution that “…owns or utilizes tangible objects, cares for them, and exhibits them to the public on a regular basis.” Most museums (as well as Sibley Nature Center) hold collections in trust for the public. The public in turn, should hold museum governing authorities accountable for:

  • Maintaining the highest legal, ethical, and professional standards,
  • Establishing policies that guide the institution’s operations,
  • And delegating specific responsibilities to staff, volunteers, and consultants through these policies.

The difference between an accumulation of objects and a collection is that a collection is organized and cared for. Characteristics of a museum collection differentiates it from other collections in that

  • Museum collections consist of more than one object.
  • The objects have order and organization.
  • The objects are valued.
  • The objects are collected with the intent to preserve them over time.
  • The collections serve the institutional mission and goals.
  • The integrity of each object and its associated information are paramount to the museum.
  • The collections are maintained in adherence to professional standards (1).

I now have the title of Museum Scientist and Naturalist, a position that did not previously exist at Sibley Nature Center. With board approval, I have drafted a collections management policy relevant to the mission of Sibley Nature Center which is available for public inspection upon request. Even though the collections of Sibley Nature Center are small, the processes and needs of curation, management, research, conservation, and exhibition are great for a small staff. Sibley Nature Center currently recognizes the following collections: library, herbarium, entomology, vertebrate zoology, comparative osteology, paleontology, art, maps and documents, and digital photography. I am greatly appreciative of my collections volunteers who do the real work, but I need others with dedication, passion, and an eye for detail.

In addition, Sibley Nature Center is committed to the preservation of its wildlife, plant life, and habitats. Of primary concern are pollinating species especially native bees, butterflies, and moths. Sibley also sponsors the Sibley Beekeepers. About 14 acres of mesquite shrubland have been restored to short grass prairie encouraging the re-establishment of grassland birds and insects. As Sibley’s naturalist, a large portion of each day goes to research, writing, and responding to questions from the general pubic with frequent speaking engagements.

The Youth and Family Garden is supportive in their commitment to companion plantings, native milkweed propagation, and pesticide/herbicide-free gardening and education programs emphasizing ecological health and sustainability. The Llano Estacado Master Naturalists are involved in our education programs. Some members of the group are dedicated students of aquatic entomology, especially of dragonflies and damselflies (the Odonata). Some of the Master Naturalists are also important volunteers in assisting with the collections.

Sibley Nature Center is pleased to host quarterly art shows, and as Museum Scientist, I curate them as well. Focus is mostly given to the wealth of regional art talent. I also bring in guests to conduct workshops in plein air painting, portrait painting, nature writing, nature drawing and journaling.

Thanks to generous grants from the Potts and Sibley Foundation, the FMH Foundation, and the Arts Council of Midland (formerly the Arts Assembly of Midland), the collections are better curated, documented, and available for research, display, and use for both indoor and outdoor education programs.

With the advent of COVID-19 and the period of shutdown, I have decided to inaugurate a new series I am tentatively calling “The Museum Scientist’s Journal.” While my “On the Trail’ series focuses more on the science, I envision “The Journal” as being more eclectic, personal, and maybe at times a little quirky. The focus will be on the collections, interesting observations, and some behind the scenes operations involving the collections and special projects.

  • Simmons, John E. Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies. American Association of Museums. Washington, D.C., 2005.