Our heritage is fragile. It is a cultural asset that helps us to pass on the memory of nature, humans and their activities. The loss and destruction of these assets are an attack on the very foundations of our knowledge of the world.
The challenge of preserving our natural heritage
A civilisation is defined by its heritage, in which individuals are rooted and socialised. Thus the Muséum is a place where a connection is made between those who look at this heritage and the things it represents. The Muséum’s mission is to preserve our natural and cultural heritage for future generations. The parks and gardens are organised into networks in order to protect the genetic heritage of the living species. For the collections of minerals, rocks and organisms sampled in nature, all efforts are made to preserve them in the best possible conditions. As well as slowing down the effects of time on the material aspect of certain objects, the Muséum also works on storing their intangible data.
Protecting with the help of the law
The objects sampled in nature are original, in the same way that works of art are. They are unique because each representative of a species is unique in space and time. Systematic collection is no longer common practice. Instead we proceed methodically, observing all regulatory restrictions on unauthorised sampling in the wild. In enriching the collections, we must take account of nature protection laws as well as respecting the nations that are the managers of their habitats. While the Washington Convention governing the trade in species restricts the collection and circulation of natural objects internationally, the Rio and Nagoya agreements grant nations the rights over their genetic resources. Today, an acquisition commission ensures that items for the Muséum are collected in a manner that complies fully with national and international regulations before making them part of our heritage.
Managing and prioritising
The natural history collections are immense: the management and conservation costs can soon become prohibitive. As it is materially impossible to store everything, the collections must be assembled and managed in line with a consistent and forward-looking policy that takes the needs of future generations into account. This national collection enrichment policy is the subject of a multi-year plan and an annual roadmap.
Preserving our fragile capital
Preservation methods vary according to the nature of the specimens and their intended use. In zoology, for example, a given animal can either be preserved in a preservative liquid, in its skin, as a skeleton or mounted in a lifelike position. The common enemies of all the collections are disorder, lack of marking, and careless consultation. Some dangers are specific to different types of object. A few examples: gems and precious stones must be protected from impacts and… covetous visitors! Some minerals must be protected from the light, others from air or water. Certain meteorites can be contaminated by oxygen, water or organic matter. Rocks don’t cope well with rough handling, water and dust, while marine sediment cores can suffer from dessication. Clumsy extraction can be a problem for fossils, as well as oxygen in some cases. Human or animal remains can be destroyed simply by handling. Plants can suffer from humidity or death watch beetles, which devour them. All animals preserved in liquid, especially in alcohol, are at risk of acidification. Artefacts can be damaged by being piled up or stored in moist environments, as well as by moths and impacts…