Fig.1.: Luca Bartolozzi working in the field. (Submitted by Luca Bartolozzi).
Editor’s Note: The first in our series of Q&As with researchers and curators globally is with Luca Bartolozzi, curator of the entomology department at the University of Florence’s Natural History Museum.
When did you get involved in this department, and can you give a little background on the collection?
I started my work in the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence in 1981. I am the curator of the Entomology Department and also have been the Head of the Zoology Section since 2006. At present, we have about 1.5 million specimens of insects in the Entomology Department.
Has the focus of the collection or repository shifted over time?
At the beginning, the research was mainly focused on East Africa - Somalia, which is a former Italian colony- in the last five years we focused on Vietnam. Due to the political troubles in Somalia at the end of the '80s, the Museum - continuing the research in East Africa - started collecting in Kenya and Tanzania, and about 20 expeditions were done there. In the last five years, a memorandum of understanding was signed with the Vietnam National Museum of Nature and five expeditions were organised there, in order the increase our Asian collections.
How have new technologies affected how you treat the collection?
Computer databasing is very useful for the collection management. The aim is to put online the detailed data, as much as possible, on our collections, making them available to the scientific community.
Can you describe some ongoing research projects and the people involved in that research?
I study taxonomy of Coleoptera, Lucanidae and Brentidae. Other colleagues are involved in herpetology, ornithology, mollusks and crabs.
What are some goals you have for the future of your collection?
We want to digitize the type specimens and put them online.
What are some limitations you currently face?
Lack of personnel, lack of funds.
Can you tell us a bit about some unusual or amazing discoveries you think have come from your collection?
Many new species of insects have been described on specimens collected during our scientific expeditions in the tropics.
Why do you think scientific collections are important?
The scientific collections - in the sense of natural history collections- are important because they are the archive and the physical depository of the biodiversity of the planet.
Most of the natural history museums in Italy are in crisis, due to the lack of staff and budget cuts -the situation of my museum is a little bit better- and we would like to inform our politicians of the serious problem of the collections if the are not properly maintained. At present the collections in my museum are well-maintained, but the real problem is the lack of personnel: when people retire, only one-third of them is replaced, due to the financial cuts of the government. In many small museums, depending on municipalities, provinces or regions, the risks for the collections are higher, as the local politicians do not understand the value of the scientific collections. They care only about exhibitions.
Do you think suffering natural history museums is exclusive to Italy? Why or why not?
Not exclusive, but here the main problem is the absence of a national museum. A national museum is the natural and strong interlocutor of the decision makers, while the small voices of many small museums are not heard.
You offer a solution for Italy, similar to other countries' "meta-museums." How have you seen this work other places, and how do you see it working for Italy?
A virtual meta-museum is probably the only way to merge, in some way, all the collections which are scattered in so many small museums. The idea of a national museum died about 20 years ago, for political reasons.