insight - Dr. Coddington

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Occupation - Associate Director of Research and Collections

In 1910 a new museum called the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) first opened its doors to the public on Washington’s National Mall. Dedicated to ‘understanding the natural world and our place in it’, it was the third museum in the expanding Smithsonian Institution.

A century later, the NMNH has accumulated a staggering 126 million specimens from around the world. Dr. Jonathan Coddington is working hard to ensure that number keeps growing.

Deep in the heart of the NMNH, well away from the public displays, Dr. Coddington navigates his way through labyrinthine archives with an unfaltering step. Past fossilised pollen and Tyrannosaurus rex bones, past moon rocks and DNA samples, tiny crustaceans and giant squid, the Associate Director of Research and Collections knows the shortest route to his compact office like the back of his hand.

“Without a mental map you could get lost for days down here,” he jokes. “Taken together, the NMNH collection is the largest, most comprehensive natural history collection in the world. Visitors sometimes ask whether we really need to keep adding more. To be honest, we’ve only skimmed the surface when it comes to understanding the natural world and our place in it. There’s a whole lot more to squeeze in.”

Distinguished scholars, myriad specimens, sophisticated technology, and cutting-edge theories – this is the realm of NMNH’s Research and Collections Department. Professionalism, curiosity, and a desire for adventure regularly take department scientists to all four corners of the Earth. Delving deep into the history of our planet and the processes and peoples that shape it today, they journey to ocean depths, mountain peaks, tropical rainforests, and arid deserts in search of knowledge and understanding.

“Of the 260,000 new specimens we add annually, I would say half are collected by us, and about half are donated,” says Coddington. “Most of our staff regularly spend time in the field. The NMNH probably organises 20 to 30 major expeditions every year, all across the globe. Costs vary enormously; often we’re invited on expeditions paid for by others. US$20,000 per moderately large expedition is about average if we’re paying.”

In addition to his role as associate director, Jonathan Coddington is also the NMNH’s senior curator of spiders; his passion and renowned expertise have taken him farther than most travel writers. “Seeing weird and wonderful places is one of the great things about my job,” he says. “So far I’ve been to over 60 countries on collecting trips. In terms of diversity of species, Ecuador is one of my favourite hunting grounds – the biodiversity of the ecosystem there is incredible.”

Last year Coddington played an instrumental role in the discovery of the world’s largest web-spinning spider. The female of the new species of golden orb-weaver has a leg span of 13cm, and weaves a web more than a meter wide. Although no live species have yet been discovered, Coddington has urged the public in southern Africa’s Maputaland and Madagascar to keep a close eye out for giant webs.

While new specimens are coming in all the time, well under 1% of the NMNH collection is on public display at any time. “Exhibitions take about five years to plan,” explains Coddington. “We start by defining the overall message and goal, and from there we work out how best to communicate the content, and finally which specimens to exhibit. We frequently freshen up displays, but permanent exhibitions can last 20 years.”

NMNH’s continually growing archives take a lot of looking after. “We employ around 250 research and collection staff now,” says Coddington, “which is certainly a lot more than the museum had in 1910. Close-packed, the archives currently occupy about 140,000 square metres (about 540 tennis courts). We ran out of space here on the Mall in the 1980s, and have been building and extending the Museum Support Center in Silver Hill, Maryland ever since.”

While the working philosophy of the NMNH – ‘the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men’ – is still as relevant as it was in 1910, working practices at the museum have changed enormously over the past 100 years. “To understand much of the change one only has to consider the evolution of standard biological practice and theory,” says Coddington.

“Now we have DNA, scanning electron microscopes, ecology (which didn’t exist as a field back then), phylogenetics, tremendous advances in linguistics, cultural, and physical anthropology, archaeology – the list goes on. We have moon rocks now, and the best collection of meteorites on earth, which informs basic research on the origin of life and the possibility of life 0n other planets. In broad terms, our collection’s growth has slowed somewhat, but we’re collaborating more and more each year.”

In terms of the day-to-day operations of the museum, the development and introduction of technology continues to have a significant impact. “Compared to 1910, we now have reliable electrical power, heating, and air conditioning, which allows us to generate a constant environment for the collection,” explains Coddington. “We have computers to database and care for 126 million objects, for complex modelling, and for the quantitative study of specimens.”

“DNA is the current revolution,” he continues. “We are now nearing completion of one of the world’s largest natural history museum cryo-facilities in order to aid the DNA and molecular-based study of collections over the next century.”

With so much to think about, how does Coddington relax? “Two of my favourite spaces in the museum for unwinding are the Butterfly Pavilion and Hall of Gems and Minerals,” says Coddington. “I love to wander through when the museum’s closed. In the tropical pavilion, which is full of live butterflies, visitors get really close to some beautiful and rare species. Our gem and mineral collection is one of the most significant in the world, with some spectacular geological samples. I’m just awed by the natural forces that produced them.”

In its astonishing diversity, the Smithsonian collection is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest treasures – the culmination of a century of scientific devotion and discovery. “Who knows where we’ll be by 2110?” asks Coddington. “One thing’s for sure: those archives are going to be just a little bit bigger.”

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