AUMNH Strategic Plan

Article 1. Introduction.

The greatest resource on our planet is its biological diversity.  The term biodiversity is used to characterize the variety of life on Earth spanning multiple hierarchical levels from molecules, to genes, whole organisms, and ecosystems.  Despite over two centuries of taxonomic research, we know relatively little about our planet’s diversity; for example, by some estimates only 10-20% of animal diversity has actually been described.  Paradoxically, humans are dependent upon the essential services that this little-known diversity provides.  Clean air and water, pollination of plants, natural pharmaceuticals, control of disease, and sources of food are fundamental to our existence and are provided by the diverse organisms that inhabit our planet.  Even so, Earth’s biodiversity is declining at a precipitous rate as a consequence of human-related activities (destruction of habitat, invasive species, pollution, over-population, and over-harvesting).

Alabama is one of the most diverse states in the US with respect to its natural heritage (flora, fauna, ecology, and range of geological formations).  For example, the state contains the richest fauna of amphibians, reptiles, and mollusks east of the Mississippi River, is second only to Tennessee in its diversity of freshwater fishes, and also ranks second in the eastern US in richness of fossil deposits.  Correspondingly, Alabama has the greatest proportion of federally listed endangered species in the Southeast.

Natural history collections play an important role in documenting biodiversity and such collections greatly facilitate its accessibility of this biodiversity to the general public through exhibits, outreach, and publications; the AUMNH is ideally positioned to showcase the pivotal role that Alabama plays in preserving southeastern biodiversity.  As summarized by Winston (2007), collections are a significant asset – they support interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research; are a non-renewable resource; are highly cost-effective; play an important role in medicine, public health, and security; are used to document the effects of climatic change; are integral to organismal-based education in the biological sciences; have aesthetic value; and are the foundation of taxonomic research.  Simply put, collections document the richness and beauty of our natural heritage.  As a museum whose home is a land-grant institution, it is our obligation as good stewards of the environment to play a significant role in research, education, and outreach that might help to forestall the loss of our biodiversity.

The Auburn University Museum of Natural History seeks to promote biodiversity research, education, and outreach through exemplary stewardship and interpretation of our natural-heritage collections.  The AUMNH will promote significant organismal-based research in ecology, evolution, taxonomy, phylogenetics, and behavior with a particular emphasis on documenting and preserving Alabama’s biological resources.  Through cutting-edge research and painstaking documentation of holdings in our research collections, we will aim to provide insight into how to manage and protect these resources, and will further aim to provide training for students of all ages interested in biodiversity centered careers.  The AUMNH also aspires to enhance the outreach component of its mission through development and curation of natural history exhibits that likewise focus on the natural heritage of Alabama and the southeastern region of the United States.

Article 2. Current Status of the AUMNH

2.1. Personnel.  Currently, the AUMNH faculty cadre comprises several curators: Jonathan Armbruster (Professor and Curator of Fishes, Museum Director), Jason Bond (Professor and Curator of Arachnids and Myriapods), Stephen Dobson (Professor and Curator at large), Jack Feminella (Professor and Curator of Aquatic Invertebrates), Leslie Goertzen (Associate Professor and Curator of Plants; Herbarium Director), Kenneth Halanych (Professor and Curator of Aquatic Invertebrates), Jamie Oaks (Assistant Professor and Curator of Herpetology), Geoff Hill (Professor and Curator of birds), Charles Ray (Research Fellow IV and Curator of Entomology), Daniel Warner (Assistant Professor and Curator of Herpetology), and Ray Wilhite (Lab Coordinator and Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology). Other related faculty members in organismal biology in DBS study a number of taxonomic groups not necessarily included as part of the major collections; these comprise plant, prokaryote, marine invertebrate, and parasite diversity, and a number of Associate Curators have been informally named across DBS and a number of other departments on campus. Collectively, the faculty associated with the AUMNH study a wide range of topics, including conservation, evolutionary biology, phylogenetics, taxonomy, diversification, speciation, ecological processes, behavior, and ecosystem function.  The geographic scope of their work is likewise expansive; members of the faculty conduct biodiversity-related research throughout the world, with specimen accessioned from every continent and ocean.  AUMNH faculty members provide instruction for most of the organismal-based courses in DBS taught at the undergraduate and graduate level and mentor graduate students.

AUMNH has five full-time staff positions dedicated to curation and care of the major collections as well as an outreach coordinator: collections managers for fishes (David Werneke), aquatic invertebrates (currently open), terrestrial invertebrates (search in process), tetrapods (David Laurencio), and the herbarium (Curtis Hansen), and outreach coordinator (Kay Stone).  In addition, the Alabama Natural Heritage Program is housed under the museum, and it has four members: Michael Barbour, James Godwin, Alfred Schotz, and David Steen (who also serves as a Research Assistant Professor in DBS).

2.2. Collections. The AUMNH currently comprises five large collections (fishes, aquatic invertebrates, insects, herpetology, and plants) and several modest-sized collections (arachnids and myriapods, birds, mammals, and vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology). All collections are currently databased with Specify or are in the process of being digitized. Several of the collections are now available on aumnh.org as well as data aggregators such as fishnet2, herpnet, iDigBio, and GBIF.

2.3. Infrastructure. The collections are housed in a state-of-the-art collections facility (the Biodiversity Learning Center) which is attached to M. White Smith. Given the delay between planning and construction and the addition of terrestrial arthropod collections, many of the collections (particularly invertebrates and fishes) are at or near their carrying capacities, and will require compactors in the near future.

2.4. Collections policies.  Collections policies are defined in Section 10.

Article 3. Strategic Directions.

Auburn University has as its mission to serve the citizens of the state of Alabama “through its instructional, research and outreach programs and prepare Alabamians to respond successfully to the challenges of a global economy.”  The strategic objectives of the AUMNH are aligned with the Auburn University goals of instruction, research, and outreach.  Strategic directions outlined below are: 1) Collections and research, 2) Faculty, 3) Education, 4) Outreach and engagement, and 5) Diversify funding.  Each subsection below briefly outlines the nature of the strategic objective and lists a set of goals and corresponding performance indicators.  Individual strategic objectives are appended to indicate timing (Y = year, superscript denotes the year for initiation).

3.1. Collections and Research. Natural history collections continue to gain in importance with respect to documenting organismal diversity and distributions in the face of the biodiversity crisis as a consequence of habitat destruction and global climate change.  The priority of the AUMNH is to serve as a data-rich repository for all natural heritage collections at Auburn University.  Such a repository functions to archive, care, database, and make available these collections to the research community.  Consequently, DBS, COSAM, and Auburn University should view the AUMNH and its holdings as an asset that provides an important and significant support role to the research and educational community rather than devalue and reduce monetary support.  Such support particularly contributes to the success of the research mission by providing an outreach context for Broader Impacts and by providing important support through infrastructure and administration.  The strategic objectives outlined below focus on collections care, support, acquisition, digitization, and facilitation of research.

3.1.1. Strategic objectives.

  • Monetary support of the collections is vital to upkeep, maintenance, and access. We will pursue vigorously funds from the private sector, foundations, and granting agencies to support collections.  Grants from the National Science Foundation that support infrastructure (BRC), digitization (ADBC), and acquisition (systematics and survey and inventory grants) of collections are integral to the success of the AUMNH.  We also will argue that as an integral part of facilities and administration, a percentage of indirect cost from grants to support collections and collections-based research shall be returned to the AUMNH to support operations and management.  Y1-5
  • Acquisition of newly collected material is important to facilitate the growth of the AUMNH collections. We will increase the number of regional collecting expeditions.  Collecting expeditions will be coordinated through museum staff, curators, and organismal-based courses.  Y1-5
  • We will continue to seek to acquire collections that have been orphaned from other institutions and universities. However, we will act responsibly to acquire only those collections with scientific, educational, or research value.  Y1-5
  • Numerous other units at Auburn University conduct collections-based research or research that results in acquisition of voucher specimens. Per our strategic goal to serve as a central repository for all collections, we will seek to consolidate natural history collections based on efforts from across the campus of Auburn University.  We will achieve this goal by demonstrating to the university research community that it is cost effective, their collections will be well cared for, and that their data will be highly extensible through digitization efforts by the AUMNH.  Y1-2
  • Digitization of collections is integral to extending the utility and access of natural history collections. Moreover, grants to support collections and collections-based research command strong data-management plans that require digitization, archiving, and accessibility of data from specimens.  We will continue migration to the Specify platform, and have all collections searchable on data aggregators such as iDigBio and GBIF by year 3. Y1-3
  • Tissue collections within recent decades have become important components of most natural history collections. The AUMNH will update its tissue facilities and ensure that all collections are cataloged and accessible online.  Y1-3
  • AUMNH will integrate staff at ALNHP into all aspects of collection building, maintenance, and student support. Y1-5
  • Current space is inadequate, particularly for fishes and invertebrates. We will see funding for compactors for the wet collections, and this will likely provide all collections with 10-15 years of growth. Y1-2
  • AUMNH will increase its class offerings to include classes on museum curation, education, and study abroad. These classes will provide students with the knowledge of museum operation from specimen acquisition to use in a learning environment. Y1-2
  • Museums provide an experience to members of the public. Although the museum does not currently have any real public displays, the museum will increase its visibility to the public through increased outreach opportunities. In particular, it will develop its own displays in DBS or at the Davis Arboretum, develop signage for natural areas on the biodiversity of the region, create a website dedicated to Natural History of Auburn University in conjunction with other campus units with natural areas or displays, have paid events that advertise the museum, and seek to expand space into M. White Smith Hall in order to accommodate displays. Y1-5

3.1.2. Benchmarks.

  • Support for collections will be evaluated by number of grant proposals submitted, dollars awarded by grants, allocation of dollars from overhead, and money generated via fundraising efforts.
  • Growth of collections is evaluated annually by number of specimens and lots added to each collection.
  • Evaluation of digitization efforts will be measured by successful integration into data aggregators and the presence of collections online.
  • Presence across campus of AUMNH-tagged displays and signage.
  • Education efforts will be evaluated based on the number of programs and the number of education levels targeted.

3.2 Research and Faculty.  In Section 6, we outline the rights and responsibilities of faculty members that hold the rank of Curator and Associate Curator. This section will provide department chairs and heads criteria upon which to evaluate the contributions of these faculty members to the museum.

3.2.1. Strategic objectives.          

  • Define duties and responsibilities of a curator and formalize procedures for appointment of curators (Section 6). Y1
  • Assess productivity of AUMNH faculty members in curation, collections acquisition, publications, grant proposals submitted and funded, service to the museum at large, participation in educational and outreach activities that are related directly to the museum. Y1
  • Provide funds to active members of the museum for graduate research assistantships. Y3-5

3.2.2. Benchmarks.

  • Performance benchmarks include: number and quality of publications, grants, and research presentations.
  • Educational-performance benchmarks include: mentoring graduate and undergraduate students in museum- and curation-related activities and teaching or participating in courses that involve training in museum sciences.
  • Additional benchmarks include contributions to acquisition of new specimens, processing of material for loans, digitization of collections, and other duties related to care and curation of specimens that can be quantified (e.g., time dedicated to activity, number of lots processed, number of specimens added to collections).
  • Funds dispersed to faculty members and evaluation of productivity enhancements via these funds as evidenced by number of publications and submissions of related grant proposals.

3.3. Education.  As part of Auburn University and the DBS, the AUMNH has a primary role in supporting undergraduate and graduate education.  The museum should serve as a dynamic environment that attracts high-quality graduate students interested in collections-based research on biodiversity to Auburn University, and provide an environment that enhances their research experience and productivity.  Likewise, the AUMNH should attract high-quality undergraduate students to its organismal-biology program and inspire these students to consider careers in natural history, ecology, evolution, and systematics.  In addition, the AUMNH should attract high quality graduate students and offer support for their museum-based research. AUMNH should also develop programs for K-12 education that can be dispersed to students across the state.

3.3.1. Strategic objectives.

  • Establish a museum-science course for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students. Y2
  • Develop a unified program that is shared across all collections for involving undergraduate students in care and curation of the AUMNH collections. Y2
  • Continue to recruit students from the DBS undergraduate program. Y2
  • Continue to recruit high-quality graduate students interested in collections-based research. Establish an AUMNH-wide effort to advocate for increasing the amount and number of graduate student stipends and other avenues of support (e.g., continued tuition support).  Y1-5
  • Provide support for collections-based research to graduate students on a competitive basis, and find more dollars to support such research through grants and gifts. Y1-5
  • In collaboration with instructors teaching organismal and conservation-related courses, further enhance use of the collections and associated data in instruction. Y2-3
  • Recruit graduate students from underrepresented groups in science. The DBS graduate program is particularly depauperate with respect to diversity of its students; the organismal component of the program is not an exception.  Given that enhancing student diversity is an objective of the DBS graduate program, we will seek funds to increase recruitment efforts on this front.  For example, faculty members could arrange to give research and recruiting talks at historically black colleges in our proximity; travel would be supported by DBS.  Y2-5
  • Develop K-12 educational programs particularly targeting years in which natural science is taught (3rd, 7th, and high school). Make those programs available on the museum website and promote them to state schools. Y1-5

3.3.2. Benchmarks.

  • Establishment of a museum-science course. Performance indicators will be number of students enrolled and evaluations of courses by students.
  • Establishment of a formal program to recruit students; effectiveness evaluated on ability to increase participation by students.
  • Increase in the number of and amount of support for graduate students doing collections-based research.
  • Funds dispersed to graduate students and evaluation of productivity enhancements via these funds as evidenced by number of publications and related submissions of grant proposals.
  • Increase in the number of courses supported by AUMNH collections.
  • Increase in the number of graduate students from underrepresented groups enrolled in the graduate program.
  • Demonstration of use of K-12 educational programs.

3.4. Outreach and engagement. Outreach and engagement on behalf of the AUMNH will aim to fulfill two important roles through public interaction: 1) disseminate, to the citizens of Alabama, information on natural history and attendant human impacts to the region’s biodiversity; and 2) profile ongoing organismal and collections-based research of AUMNH and DBS faculty, staff, and students, emphasizing their contributions in documenting and understanding Alabama and global biodiversity. Outreach and engagement efforts will promote public awareness on these two fronts using educational materials, public events, and exhibits, and services geared toward a wide range of audiences and ages. Through such outreach platforms, the AUMNH will aim to acquaint our citizenry with their rich biodiversity, in an effort to instill appreciation and a sense of stewardship through heightened environmental awareness. Outreach efforts of the AUMNH will provide educational information on regional biota, habitats, ecology, and, more importantly, underscore scientific approaches used to study biodiversity, whether locally or worldwide.  In addition to serving an important outreach goal, these objectives will greatly enhance the broader-impacts requirements of many granting agencies.  Finally, while outreach and engagement are not tied directly to the collections and research goals of the AUMNH, such activities serve as a conduit for communicating the importance of collections and biodiversity related research, and thus, are integral to increasing funding for the collections and research from a diversity of sources.

Although the BLC is not designed to accommodate public exhibitions, it is a long-term goal of the AUMNH to provide a public venue for displaying natural history exhibits.  Such a vision will likely require major renovation of an existing building on campus, the construction of a new building to accommodate a public venue, research, and collections, or development of a decentralized model of a natural history museum where displays are placed with the collections as well as at other venues on campus and the region.  Such a bold vision is not without precedence.  Members of the DBS faculty, alumni, and upper administration have worked tirelessly in the past to realize such an aspiration.  Consequently, the strategic objectives outlined below are divided into two phases.  Phase one formulates a set of efforts that can be realized in the near term and are not contingent upon infrastructure.  The second-phase objective will require significant funding, space, and likely major changes in staffing, leadership, and responsibilities of curators.

3.4.1.1. Strategic objectives, phase 1.

  • Develop and maintain an online web presence that includes (but will not be limited to) information about the museum, the faculty, and individual areas of expertise, AUMNH activities (research and outreach), information related to the flora and fauna of our region, and serve as access to collection databases. Y1
  • Develop and starter displays such as the Dinosaur Egg exhibit currently being constructed and a display at the Davis Arboretum that is under discussion. Y1-3
  • Acquire the first floor of M. White Smith with the plan of developing the 108 office suite into a set of displays on Alabama Biodiversity and 117 as a biodiversity discovery space incorporating the current outreach live specimens and various museum specimens that students can handle. Y3-5
  • Host one biodiversity related event and associated guest speaker annually. Such an event would optimally be offered in conjunction with an existing occasion (Earth Day, Darwin’s Birthday, etc.).  Y2
  • Development of the Alabama 200 Species program in conjunction with the Alabama 200th anniversary celebration. This will be a set of learning modules that will teach the broad diversity of the state. Y1-2

3.4.1.2. Strategic objective, phase 2.  The second-phase outreach and engagement objective is establishment of a public exhibit area for visitors with access for large school groups and the general public.  These exhibits would highlight biodiversity of Alabama and the southeastern region and also would include educational programs that extend globally.  Public programs and exhibits should be tied to existing strengths in research and collections.  Ideally, such a scenario would include static and interactive exhibits, traveling exhibitions on loan from other museums (e.g., AMNH, FMNH, and Smithsonian), an interactive laboratory setting for hands-on learning, an IMAX theater, and an auditorium for hosting public lectures.

3.4.2. Benchmarks. 

  • The number of visitors that visit the new displays.
  • Deployment of learning modules and their use by schools.
  • Successful hosting of at least one biodiversity-centric event annually.

3.5. Diversify funding.  To fully realize the vision, mission, and goals outlined above we must seek funding from a diversity of sources.  In the current economic climate, funding from the University and federal grants continues to remain scarce.  As such, increased efforts must be made to seek funding from private individuals, foundations, and corporate endowments.  Indeed, realization of the second-phase outreach and engagement goals will require significant streams of alternative funding to support a new museum building, the additional staff required, and associated educational programs and exhibits.  It is particularly important to acknowledge that these activities, while centered mainly on outreach and engagement, likely will have a significant and positive impact on collections, faculty, and research through increased access to associated resources and infrastructure.

3.5.1. Strategic objectives.

  • Broadly publicize the museum and its activities. It is imperative that local citizens are aware that the AUMNH exists and has plans to expand.  Y1
  • Continue to work with COSAM development and apprise them of the needs and potential for the museum project. Y1-5
  • Host annually a mixer type of event to acquaint and update the administration of Auburn University, prominent alumni, local business leaders, and citizens with activities and plans of the AUMNH. Plans are under development for a “Dead of Winter” event in February 2018, to be done in conjunction with the Davis Arboretum and the College of Veterinary Medicine, the development of a BOT, and an annual evaluation protocol of the Director. Y1
  • Generate an exhaustive list (a menu) that details for donors items for which they can contribute. Such a list would include a range of potential contributions (from single pieces of equipment, to endowed curatorships, to funds to support the renovation or construction of an entire building).  Y1
  • Form the BOT to help to develop museum vision and to help promote the museum. Y1-2
  • In consultation with the COSAM Development Office, generate a list of foundations and alternative funding sources from which we can seek funds to support the AUMNH. Y1
  • Raise money to support the AUMNH collections, research, education, and outreach missions. Y1

3.5.2. Benchmarks.

  • Success of PR campaign evaluated on the basis of the number of times AUMNH activities are highlighted by local and Auburn University news sources.
  • Deployment of information packet for the COSAM Development team. Refinement of the packet based on feedback from the Development Office.
  • Formal list of donor items generated and communicated to COSAM Development Office.
  • BOT formed and biannual meetings established.
  • List of funding sources identified and number of proposals submitted.
  • Amount of money raised to support missions of the AUMNH.