“WE’RE CURRENTLY EXPERIENCING THE WORST SPATE OF SPECIES DIE-OFFS SINCE THE LOSS OF THE DINOSAURS 65 MILLION YEARS AGO.”
Extinction is a natural phenomenon that occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day.
The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History and National Research Center is the national center for the study of biological diversity in Israel.
The Steinhardt Museum’s mission is to advance understanding of Earth’s biodiversity. Every year, our scientists conduct field research across the Middle East and around the world, using the most advanced technologies to draw fresh information and insights from specimens that may have been in our collections for decades.
The new Steinhardt Museum includes the Zoological Museum, the National Algae, Fungi and Lichens Collections, the biological archaeology laboratories and collections of the Institute of Archaeology, and the National Biological Anthropology Collections. Together, they provide an active, current and comprehensive record of the biodiversity of Israel and the region.
The Museum comprises millions of specimens that record the terrestrial, aquatic and marine life of Israel and its region, as well as the evolution and history of humankind. As such, they constitute a significant research infrastructure for scientists worldwide.
With that said, the collections have been maintained under conditions inappropriate for the storage of organic matter; conditions that curb their development, hamper research and teaching and put their future at risk. The Zoological Museum is currently scattered in facilities across campus. The Biological Anthropology Museum is stored in the medical school. The remains of the first modern humans out of Africa, the last populations of hunter-gatherers and records of human evolution in the Middle East dating back 1.5 million years are at risk.
In 2009, the Israel National Council for Research and Development recognized the collections as a national research infrastructure. That is, a unique resource that promotes cutting-edge science, is relevant and accessible to research groups across a variety of disciplines, promotes international collaboration and is worthy of the meticulous, even costly, maintenance applications it requires.
But it wasn’t until Mr. and Mrs. Steinhardt stepped in that the collections would finally have the permanent home they so richly deserve. The Steinhardts, with the support of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education of Israel and the Israeli Ministries of Environmental Protection, Agriculture, and Rural Development and Tourism — and a recommendation by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities — launched the movement to establish the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History and National Research Center at Tel Aviv University. The groundbreaking ceremony took place May 6, 2010.
THE VALUE ADDED
A larger number of plant species means a greater variety of crops. Greater species diversity ensures natural sustainability for all life forms. Healthy ecosystems can better withstand and recover from disaster. Biodiversity boosts ecosystem productivity.
The Steinhardt Museum has become home to a diverse range of study, research, policy and educational programs that support local, national and international biodiversity efforts.
- Data used by Israeli and foreign environmental and agricultural research scientists to understand the distribution of living organisms in the Middle East are almost solely based within the Steinhardt Collections.
- Taxonomy is the science of classifying and understanding the evolutionary links between living organisms. In 2007, there were only 22 active taxonomists in Israel. The Museum has since trained Israeli young scientists and recruited seven scientists from the former USSR.
- The international community is equally concerned with the intentional or unintentional human distribution of invasive species. The Steinhardt Museum is a vital resource for the identification, study and control of invasive species across the Middle East and Mediterranean.
- Israel is using research and information housed among the Steinhardt Museum to take part in global discussions designed to set priorities for sustainable development.
- Museum scientists and specimens are also playing an essential research and monitoring role in an ongoing effort to develop management tools for agriculture and forestry.
- TAU ornithologists are using preserved feather collections to identify bird strikes, important to flight safety of civilian and airforce airplanes.
- The Museum is also providing a unique record of environmental contaminants, and how the contamination changes over time.
- Israel law now requires developers to secure an ecological risk evaluation that predicts how human activity on their projects will influence biodiversity patterns. The baseline ecological knowledge necessary to undertake this evaluation is available only within the Steinhardt Collections.
AN EVER-EXPANDING TREASURE
A fully functional and vibrant natural history museum has to include active collection measures.
Collection efforts at The Steinhardt National Natural History Museum and Research Center focus on monitoring, teaching and participating in various global biodiversity research programs. But as a national museum, it is also responsible for seeing to it that no “orphan” collection is lost. The Steinhardt Museum is frequently the recipient of smaller collections from private collectors and institutions, usually at the rate of two to three smaller collections a year. Some are quite spectacular. For example:
The Pater Ernst Schmitz Collection is on permanent loan to the Museum. Pater Schmitz was a Catholic monk, who arrived in Palestine in 1908 to head German Catholic hospices and support centers for pilgrims. He founded a natural history museum in one of the hospices, which included specimens collected in Palestine and 45 stuffed birds and 157 plant samples he brought from his previous post in Madeira. Pater Schmitz is said to have paid students and locals handsomely to bring him animal and plant specimens.
TAU received its first donation of a complete collection from abroad in 1969. Derk A. Viskerserved most of his life in the Dutch Army, stationed in the Dutch East Indies. After his retirement, he became more and more interested in the genealogy of the Dutch-Indian families and wrote several classic books on the subject. Mr. Visker started collecting mollusks in 1954. His gift to TAU included self-collected material, as well as exchanged- and/or traded-for shells and books.
Haim Hovel was born in Hungary and immigrated to Israel in 1949. He was a famed ornithologist, collecting bird specimens for the Zoological Museum and his own private taxidermy collection, which grew to include some 4,000 birds from Israel, Africa and Europe. Each specimen is meticulously documented; some are now extinct in Israel.
The Steinhardt Museum established and takes an active part in the Nature Campus program, whose mission is advancing public understanding of science, nature and the environment, and the importance of academic research in the field. It is visited by children, parents, teachers, Israelis of all stripes and tourists and research scientists from around the world.
Nature Campus operates in an area of nearly 650,000 square feet, comprising the I. Meier Segals Garden for Zoological Garden — the country’s largest collection of indigenous fauna — and The Botanical Garden at Tel Aviv University, which includes an inspiring assortment of Israeli, Middle Eastern and global plant life. All Nature Campus guides are graduate students in the TAU Faculties of Life Sciences or Medicine and are engaged in biodiversity research.
The new Steinhardt Museum building will include permanent and temporary exhibitions and a host of public activities.
Article initially published at https://www.aftau.org/expansion