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Articulating Loss: Quantifying Skeletal Incompleteness in Natural History Collections

Thesis by Alaina Harmon (2018)

The purpose of this instrumental case study was to characterize the degree to which element loss has occurred in natural history museum skeletal collections, which elements were lost, and what types of loss occurred. Through a combination of element-by-element inventory of the non-human primate specimens within the University of Washington’s physical anthropology collection and document analysis of departmental and Washington National Primate Research Center records, data was collected for quantitative analysis. No statistically significant correlation was found between loss and specimen body size, relative element size, or specimen rarity. There was some indication that loss occurred either at a low level in collections or during specimen preparation, that loss might be related to element use, and that loans of undefined length duration impact skeletal completeness. Collection loss might result in faulty anatomical inference or “shifting backbone syndrome,” a consequence introduced in this study. The primary limitation of this study arose from the study design—the results of a case study are not generalizable beyond the case. However, case study design removed potential bias that might have been introduced by sampling within collections, and the results, in conjunction with existing studies of loss, further refined suggestions for future areas of research.

Keyword: Class of 2018, museology, Biology, Physical Anthropology, Museum Studies, Biological Sciences, Communication and the Arts, Social Sciences, Collection Management, Museum Studies, Natural History, Risk Management


Harmon, A., O’Donnell, Wilson, Kaczkowski, Rebecca, & Wilson, Gregory. (2018). Articulating Loss: Quantifying Skeletal Incompleteness in Natural History Collections.  ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.