“In order for our collection material to be accessible for scholarship and exhibition, we all need to work in one direction.”
Dirk Neumann pinning a blacktip reef shark in preparation for its taxidermy. © Dirk Neumann
The student job put more than just butter on the bread for Dirk Neumann. He found a complement to his interest in fish in the management of processes. As collection manager at the LIB in Hamburg, he acts as an interface between different strands of action. He optimises processes so that everyone works together as well as possible towards a goal. Along the way, he is committed to legislative changes that make our work easier.
What led you to biology? Was there a key experience?
My first aquarium led me to biology. But actually, even before that, as a little boy, I spent a lot of time around water, looking for tadpoles and insects. I have always been fascinated by fish, and there was also a family background. My uncle had an aquarium back then and gave me my own in the seventh grade. My last aquarium was 4.20 metres long and ran through the bookshelf of my office in Munich. In the current channel with waterfall, I could observe how the cichlids reacted to the current: namely, just like outside.
What would you have become if biology hadn’t worked out?
I probably would have stayed on as a ramp agent at the airport; that was my plan B if it hadn’t worked out professionally as a biologist. During my studies, I worked as a commercial employee at UPS at Munich Airport. We were responsible for the complete handling of our plane. The most important thing was that it went out on time.
How do you still benefit professionally from this experience today? What skills do you need today in addition to biology knowledge?
As a ramp agent I learned to work relatively pragmatically and solution-oriented, simply because you carried a lot of responsibility there. You often had to go to your limit, know your stress level and be able to rely blindly on your colleagues. There was no guru knowledge. It was a great team experience. It was important to see: How does the process work? That is also something I try to bring to the LIB, that you understand this interlocking, these process flows, the scaling.
What advice do you have for young biologists starting their careers?
Be curious! And in all directions. Try to understand basic principles and connections in biology. Admit your mistakes. Be prepared to make some and talk about them.
What are the tasks of a collection manager? Where do you see your role in the overall LIB?
The job is spilling over from Anglo-American. Only a few natural history museums in Germany have had a collections manager so far; the LIB has three. The work in the research institutions and in the collections has changed a lot: The increase in scientific staff is significantly higher than that of technical staff. In addition, the collection material is also increasingly brought in through third-party funded projects, and no longer solely by the curators of the collections. The curators, who at the same time head a section here, can no longer take care of the details in depth. In the case of third-party funded projects, people are often gone before the material has been deposited in the collection.
At the same time, requests for collection material are increasing. The challenges are great. In order to cope with this, we need process flows that support and relieve the colleagues in the collections. Standardisation helps us, because if one cog doesn’t work, if one employee fails, it has an impact on the entire process chain. We need an interface that supports us in bringing together the different activities and strands of action in such a way that it does not make more work and in the awareness that we are all working together towards a common goal.
In order for us to be academically successful not only as an institution, but also for our collection material to be accessible to academia and exhibition, we all need to work in one direction. That is what we are measured against.
What is exciting about the merger of the research institutes in Hamburg and Bonn?
For me, it is exciting to tease out the synergies between Bonn and Hamburg. In addition, there is the complete planning of a new natural history museum in Hamburg – including the accommodation of the collections. How can smart planning in a new building support the processes in the collections? It’s not about copying what exists, but building something better. The reception of all collection material could be centralised. Then all the sections would work together, everyone would know each other’s procedures and there would be no guru knowledge.
What do you see as the core task of the LIB?
The core task of the LIB is to make the collection objects accessible for different purposes – for research, exhibition and mediation. Where necessary, the process flows in the collections must be optimised so that the knowledge of individuals can flow into the whole and not be lost. This also includes linking the objects with scientific research data. We need a fundamental concept for this.
In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge in environmental protection at the moment?
In all political decisions, there is a strong tension between decision-makers and interest groups. Our task is to contribute with scientific facts and to provide a better understanding of interrelationships. Many conservation decisions are about protecting individual species rather than whole habitats. A core conflict is that habitat protection sometimes does not correspond to economic as well as political interests. We always have to ask why measures are being taken, why are we doing this and what is expedient.
What do you want people to associate with the LIB in ten years’ time?
I would like us to play a big role in the whole biodiversity monitoring and to have set a good point here in ten years. We have a great social responsibility for scientific findings on biodiversity change. Red lists as indicators are not enough. In order to be able to provide a good data basis, we need to establish standardised monitoring with time series from a single point and qualifiable units.
Dirk Neumann has been employed as Collection Manager of the LIB in Hamburg since May 2022. He completed his studies in biotechnology at the Technical University of Munich and zoology at the Ludwig Maximilian University with a diploma thesis on “Morphological and molecular diversity of Sarotherodon galilaeus multifasciatus (Pisces: Cichlidae) in Lake Bosumtwi, Ghana”. In addition to his duties as Technical Assistant of Ichthyology at the Bavarian State Zoological Collections, he worked scientifically on the fish fauna of the Nile and contributed to the interface between science and policy to promote taxonomic research. Since 2011, he has been intensively involved in issues related to the Nagoya Protocol, where he leads various expert groups and participates in international committees on the management of scientific collections. He now contributes his expertise to the LIB.