Four ways natural history museums can distort reality

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Natural history museums are magical places. They inspire awe and wonder in the natural world and help us understand our place in the animal kingdom. Behind the scenes, many of them are also undertaking a science that changes the world with their collections. But these are places for people, made by people. We might like to think of them as logical, fact-driven places, but they can’t tell all the facts – there’s no place. Likewise, they cannot show all animals. And there are reasons behind what’s on display and what’s left in the reserve. The biases that can be detected in the way people talk about animals, especially in museums, is one of the key themes of my new book, Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects. Museums are the product of their own history and that of the societies in which they are integrated. They are not apolitical, and they are not entirely scientific. As such, they don’t really represent reality. 1. Where are all the little animals? Museums are overwhelmingly oriented towards big animals. It’s not hard to see why: who can not be impressed by the sight of a 25-meter-long blue whale? Dinosaurs, elephants, tigers and walruses are spectacular: they exude presence. It’s easy for museums to instill a sense of wonder with animals like this. They are the definition of awesome.

It is therefore the kind of specimens that fill the galleries of museums. But they are only a tiny fraction of the world’s diversity. Invertebrate species (animals without a backbone) outnumber vertebrates 20 to one in the real world, but in museums, I’d be surprised if 10% of the exhibits focused on them.

The Micrarium at the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL, tries to give small animals some space. UCL Grant / Matt Clayton Museum of Zoology

2. Where are all the females?

If one thinks of the sex ratio of animal specimens in museum galleries, males are vastly over-represented. Curator of Natural Sciences at Leeds Museum Discovery Center, Rebecca Machin, published a case study in 2008 from a typical natural history gallery and found that only 29 percent of mammals and 34 percent of birds were females. To some extent, this may be explained by the fact that hunters and collectors were more inclined to acquire – and defeat – animals with large horns, antlers, tusks or showy plumage, which is usually the male of the species. But can this display bias be excused? It is a distortion of nature.

Machin also found that if male and female specimens of the same species were displayed together, the males were typically positioned in a domineering pose over the female, or simply higher than her on the shelf. It was without taking into account biological realities.

skull and antlers
Giant Ice Age deer are a mainstay of natural history museums – the antlers of the males approached four meters in diameter. UCL Grant / Oliver Siddons Museum of Zoology

Examining the ways in which the specimens had been interpreted, even in labels written very recently, she found that the role of the female animal was generally described as a mother, while the male appeared as the hunter or at least had a broader role unrelated to parenthood. We have to ask ourselves what messages this can give to museum visitors about the role of women.

3. Where’s all the yucky stuff?

When it comes to the groups of animals that people consider cute, especially mammals, why are jar specimens on display less regularly than taxidermy? I suspect that one of the reasons is that, unlike taxidermy, fluid preservation cannot hide the fact that the animal is obviously dead. Museums are likely to be reluctant to display mammals in jars – which are very common in their reserves – because visitors find them more disturbing and cruel than the alternatives.

I have encountered few items that elicit such a strong negative response from visitors as the halved cat below, on display at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, and it’s also interesting. They seem more concerned with this cat than when faced with the preserved remains of endangered alien creatures. The human bond with this species is so strong that many people find it difficult to see them kept in a museum.

Stabilized kitten
Most museums would not display this for fear of disturbing people. UCL Grant / Oliver Siddons Museum of Zoology

There are other reasons to believe that museum curators modify their displays to suit the sensibilities of their visitors.

The majority of mammalian species, for example, have a bone in their penis. Despite the prevalence of the skeletons of these animals in museum exhibits, it is extremely rare to see one with its penile bone attached. One of the reasons for this is the presumed prudishness of the preservatives, who would remove the bone from the penis before exposing them (another is that they are easy to lose when defleshing a skeleton).

4. Colonial biases

The regions of the world from which the animals in our museums come are truly uneven. The logistics of visiting exotic places meant that it was easier to organize transportation to some places than others, and there may also have been some political motivation to increase knowledge of a particular region.

Knowledge of a country’s natural history is equivalent to knowing the potential resources – whether animal, plant or mineral – that could be exploited there. Collecting became part of the act of colonization; staking of a possession claim. For these reasons, collections are often extremely biased by diplomatic relations between nations. In the UK it is easy to see the Old British Empire bias in what we have in our museums, and this is true of any country with a similar history. The collections of Australian species in British museums eclipse what we have from China, for example.

Platypus
British museums have more platypuses than you might think. UCL Grant / Tony Slade Museum of Zoology

Museums are rightly celebrated as places of wonder and curiosity, but also of science and learning. But if we look closely, we can see that there are human biases in the way nature is represented. The vast majority of them are harmless weaknesses, but not all of them.

I hope that when people visit museums, maybe they can consider the human stories behind the exhibits they see. They might wonder why all of this is there: what is this museum or specimen doing? Why is it? Why did someone decide they deserve to occupy the limited space of the cabinet?

Jack Ashby is the director of the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL. This article was originally posted on The conversation.

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