Four Ways Natural History Museums Distort Reality


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 world-changing science with their collections.

But these are places for people, made by people. We might like to think of them as logical, fact-focused places, but they can’t tell all the facts – there’s no room. Likewise, they cannot show all the animals. And there are reasons behind what is exposed and what remains in 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 embedded. They are not apolitical and are not entirely scientific. As such, they don’t really represent reality.

1. Where are all the little animals?

Museums are mostly oriented towards big beasts. It’s not hard to see why – who can but be amazed by the sight of a Blue whale 25 meters long? Dinosaurs, elephants, tigers and walruses are spectacular: they ooze presence. It’s easy for museums to instill a sense of wonder with animals like this. They are the definition of awesome.

And so these are the kinds of specimens that fill museum galleries. But they represent only a tiny part of global 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 displays focused on them.

The Micrarium at the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL, tries to make room for small animals.
UCL Grant Museum of Zoology / Matt Clayton

2. Where are all the females?

If we think of the sex ratio of animal specimens in museum galleries, males are vastly overrepresented. Curator of Natural Science at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre, Rebecca Machin, released a case study in 2008 from a typical natural history gallery and found that only 29% of mammals and 34% of birds were female. To some extent, this may be because 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 misrepresentation of nature.

Machin also found that if male and female specimens of the same species were displayed together, the males were usually positioned in a dominating pose over the female, or simply higher than her on the shelf. This independently of biological realities.

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

Examining the way the specimens had been interpreted – even in labels which were 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 the less had a broader role unrelated to parenthood. We have to ask ourselves what messages this might give to museum visitors about the role of women.

3. Where’s all the gross stuff?

When it comes to groups of animals that people consider cute – especially mammals – why are specimens kept in jars displayed less regularly than taxidermy? I suspect one reason 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 storages – because visitors find them more disturbing and cruel than the alternatives.

I’ve come across few objects that elicit such a strong negative response from visitors as the bisected cat below, on display at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, and that’s equally interesting. They seem more concerned about this cat than when confronted with the preserved remains of endangered alien creatures. The human connection with this species is so strong that many people find it difficult to see them preserved in a museum.

Most museums wouldn’t display it for fear of upsetting people.
UCL Grant Museum of Zoology / Oliver Siddons

There are other reasons to think that museum curators change their presentations to suit the sensibilities of their visitors.

Most mammalian species, for example, have a bone in their penis. Despite the prevalence of skeletons of these animals in museum exhibits, it is extremely rare to see one with its penis bone attached. One reason for this is the alleged prudery of curators, 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 bias

There is a real inequality where the animals in our museums come from. The logistics of visiting exotic locations meant that some locations were easier to arrange than others, and there may also have been some political motivation to increase knowledge of a particular region.

Knowledge of the natural history of a country is equivalent to knowledge of the potential resources – whether animal, vegetable or mineral – which could be exploited there. Collection is part of the act of colonization; stake a claim of possession. For these reasons, collections are often extremely skewed by diplomatic relations between nations. In the UK it is easy to observe the bias of the former British Empire in what we have in our museums, and this is true of any country with a similar history. Collections of Australian species in UK museums dwarf what we have from China, for example.

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

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 portrayed. The vast majority of them are harmless weaknesses, but not all of them.

My hope is that when people visit museums, they can reflect on the human stories behind the exhibits they see. They might wonder why it’s all there: what is this museum – or this specimen – doing? Why is it? Why did someone decide they deserved to occupy the finished cabinet space?


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