The future of natural history museums


Could the 21st century be a golden age for natural history museums? The recent announcement of € 660 million in funding from the German federal and state governments to the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin suggests that this could be the case. Funds have been pledged for the renovation of 19th century buildings and the establishment of a research and public engagement campus within the museum, focusing on ‘the themes of nature and society, of the life sciences and innovation ”. The scale of this investment demonstrates a recognition of the growing importance of natural history to science and society.

Natural history museums have the unique potential among cultural institutions to galvanize understanding and action on the challenges of environmental and social sustainability in the 21st century. Arguably, this potential has been underestimated after decades of shrinking budgets and research and communication agendas focused too narrowly on traditional uses of collections to describe and categorize biological diversity; many institutions struggle to properly care for collections and to keep curators and collections managers employed. Yet in light of the Anthropocene – the proposed geological epoch signaling the pervasive impact of human activities on the planetary system – there is a new urgency to reinterpret the relationships between nature and humans, and to study the collections. in new ways, to create understanding and pathways for improved sustainability and equity.

The tangible and intangible heritage of natural history collections are precious tools for giving meaning to these strange times. Politically, specimens and artefacts help highlight the nature of contemporary crises of sustainability and inequity, while also serving to situate contemporary changes in deeper geological times and allow exploration of potential futures. Historically, because of the links between enlightenment science, colonial expansion, and violence, collections can also index losses over recent and deep time scales. Culturally, they also include beautiful and wonderful objects of inspiration and contemplation. A bald eagle specimen on display at Carnegie International in Pittsburgh this year was one of the most memorable sites reported by visitors. This bird was shot at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Its body transports us to the battlefield itself and to a time when history has been made. Scientifically, the value of organic collections continues to increase. Specimens are time capsules – they allow us to go back and see what conditions were like before. Biological surveys, which are an integral part of natural history research, can facilitate remarkable and disturbing discoveries, such as a 75% decrease in the biomass of flying insects in German nature reserves over the past 27 years. Using new analytical techniques, specimens are environmental indicators of climate and air quality. This use of biological collections could not have been foreseen, but now collections serve as essential data to understand global change.

As the digitization of collections becomes faster and more efficient and online accessibility expands, museums will function as a massive and distributed research center allowing a much greater diversity of researchers to engage and increasing research resources. opportunities for innovation and creative use. We really don’t know the true value of the collections; their relevance will change and adapt with society – both the questions asked and the tools available. The current challenge for natural history museums is to increase public access and participation in collections and research in a way that overcomes some of the negative histories of colonization, exclusion and elitism, and situate scientific research within a broader social and humanist change agenda. How can exhibition and conservation promote respect for non-human beings while displaying their corpses? How is research money for collections and science distributed fairly and equitably among countries and communities? How can diverse audiences be invited to participate in shaping a new history of nature and community – one that promotes profound individual and societal change?

Natural history museums have many programs: scientific research, wildlife conservation, public education, equity and access, entertainment, advocacy. The generous and constant financial support given to the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin over the next 10 years will undoubtedly help this historical museum to innovate in these multiple programs: to integrate the care of its collection of 30 million specimens with the progress of science and technology. and community participation. I hope the money is spent in a way that distributes the benefits fairly and equitably, including improving connectivity and coordination between communities in the North and the South. Now is definitely a good time to invest in natural history museums. As we face disastrous scientific reports, such as the recently released “1.5 ° C Global Warming” report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), these institutions and their subject matter no. have never been so relevant.

Nicole Heller is Museum Fellow and Curator of the Anthropocene at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.


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