The Natural Futures Museum

Is it reasonable to apply evolutionary principles to museums? This article is based on a talk I gave at the ICOM NatHist meeting in Croatia in October 2014, where I speculated on the future of natural history museums, and argued that if such museums do not take a leaf out of the book of evolution and adapt, they will have no future.

Natural history museums of the European 18th and 19thC tradition are very much the product of the age of enlightenment. Enthusiastic amateurs and professional scientists went out and sought to describe and make sense of the natural world, to order and classify it. The development by Linnaeus of a useful way of naming and classifying living things helped enormously, and Darwin’s work on evolution helped even more in making sense of the natural world.

Broadly speaking, the natural history museum view of the natural world split into two parts. One was the study of humans, and their immediate predecessors in evolutionary terms; the other was the collection and study of everything else in the natural world, the animals, plants and rocks. It was the practice of the time for the “enlightened” Europeans to lump the “primitive” peoples they found in far parts of the world in with the exotic animals, resulting in museum displays and dioramas showing those “native” peoples alongside extant and extinct native animals.

This dichotomy paralleled the birth of the science of taxonomy (the naming and classifying organisms) on the one hand, and the inter-related sciences of archaeology and anthropology on the other. Both are the foundations of the natural history museum as we know it, whether in Sydney, Rio, London or New York.

During the 20thC natural history museums developed what I call their three supporting “pillars”: research programs, typically into biodiversity, geodiversity and human diversity and origins; collections of nature and the cultures of first peoples; and public engagement, typically through exhibitions and education programs. The understanding and utility of each of these three pillars changed dramatically during the century, reflecting changes in how we perceive the world around us, and our place in it.

The first half of the century was marked in natural history museum research by attempts to more and more finely classify and bring order to the natural world, particularly through taxonomy. The last quarter of the century was marked by the growth in the use of genetic markers or characteristics to better define species, and a growing awareness that the rate of species extinction was increasing and that humans were clearly the cause.

The reaction to this loss of diversity by the research community in natural history museums was not what might have been expected. The most strongly voiced reaction was to want to accelerate the rate of description of new species, of biodiversity generally, in what can be summarised as “describe them so we know what we have before we lose them”. In a sense this is of course fine, but the reaction of some (including me) was to prefer that we put more effort into combating the loss of species where we can (through different types of research, education and awareness raising), and to understanding the impact of species loss. There gradually arose a discussion within natural history museums about whether their primary, or indeed only role, is to observe, catalogue and quantify, that is, to retain a certain neutrality. Or alternatively, whether the role might be more as activists and advocates, in addition to the observer role. To some the latter role compromised the objectivity of natural history museums. To others, the former role saw them as powerless and perhaps only marginally relevant to the main debate.

While these matters were being debated, another key and very positive change related to the second pillar, and this was the “unlocking” of natural history museum collections, especially biological ones, through digitisation of collection information, and then the development of tools to access and analyse those collections. Australia’s very own Atlas of Living Australia is a world leader in this regard, with collection information being accessed by a wide range of users, including scientists, environmentalists, biosecurity experts, primary producers and natural resource managers.

The end of the 20thC and beginning of the new century saw another suite of changes involving natural history museum research and collections. While many natural history museums retained and used their collections of the cultures of first peoples for research during the 20thC, there was a strong push from many first peoples in the later part of the century for the return of human remains. There was a desire from those first peoples for the colonial attitude where they were literally placed alongside the native animals to be done away with, for them not to be objects of study and research. Natural history museums in Australia, New Zealand and Canada led the world in changing in response to those requests. Europe, and much of the USA lagged and are still lagging sadly behind.

Several tangible changes occurred. Most pervasively, more progressive natural history museums stopped saying they owned collections of the culture of first peoples. Rather they acknowledged that they are custodians of that cultural material, primarily on behalf of creator communities and their descendants, with an obligation to work with those communities in how their stories are told. They went from “we will study you and then tell our visitors about you in dispassionate scientific terms” to “ we will discuss with you how we should tell your stories, then use that to tell our visitors, but still in our words.” This change is good, but has not yet gone far enough.

This leads me to the third pillar, public engagement. In the early days of natural history museums, their role with respect to the public or visitors was fairly clear – you will be enlightened, educated, and informed about the natural world.

In all of this the information flow was definitely one way. We the knowledgeable museum will enlighten and educate you the visitor with facts and information, which you will gratefully receive. The age of the internet changed all that. The era of web one (basic websites; email) helped foster increasingly inquisitive stakeholders who wanted to do more than simply use the web to check opening times and locations. People wanted to ask questions and make comments, and expected a quick reply, perhaps even an email conversation. Some people disagreed with the museums authoritative view on particular issues, while others expected natural history museums in particular to take a position on issues, not just be neutral.

The era of web two and social media accelerated this process dramatically. As museums in general made more of their collections available digitally, so people engaged more with those collections. That engagement shifted from a simple dialogue between a museum person and someone outside, to a conversation, sometimes taking place on the museums own website, but increasingly often on a third party social media site or a blog. Sometimes the museum was not part of the conversation. People began aggregating information and stories from multiple museums, adding their own stories and curating their own virtual exhibitions. This is happening as much to natural history museums as to any other type of museum, but there are significant differences.

People began to use the scientific date from natural history museums directly from the museums’ websites, or through aggregators such as the Atlas of Living Australia. Natural history museums are increasingly being asked about how their research and collection data might be used to better understand the impacts of climate change, and to provide evidence to support efforts to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere. This has added to the pressure on natural history museums to be more than curiosity driven observers, and to focus their research on problems and issues, and here lies one of my greatest concerns about the future of natural history museums.

The early 21stC has seen natural history museums caught in the combined impacts of decreasing funds for research and decreasing numbers of scientists, with increasing demands for what research there is to be more relevant to the world’s problems. Relevance is the key to the future of natural history museums.

All three pillars of the natural history museum are being shaken by the need for profound change. Rapidly increasing biodiversity problems resulting from human activity in general and climate change in particular are forcing natural history museum researchers to ask whether they are primarily neutral skilled observers, classifiers and documenters of the natural world, or whether they are agents of change focussed on real world problems and finding solutions.

Demands for the information held in natural science collections are increasing and digitisation is creating the means to do this. First peoples are demanding at the very least digital access to their cultural material held in natural history museums, and demanding that human remains held in natural history museums must be repatriated. They also want their stories to be told in their words, not in the detached authoritative scientific museum voice.

The public face of the natural history museum has changed from just being a stone façade, a magazine, and a website. Digital in general and social media in particular are the new public faces of museums. Virtual visitors in particular are wanting a conversation with and about the museum, and are challenging the authority of natural history museums. Visitors want to be engaged and involved.

If they are to be relevant, natural history museums need to stop being primarily detached skilled observers, commentators and documenters, and become active participants in their communities, working with them to understand and do something about the problems confronting the natural world, and the world’s first peoples.

With respect to animals and plants, natural history museum researchers need to move from “my research is mainly about describing species but may have some application in solving some problems” to: “my research is solution focussed, applying science directly to solving these problems”. They need to work within their communities to focus on shared and involved problem solving.

Natural history museums must be less about dispassionately describing the natural world, and more about engaging with and empowering communities, and focussing science on solving the problems of the present to give a better future. Those natural history museums that don’t change will be increasingly seen as irrelevant and not deserving of community support and funding.

My colleague Greg Farrington, former CEO of the California Academy of Sciences, coined the term “natural futures museum”. We should be looking forward and influencing the future. Natural futures museums will thrive.

(This article originally appeared in Museums Australia magazine, 2014.)

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