Never stop learning because life never stops teaching.
Professor Warren Allmon identified two pillars of modern natural history museums: research values and public values. Research values include documenting biotas no longer available and present and past biogeographic distributions, housing type, voucher specimens, and (perhaps most importantly) serving as fertile places for scientific discovery and inspiration. Public values in contrast include serving as resources for identification of unknown specimens, hands-on education and the support of systematics, and (perhaps most importantly) as the depository for the final physical evidence for the history and diversity of life on Earth. Finding a balance between these two pillars is easier said than done.
Owing to the financial burden of caring for aging collections, many new “museums” outside of academia are really science centers, containing no collections of actual specimens. These modern institutions provide tremendous educational value but completely fall down with regards to the research pillar. Most of the pressing crowds that visit big museums have no idea of the distinction. Growing up in London, I spent many an hour in South Kensington wandering through the grand corridors, in awe of the giant ground sloth skeleton and Mary Anning’s ichthyosaurs mounted on the walls. These formative experiences are likely why I am a biologist, but at that time I had no idea what a museum really was – what goes on behind closed doors, the rows and rows of identical specimens and the CT scanners humming away somewhere in a dingy basement. I was either unaware of such activities or unsure of their purpose. But this is where the research value of a museum lies! Collections that most people never see have been used to track the shifting phenologies of flowering plants in response to climate change, document the thinning of egg shells with increasing pesticide exposure, and reveal the build-up of soot in bird feathers following industrialization. If science centers are to be successful museums, they require real holdings in a collection and more research personnel to pursue scientific inquiries. This will ultimately require more funding.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, many collections housed at universities are solely concerned with research endeavors to the point that they have no public face. Without a public face, university collections have no real means of generating their own income. This is a considerable problem, especially given the ruthlessly economic business model of higher education in western society. University deans are decreasingly tolerant of providing resources for orphaned collections unless they can be justified on the grounds of providing experiential learning opportunities. Course offerings specifically teaching curation techniques and preparing students for roles in the museum sector have been developed at a handful of universities, but most small holdings do not have the money allocated for permanent staff to implement such programs. In the same way that schools with smaller class sizes always outperform schools with fewer teachers, museums with numerous staff will provide considerably more educational value than those institutions run by only a handful of employees. With adequate funding, collections on campus could flourish. Without funding, they will topple in the absence of the public values pillar and under the weight of mounting upkeep costs.
Public museums may have had to close their doors in the wake of coronavirus, but technology allows museums to strive for a much broader public reach than ever possible. Most big institutions have dedicated twitter accounts that achieve science communication beyond the museum’s walls. Podcasts, lecture series, and blog posts are now all par for the course. Museum data is rapidly being digitized and made freely available online. It is a great tragedy that we live amidst something of a revolution in the field of natural history museums, but we may not have to resources or the wherewithal to capitalize.
Providing educational value was not a priority for early Cabinets of Curiosities. The shift of natural history collections towards more formal educational settings is a rather recent development. Indeed universities still have some way to go in providing public values from collections housed on campus. Even public museums spent most of their history in the entertainment business; as a matter of course, dioramas were often sensationalized to draw in the crowds. In the 21st century we should leave the dramatics to Disney and the people that make Jurassic Park. Natural history museums have carved out a new niche, and now many are beginning to resemble classrooms, but we must never lose sight of the research value that proper collections provide. However upsetting, a key role of natural history collections in the modern age is to help document the 6th mass extinction in real time. From toddlers to undergraduates, museums represent many people’s first introduction to the natural world. The only way that future generations will do better than us is if we help them learn.