The Future of Natural History Collections

The primary responsibility of a museum is simply to keep, identify, and show things as a kind of act of faith, to preserve continuity for its own sake—without attempting to force the objects into or out of any context, except perhaps the simplest historical or geographical order, which would be the reflection of at least one sort of truth.

~Anne Hollander, 1972

The grand corridors of the Smithsonian were packed. It was nearing the holiday season, and Arthur had to scramble to make headway. But the crowds did not bother him. To the contrary, he was delighted to see so many members of the public sharing his fascination with the natural world. Turning left into a crammed gallery, he had reached the showcase exhibit he had specifically come to see. This was probably Arthur’s last opportunity to catch the temporary installation before returning home from his first semester at the city university. He spent several hours meandering through the displays, before leaving in a very good mood. Unbeknownst to all, museums worldwide will soon be shutting their doors to the public, and those same bustling corridors will sit in empty, eerie silence. Exhibits will idle in the gloom.

Having grown up in London, I am often asked for recommendations from my American colleagues planning trips to Europe. As a biologist, I cannot help but advocate the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, where I spent many an afternoon as a child. The opulent windowless hallways, teeming with fossils, pelts and gemstones, were the perfect place to distract myself from the infamous English weather – out of sight, out of mind. Of course they did nothing to distract me from my country’s abhorrent colonial history, quite the opposite in fact, and thus I feel obliged to make some alternative tour highlights for those that would rather not spend the day perusing various spoils of the British Empire.

When I try to be less biased with my assessment of my home town, I routinely turn to the art galleries as some of the greatest treasures London has to offer. The National Gallery and the Tate Modern in particular, are spellbinding. From JWM Turner, whose colorful masterpieces initiated a revolution in the world of painting, to Damien Hirst, whose formaldehyde cow slices have to be seen to be believed, the exhibits move me in ways that words are hopeless to convey. That’s the point of art after all. Attempting to analyse such great works, despite how fervently the critics opine, is like trying to catch the wind.

Yet as with the natural history museum, not everyone shares my love of such places. In the 1972 book, Museums in Crisis, institutions were accused of being out of touch with the public, out of touch with the artists, and out of touch with themselves. 20th-century art has rendered the museum obsolete the authors concluded, galleries were stagnating, and financial prospects were becoming grimmer by the day. Ultimately, the future of such institutions will be dependent on more support from the state than is currently afforded, but dwindling public support strongly disincentivizes the allocation of more government funding. If the future was bleak in 1972, it’s not exactly rosy now.

It needs to be more widely understood, amongst politicians and the public alike, that museums are not supposed to make money. Collections are expensive, and become increasingly so as they grow (and that is what collections do). The upkeep cost of biological material in natural history collections is particularly high. But like libraries and hospitals, the benefits to society these resources provide are great enough that we should support them regardless of their economic viability. The cost of natural history collections is growing, but so too is their value. Mass digitization is making museum data accessible from anywhere in the world, and new technologies are revitalizing old collections. Cryogenic facilities, seed banks, CT scanners – it is not an exaggeration to say that natural history museums are amidst a revolution. Unlike art galleries they are rapidly evolving to stay relevant, but they know their future is far from certain; with survival hanging in the balance, they’re going for broke.

Although novelty is always exciting, we must make sure not to lose the old. Monolithic treatise on a specific group of organisms that made the likes of Darwin famous are becoming harder and harder to write in a clickbait era demanding instant gratification. The fields of taxonomy and systematics are not particularly in vogue, yet these are the bedrock of the biological sciences and impossible without museum collections. Scientific collecting has fallen out of favor with the public. The killing of animals to stuff in museum draws that are already overflowing seems, at best, nonsensical to the casual observer. But such endeavors are crucial to generate long time-series of data that allow us to ask and answer some of the biggest questions concerning the natural world. The effects of climate change or industrialization for example, would not be nearly so apparent without this kind of continuous collecting. New species cannot be described without enough specimens to accurately quantify the variation within species. The museum revolution we are witnessing will fizzle out very quickly if collecting does not continue in the 21st century. Again, all of this requires considerably more money than museums are currently afforded.

Many museums in the United States charge people to get in, and whilst this helps to generate revenue independent of state funding, it also helps to perpetuate the notion that culture is something that should be reserved for the upper echelons of society. Entrance fees do nothing but foster the anti-intellectualism that is already rife in most western nations. The elitism and snobbery salient in modern art circles is well known, but scientists are not much better. Pomposity does nothing to curry favor with the masses and should be avoided at all cost. Sadly, the loss of revenue brought on by the pandemic, coupled with America’s deep-seated fear of socialist policies, makes this altogether unlikely. Indeed the tremendous financial blow dealt to museums forced to close their doors in the wake of COVID19, make it more likely that they will charge more money for entry upon reopening. Let us hope not.

Clearly, crisis-mode for museums began long before the pandemic of 2020, and natural history museums, unlike the rather stagnant galleries, have been trying every trick in the book to retain their value to society through the 20th and 21st centuries. The public face of museums, particularly their role in education, has seen the most remarkable changes in recent years, but it is precisely this aspect of museums that has been most strongly impacted by the pandemic. As something of a Luddite, I am not in the best position to comment on museum outreach in the digital age, but from what I can gather, there appears to be more than a glimmer of hope. In contrast to art galleries, natural history museums have reinvented themselves so dramatically they are hardly recognizable from what they once were even a few decades past. It seems likely that in a few decades hence, perhaps even sooner, natural history collections will again be unrecognizable.

Museums are fascinating. Cultural libraries; treasure troves of wonder.  They have a dark and chequered history, dominated by imperialism, and yet they have provided educational and cultural value untold. I hope that natural history collections will continue to act as the foundation of scientific discovery. Our understanding of the natural world remains in its infancy. Ultimately, we must maintain the public’s interest in biodiversity if we are to save natural history collections. In the modern era many people are up in arms over statues and flags, but I have seen few protests concerning the plight of the museum. Whilst there are exciting programs in the works, we must remember to exercise humility in the preservation of these treasured objects. The very least we can do is take care of the stuff we nicked.

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