Natural History Museums: A Message of Optimism

The plight of museum collections, taxonomy, and natural history, and some voices that cut through the noise

The Natural History Museum in London

Lately, natural history museums have been under siege. They have been battling to remind society of their importance, to remain funded, and to prove the utility of old, dead things in this very technological 21st century. This war goes on even when so many biological subdisciplines are moving away from natural history and toward theories and models, when fewer people than ever are dreaming of a (dare I say it) romantic career as a taxonomist, and when funding is being increasingly directed elsewhere.

Flat-out magical. Photo of some the Smithsonian Institution’s bird collection by Chip Clark.

Arguably the biggest victim of this trend, as one might expect, is the small university museum. Universities, for much of their histories, have been central to the exploration of local flora and fauna. State land-grant universities in particular often have surprisingly large collections from a time when more resources (and public interest) were more invested in the natural historian. In times when the natural world was more ‘wild’ and was conceived as more romantic, natural history museums were the epicenter of its exploration by humans. There, exotic findings and novel discoveries were documented, and were revealed for the first time to an eager and curious public. Any university worth its reputation would have housed a natural history collection, even if small. And the big museums — like Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, or London’s Natural History Museum — were (and are) flat-out magical.

Since the scientific revolution, great discoveries hail from the halls of natural history museums. Museums are the institutional home for taxonomy, where species are made available for study and conservation by the process naming. This process can often only be done using the veritable database that every museum specimen is, and in spite of some recent calls to use photos or other digital representations instead of museum specimens, this very recent article on the “Omani Owl” demonstrates why. In addition, museums have provided an intellectual milieu for some of history’s most eminent biologists.

One beautiful result of the natural history & taxonomic work that happens in museums: scientific illustration. Photo from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, famous for the failure of his proposed evolutionary mechanisms, only supported organic evolution as a concept for having had Paris’s National Museum of Natural History at his disposal. While his theories ultimately failed, he was among the first well-known academics to support the theory of organic evolution, an act which had tangibly influenced thinkers in England, including Charles Darwin.

Walter Rothschild drove the cataloguing of life in some of the Earth’s most remote places through the task of filling a museum, one that would become the largest zoological collection ever assembled by a private individual. Now split up, much of this collection — including 280,000 bird specimens — is still driving discovery at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

This collection of 280,000 was fundamental to the success of Ernst Mayr. Mayr was ornithologist who spent much of his career as a curator and biogeographer at AMNH, describing 26 new species himself and cataloging many more in three detailed volumes (“New Species of Birds Described from 1938 to 1941,” “New species of birds described from 1941 to 1955,” & “New species of birds described from 1956 to 1965”). He would later go on to be an architect of the synthesis between genetics and evolutionary theory, along with developing the Biological Species Concept, modernizing avian systematics, popularizing evolutionary theory, and publishing 25 books and more than 300 publications. One must wonder what Mayr would have been without the American Museum of Natural History.

Specimens from the LSU Museum of Natural Science. Photo by LSUMNS.

Local Museums, like the Bell Museum of Natural History here in Minnesota, were and continue to be the source of new insights about species in Minnesota and beyond. When the University of Minnesota houses such a museum, researchers here can remain at their institution to use the collections daily for teaching and learning. If this museum were closed, sold, or otherwise shipped off into a warehouse as some cost-cutting universities have done, researchers would have to travel to the aforementioned larger museums to do museum-related work. When researchers have to travel far away to places like the Field Museum or AMNH, places that have their own challenges, their capacity for spontaneous “aha!” moments, for the construction of novel databases, for honing forward-thinking museum-based methods, and especially for teaching, is severely reduced.

Without museum collections within universities, we have another example of where institutions are substituting the artificial — an image file, a digital sound recording, a video — for the real thing — a museum specimen.

We lose something very tangible when such real things are not readily accessible to the thinkers, learners, and dreamers found in universities.

Has society lost interest in the Earth? Photo by NASA

Perhaps this is because society has lost interest in the Earth, in the rich diversity of its species, in the complex and mysterious ways living things interact, and/or in our place in nature. To me, this seems exceedingly unlikely. Rather than the loss of funding and support for museums reflecting society’s interests, I think they reflect a loss of exposure. Having entered a technological age when nothing is as engaging as this screen right in front of me, we have also entered a negative feedback loop with museums. When fewer people visit museums to wonder at the diversity and beauty of the natural world, fewer people receive recommendations to go from their friends.

It is often said that the best way to get people to value the natural world is to expose them to it. I believe this to be the case with museums too. When you take away museum collections from university researchers, future researchers will never know what they’re missing, and will certainly have no reason to support the preservation of costly museums. Students, having never seen and learned from a museum specimen, will never miss their presence in the college classroom.

We cannot miss what we have never experienced,

and if we keep closing museum collections in universities, us collection-lovers may have to face the fact that nobody else would lift a finger to support their preservation.

Long live the natural history museum!

So, do people care even now? Have we passed this time when too few people have benefitted from, wondered at, and had research careers catalyzed my museum collections?

Thankfully, the answer is a resounding, “No!

Museums, their collections, taxonomy, and natural history have been receiving a lot of hype recently — enough hype to bring out my optimism. Take a look at some of what has been said:

Ed Yong, in The Atlantic, wrote“Natural History Museums Are Teeming With Undiscovered Species,” to reconnect museums with the romance of exploration. The piece features an interview with Evon Hekkala, reminding us that the “average specimen languishes for 21 years before it’s formally described,” and casts collections in such a light as this:

“It’s easy to view such collections as soulless stashes, examples of humanity’s hoarding instinct unleashed upon the natural world, turning vibrant menageries into dead zoos, and living, breathing, mating, hunting, fighting creatures into mere specimens, dissembled and dissected, posed in dioramas, pinned in drawers, crammed into cabinets, and stuffed into jars. But to Hekkala and many other scientists, these hoards are full of riches still. They are time capsules that contain records of past ecosystems that are rapidly changing or disappearing. They are archives that provide clues about raging epidemics, environmental pollution, and hidden extinctions. And they are full of unknown species.”

What dreaming child would not be inspired by such a description? For many of us — who would be considered a choir to whom Yong is inadvertently preaching — this quotation brings up those first moments of childlike wonder at museum specimens, be they zoological, botanical, geological, or paleontological. Chicago’s Field Museum created a beautiful piece to encapsulate this sentiment after the tragic passing of eminent mammalogist Bill Stanley. I encourage you to give it a watch:

In Wired, Craig McClain delivers a powerful op-ed about the irony of defunding museums when we face a biodiversity crisis:

“Species are going extinct at rates equaled only five times in the history of life. But the biodiversity crisis we are currently encountering isn’t just a loss of species, it’s also a loss of knowledge regarding them.”

In “The Mass Extinction of Scientists Who Study Species,” we encounter a call for the survival by those who are often housed in — and paid by — natural history museums: taxonomists. As of 2002, approximately 6,000 individuals, worldwide work explicitly as taxonomists. It has been said that doubling this number “could move the global biodiversity survey to near completion within a single human generation,” a feat that would surely advance our capacity to balance humanity with other species in this age of climate change. Instead, one can only assume that the hallmark science of museums, taxonomy, has become less populated since then. There are many groups of organisms whom no taxonomists are classifying, and even well-known groups remain understudied. McClain recounts that,

“nematodes represent more than 28,000 described species of freshwater, marine, terrestrial and parasitic roundworms. On the seafloor they account for 85 to 95 percent of all organisms. But a new study found the number of scientific papers describing new nematode species is half of what it was a decade ago, and a third of the decade before that. Anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 species remain undescribed.”

Citing some reasons for why this may be occurring, McClain’s timely warning, one we should heed more enthusiastically in this time of climate change, is this:

“[P]rogress in biology as whole may be impeded if we lose taxonomy. The problem we face is a loss of knowledge not yet recorded in the scientific literature. In our technological efforts to concentrate our biodiversity knowledge, we may be rendering a field and body of knowledge obsolete. And in the process, we may be undermining our own efforts to protect biodiversity.”

In “Ghosts and tiny treasures,” Brian Pfeiffer reminds readers of the many species who, thanks to museums, are forever extinct, but never to be forgotten. As one answer to the question of whether we’ve reached that critical time when too few people care about museums, taxonomy, and natural history to save them, Pfeiffer argues that,

“Despite the distractions, yes, we do care. That is genuine. We care about big woodpeckers and giant pandas. We care about whales and baby seals. We cared about Cecil the lion — but for all the wrong reasons. Maybe the gratuitous killing of one lion in Zimbabwe did the world — and the lions — some good. That’s not yet clear to me. But is this what it takes? A dead lion with a name, a Minnesota dentist who pulled the trigger, and the rise of an internet lynch mob? Is this how we take action and measure our victories?”

Citing the many vices of the 21st century as a cause for apathy, Pfeiffer characterizes it with the cynicism that many of us probably share:

“Take your pick from actual chronic or acute causes of extinction or extirpation: invasive plants, pesticides, climate change, our own population bomb. How hard we work to tell the world about those actual threats. But a guy shoots a lion, and we have a target for our online opprobrium — a target other than us. So instead of reasoned action to deal with genuine threats, the masses grab their torches and pitchforks (Twitter and Facebook) and storm ‘the cloud’ demanding blood as vengeance for Cecil. Maybe they get some. Maybe not. And then the masses go back to watching cat videos or a rat carrying pizza into the subway; we go back to warming the planet, drinking factory coffee, and spraying chemicals on our lawns.”

Worse, so many “species vanish with only limited public awareness and few advocates working on their behalf,” functions that museums and those that worked in them hold by default.

His message of hope is the following:

“We can discover more. The great unknown at our feet is a remedy for the extinction of experience. Those actual encounters with the wild outside, no matter how near or how common, help us relate to the wild far away, no matter how remote or rare.”

In Nature, Christopher Kemp wrote, “Museums: The endangered dead,” focusing in on museum collections as an epicenter for new species discovery, and a necessity in the age of climate change. Reverberating a similar message to Yong’s, Kemp states that,

“[R]esearchers today find many more novel animals and plants by sifting through decades-old specimens than they do by surveying tropical forests and remote landscapes.”

And yet, budget cuts have produced some remarkably short-sighted reductions in the people that do such sifting:

“The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, had 39 curators in 2001. Today, there are just 21. At present, there is no curator of fishes — an enormously diverse class of animal. Neither The Field Museum nor the AMNH — which hold two of the largest collections in the world — has a lepidopterist on staff, even though both collections contain hundreds of thousands of butterfly and moth specimens. Similarly, the National Museum of Natural History has seen a steady drop in the number of curators — from a high of 122 in 1993 to a low of 81 last year.”

Why do we need these people? In order to conserve rare or endangered species, or to understand the dynamics of ecosystems, we need to have a name on these species in the first place. As humans, everything starts with the name, the semantic creation of something we can study, and something we can protect. One cannot publish papers on the nameless. And one cannot conduct the naming of things, in biology, without taxonomists. Without museum specimens, taxonomists could not hope to have the insight necessary to describe new species.

Perhaps even more notably, museums house the development of new biological techniques, allowing researchers to answer new questions in new ways using old information. This process then feeds back into conservation and taxonomy like so:

“DNA sequencing helped Hanken to describe and name 14 species, all of which have been declared endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Usually, says Hanken, once genetic data have identified a species, he can find subtle features — in the skeleton, coloration or body size — that allow him to tell the animals apart.”

One cannot speak of efforts to communicate the value of museums without mentioning Emilie Graslie, whose work you can find on The BrainScoop. Below, Graslie argues for the value of museums, in spite of their initial incomprehensibility:

Also worth noting is this extraordinarily comprehensive paper, “The Value of Museum Collections for Research and Society”, which does are far better job of arguing for museums than I do, and the Ecological Society of America’s recent efforts to facilitate returning more interest to Natural History.

So, there are loud voices calling out in the name of museums, taxonomy, and natural history. But has anything actually happened? Has the noise all been for naught?

Bell Museum dioramas enamoring visitors in the past as they do today. Photo from the Bell Museum.

In many places, the answer to this question is still uncertain. But recently, Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History released its plans for a new building, and has filled me with an optimism compelling enough to write this essay.

(Unfamiliar with the Bell Museum? Need an intro to why it matters? Check out this YouTube playlist.)

As if in response to all the challenges we saw above, the University of Minnesota is investing in natural history enough to provide it a new home on campus, one that aims to engage the public more in natural history. In other words, there remain people out there to whom engaging the public with natural history is a priority. While this update for the public may not mean any direct benefits for the researchers that use the Bell’s collections, one thing is certain:

More public engagement in a fantastic new museum translates to inspiring more future scientists to query this mysterious universe we’re a part of. It means more people who value museums, their collections, and the kind of work they catalyze. It means more people who care about biodiversity, and have the resources to understand and protect it.

The state of museums may be dire now; the state of biodiversity is certainly dire now. And while this Bell Museum update doesn’t spell victory for all natural history museums against the forces of budget-cutting, it does give us something to smile about. Even a few people who care, as all the articles listed above show, can matter a great deal.

Here’s to one triumph, museum geeks, and hopefully to many more.

There’s even an inspirational video to accompany this exciting news
The architect’s rendering of the new building. Photo from the Bell Museum.

Works quoted, embedded, or otherwise linked:

Wei-Haas, Maya. “The Story Behind Those Jaw-Dropping Photos Of The Collections At The Natural History Museum”. Smithsonian. N. p., 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Meyer, Axel. “On The Importance Of Being Ernst Mayr”. PLoS Biology 3.5 (2005): e152. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Yong, Ed. “Natural History Museums Are Teeming With Undiscovered Species”. The Atlantic. N. p., 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

“The Switch: A Bill Stanley Story”. YouTube. N. p., 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

WIRED, Op-Ed: and Op-Ed: Species. “Op-Ed: The Mass Extinction Of Scientists Who Study Species”. WIRED. N. p., 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Wilson, Edward O. “Taxonomy as a fundamental discipline.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 359.1444 (2004): 739–739.

Robb, Magnus S., et al. “The rediscovery of Strix butleri (Hume, 1878) in Oman and Iran, with molecular resolution of the identity of Strix omanensis Robb, van den Berg and Constantine, 2013.” BioRxiv (2015): 025122.

“Where’d You Get All Those Dead Animals?”. YouTube. N. p., 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

Suarez, Andrew V., and Neil D. Tsutsui. “The value of museum collections for research and society.”BioScience 54.1 (2004): 66–74.

“Bell Museum + Planetarium: Be Part Of The Story”. YouTube. N. p., 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.