Natural History Museums: A Message of Optimism

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

Nick Minor
Apr 30, 2016 · 13 min read
The Natural History Museum in London
Flat-out magical. Photo of some the Smithsonian Institution’s bird collection by Chip Clark.
One beautiful result of the natural history & taxonomic work that happens in museums: scientific illustration. Photo from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Specimens from the LSU Museum of Natural Science. Photo by LSUMNS.

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

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!

“[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.”

“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.”

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

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.

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

Stories about biodiversity & why earth has so much of it

Nick Minor

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Aspiring explorer-naturalist with a passion for birds, big questions about biodiversity, storytelling, & adventure.

Stories about biodiversity & why earth has so much of it