The match between museums and science

With the ongoing discussion of reorganization here, I found myself reminded of something I had written previously in response to a request from an interesting little publication called The Systematist which is published in the U.K. The editor wanted me to write about several articles that had recently appeared about the plight of natural history museums. 

Natural History Museums: World Centers of biodiversity knowledge, now and in the future. 

Bates, J. M.  2007.  The Systematist 29:3-6.

Whither Natural History Museums?  These institutions exist around the globe and receive millions of visitors who come to learn about the natural world which is becoming increasingly difficult to reach or unfamiliar to those growing up in our largest cities.  Many natural history museums are the centerpieces of regional, national and international knowledge about biodiversity and evolution, yet garnering support for these institutions continues to be a struggle and there is concern among many associated with them that they may not survive in the long run.  I will consider modern natural history museums and look to the their future, which should be bright, but only if science continues to be at the forefront of supported initiatives at such institutions and in society in general.

A recent article in Nature bore the title “Endangered Collections” (Dalton 2007).  This article and others have highlighted issues at the Smithsonian Institution and the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, two of the oldest Natural History Museums in the United States, but the problems these venerable institutions have faced are shared with other Natural History institutions large and small.  The causes cited for the difficulties usually come down to finances and changing funding priorities, with some arguing that museums are antiquated, or that their missions are somehow out of step with a changing world. Another recent article about the plight of museums began: “Corporate managers like mission statements: scientists generally don’t.  Academic freedom often sits uneasily alongside the goal-driven culture of the private sector” (Anon 2007).   No one should be surprised that there is friction between some cooperate-minded people and some academics, but the issue is not that one side is goal oriented and the other not.  Rather, the two frequently have similar goals with different perceptions about how they should be achieved, with some corporate managers wanting plow any new funds into new initiatives, while academics desire the financial security that will ensure that they can continue to do top-flight science.  The best solution would seem to be striking a balance between the two approaches. 

The first thing is to establish the mission of Natural History Museums.  They can be and are many things, but at their heart are always the collections, the research done on those collections, and the education possible using them.  These collections are the repositories for information about earth’s biodiversity and how it has evolved through time (Here I take the view that biodiversity includes all aspects of anthropology, botany, geology, and zoology, recognizing that most museums do not cover all these fields).  The mission then is to document and understand biodiversity and the processes that shape it and communicate that knowledge to the world at large.  Museum researchers undertake this mission for both practical and idealistic reasons.  On the practical side, humans cannot divorce themselves from the web of life that covers the surface of Earth, if we do not understand biodiversity, we may doom our civilizations as we continue to alter the balance of Nature on ever-increasing scales.  On the idealistic side, for many of us, the sheer wonder of the myriad of solutions to surviving on earth (or not) through time is enough to make biodiversity the most interesting aspect of the planet.  Through our institutions, their collections, exhibits, public programs and training, museums drive to communicate and teach future generations to value and understand ever-evolving biodiversity.

Ben measuring specimens.jpg

Ben Winger, my graduate student in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology program at the University of Chicago, measures specimens of South American birds as part of his dissertation project on the processes of diversification leading to Andean diversity. 

There is no doubt that many institutions have suffered and continue to suffer from neglect within the larger communities they inhabit.  None of us employed by a Natural History Museum today can feel satisfied that society sees the appropriate level of value in what our collections and their associated programs offer, but such is the challenge for almost any non-profit institution.  While we need to find appropriate and new ways to be considered relevant (Pettitt 1997, Suarez and Tsutsui 2004), this must be done without losing sight of the heart of what we are – stewards of what humans know about the planet’s biodiversity. 

The brand of the institution/ the importance of Academics

Branding is corporate jargon, but it has its place in the current climate in which natural history institutions find themselves.  How do natural history museums compete for visitors who have more choices than ever before and still be true to their mission?  An idealistic answer might be that they simply need to continue to display the natural world the way they always have, but that will probably not pay the new (larger) bills.  Exhibit departments have done wonders creating new and modernizing older exhibits making use of technologies, such as computers and high definition television screens.  They have also worked to bring the increasingly high tech science done by museum researchers to an increasingly techno-savy younger generation, but they cannot forget the importance of basic evolution and natural history, which is still not well taught in our public schools.  So, the most responsible exhibit brand is one that stays true to the mission of natural history institutions continuing to bring out traditional information about evolution and natural history, while also highlighting the new and exciting research methods and results. The same can be said for the “brand” of research.  A successful staff of any leading natural history museum should conduct both the traditional taxonomic work necessary to describe life of the planet and as much cutting edge, collections-based research as is feasible. There must also be an emphasis on training, because the systematics and evolutionary research done in museums is uniquely supported through these institutions and their collections.

Academic training may be the aspect of Natural History Museums that is most overlooked in terms of broader contributions to all levels of society and has become too undervalued at many universities with museum collections.  In terms of both collections-based biodiversity studies and state of the art evolutionary research, many in museums are training the next generation of researchers and collection managers, not to mention providing opportunities for people interested in museums to get to know the types of science that can be done using collections.  Training happens at all levels from high school interns, to undergraduates, graduates and professionals working in related biological fields.  It can be local, regional or international in scope, which is why Natural History Museums are centers for those interested in biodiversity.

The morale of personnel

 Any manual on how to be a successful corporate executive must have a section that emphasizes that maintaining morale of the employees is an important part of any institution’s success.  Continuing budget woes at many museums decrease morale and potentially lead scientists and others who would make wonderful curators, collection staff and other museum employees to avoid such positions.  The causes of these financial problems likely vary from institution to institution, but one that is clear is that these institutions strike a fine line between the need for new initiatives and supporting the core of the institution (Dalton 2007).  Successful museum leaders need to consider issues of staff morale and input when setting strategic goals.

Museums are dynamic institutions

We, museum scientists, can be our own worst enemies.  Dictionary definitions for “museum” include: “a place for learned occupation, an institution devoted to the procurement, care, and display of objects of lasting interest or value, or a place where objects are exhibited.”  While the first two definitions describe a museum well, to some, “museum” simply implies a storage and display site for old things.  The word “museum” even has been used by some scientists to describe parts of the world where it is felt that the majority of evolution happened a long time ago (Fjeldså 1994, McKenna and Ferrell 2006).  Fjeldså (1994) argued that avian speciation rates are higher in the Andes than in the Amazonian lowlands; and therefore Amazonia was a museum compared to the Andes and less of a conservation priority.  I argue that Amazonia is a museum, but not because it harbors only older lineages, in fact, there is plenty of evidence that evolution continues today in the Amazon Basin just like it does in the Andes (Bates and Demos 2006). To me then, Amazonia is museum, but only because I reject the notion that museums are dusty old places.  Anyone visiting the research facilities or modern exhibits of a functioning modern Natural History Museum is going to find the historic collections, but they also will find recently collected, more data-rich specimens, state of the art electron microscopes, liquid nitrogen storage facilities for genetic resource collections, high tech labs for sequencing DNA, and high powered computing clusters.  Why? Because the scientists that curate and study scientific collections are at the cutting edge of the new technological advances in their fields studying biological and cultural diversity. 

These new research tools present a problem as well.  Researchers at modern Natural History Museums need to be able to use and maintain research tools that are far more expensive than ever before.  They also need well educated staff to operate these machines.  The cost of doing this research has greatly increased.  Grant writing can get such research tools in the door and installed, but long-term maintenance is not generally feasible solely through the granting game.

Cutting tissues in cryo room.jpg

Working in the museum's cryogenic collection room, Research Assistant Josh Engel, Assistant Collection Manager Tom Gnoske, and several undergraduate volunteers subsample tissues of birds collected in Malawi as part of the Emerging Pathogens project under the direction of Shannon Hackett.  

Almost every active Natural History Museum is involved in some sort of effort to computerize all or parts of their collections offering rapid access to data and new and powerful analytical possibilities (Krishtalka 2002).  This also is a daunting and expensive task especially for the largest collections, but the benefits to the community in terms of increased data access are substantial.  There are still those who view making collection data freely available via the web as not compensating for the efforts necessary to create and care for collections.  The counter argument is that increased access to the data will yield increased recognition of the value of these data and increase the support base.  Whatever one’s point of view on this, computerization of collections is something that is moving forward and support needs to be given to help sister institutions in less developed countries connect their collections to the growing global networks.

It is easy to try to do too much.  The mission of Natural History Museums is plenty large when it is limited to documenting and understanding biodiversity and the processes that shape it.  Paying for the facilities and staff necessary to carry out this mission is not trivial, but our donor communities and society at large can be convinced of the need to better support our institutions.  The need will always exist to present our arguments about the value of these collections and the research but we need to remember that they are dynamic entities. 

Reaching the broadest audience. 

I am struck by a tendency for museums and their personnel to be continually worried that they are not reaching enough people.  That there is more they should do (e.g., McCarter et al. 2001).  On the one hand this will always be true; there are always new technologies to be employed and there are always new ways that museum collections might be explored and data from them used in novel ways.  But sometimes, I feel that museums fail to stop and recognize how much we accomplish now.  In talking about my institution in other countries, I like to emphasize that most of the approximately 1.4 million visitors who visit The Field Museum annually will unfortunately never get the opportunity to learn firsthand about the biodiversity of other parts of the world.  Too many grow up in cities where they do not even have an adequate appreciation of what goes on in the lands beyond the suburbs (or even in the parks within the city), but in our museum they have the opportunity to learn about biodiversity and science on a global scale in ways that will lead some into supporting efforts to conduct the much needed biodiversity research that we do.  Having curatorial research programs intimately associated with Natural History collections and exhibits is vital to make this connection successfully.

Natural History Museums need to get the message out that they are what they are: incredible archives of biodiversity that are being added to in increasingly new an innovative ways (Krishtalka and Humphrey 2000).  They are academic institutions that are training critically important new generations of scientists with the taxonomic expertise to understand how to conserve biodiversity into the future. 

In summary, one could go back to the earliest human civilizations and find a struggle to convince the majority of any society to accept the intrinsic value of biodiversity.  Thus, we should not be surprised that museums have and will continue to have the need to justify their existence to new generations, at the same time as long as there is life on earth these collections and exhibits will continue to provide a valuable tool for understanding and conserving that life.  Natural history museums do face challenges both from within and from the outside.  Many have weathered more than one such period in the past and survived.  They should be able to do it again.  Those of us committed to these institutions and the collections they house need to creatively beat the drum and continue to educate the public about the value of these unique encyclopedic resources.

Literature Cited

Anon. 2007. Museums need two cultures.  Nature 446: 583.

Bates, J. M. and T. C. Demos.  2001.  Do we need to devalue Amazonia and other large tropical forests?  Diversity and Distribution 7: 249-255.

Dalton, R. 2007. Endangered Collections.  Nature 446: 605-606.

Fjeldså, J. 1994. Geographical patterns for relict and young species of birds in Africa and South America and implications for conservation priorities.  Biodiversity and Conservation 3:207-226.

Giles, J. 2007. Smithsonian looks beyond ousted boss.  Nature 446: 594.

Krishtalka, L. 2002. Information technology and the ten grand research challenges for the 21st Century. Ch 30:319-338 in Teich, A. H., S. D. Nelson, and S. Lita (eds.), AAAS Science and Technology Policy Yearbook, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Krishtalka, L. and P. S. Humphrey. 2000. Can natural history museums capture the future?  BioScience 50(7): 611-617.

McCarter, J., G. Boge, G. Darlow.  2001. Safeguarding the World’s treasures.  Science 294: 2099- 2101.

McKenna, D. D. and B. D. Farrell.  2006.  Tropical forests are both evolutionary cradles and museums of leaf beetle diversity.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 103: 10949-10951.

Pettit, C. W.  1997. The cultural impact of natural science collections. pp.94-103. In: The Value and Valuation of Natural Science Collections: Proceedings of the International Conference, Manchester, 1995. (Nudds, J. R. and Pettitt, C. W., Eds). The Geological Society, London.

Suarez A. V. and N. D. Tsutsui. 2004. The value of museum collections for research and society.  BioScience 54:66:74.