Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Whither Natural History Museums?

While we are all dumbstruck by the glitzy new creation museum, with its animatronic vegetarian dinosaurs in the garden of eden, the LA Times has a more sobering article on the decline of real natural history museums. You know, the kind where the fancy displays are actually just the public face of the far more important and significant research collections where actual science takes place.

The great American natural history museum could be headed for the vulnerable species list, alongside the polar bear and the redwood tree.

A national survey last year showed nature museums' annual bottom lines sinking chronically into the red by $300,000 on average, while art museums outperformed them by nearly half a million dollars. Some of the leading institutions have winnowed their staffs since the decade began, among them the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Science leaders worry that financial pressures and demands to boost attendance could prompt natural history museums to self-lobotomize, cutting away brain matter — the pure scientific research that's largely hidden from the public — to save the exhibits and educational programs that are the institutions' visible cash generators.
The kind of science where the goal is not to merely present a diorama of a dogmatic belief from a single ancient text, but to actually test hypotheses about evolutionary change.
Research is what makes natural history museums special: the mandate to venture into nature and bring back new finds and fresh questions, while maintaining millions of specimens.

Some scientists say that amid global warming and a rapid die-off of species, these collections encompassing the world's life forms, living and extinct, have become especially valuable for the clues they might hold.

How have creatures through the eons adapted or failed as their environments have changed? What's happening now? Biologists say those questions are vital in coping with today's challenges, and they can't be answered fully without museum collections.
Given the pace of global warming and the necessity to sharpen our abilities to predict how organisms may respond to rapid climate change, museum collections play a much more significant role - and one that even many academic biologist do not quite appreciate.
Universities aren't a strong alternative, scientists say, because many have given up their expensive-to-maintain natural history collections and focused their efforts elsewhere, including biomedical research, genetics and technology.
And I'm sorry to say that my own department here at Fresno State is part of this trend. Our small but potentially significant vertebrate collection and herbarium have some rare early specimens from the local Sierra Nevada mountains that could play a role in understanding some of the ongoing shifts in elevational range and phenologies in the region. But we too don't have the money to properly maintain these as active collections, and it is very difficult to justify hiring full-time curatorial staff (or even a faculty member with part-time curatorial duties) when these resources are not seen to be "productive" - i.e., generating dollars (research grants / donations).

Why is it that these natural history museums have been bleeding red ink lately even as art museums seem to have outperformed them? And let's not even bring up the nauseating millions of dollars that charlatans like Ken Ham rake in for their scam "museums". Is this just a coincidence or part of the collateral (or direct) damage from the republican war on science? How does one stop the death spiral of dollar cutbacks forcing research cutbacks which further reduce the inflow of new grants?
Joel Martin, the crustaceans curator [@ the L.A. Museum], who has been at the museum nearly 20 years, worries that with every cutback, the chances to win grants worsen. Ambitious research often depends on scientists being able to win highly competitive grants from outside sources.

"They're not likely to put a lot of money into an institution that itself is not funding it," he said.

In the three years before 2003, the L.A. museum landed $2.4 million from the National Science Foundation. In the three years since, L.A.'s share dropped to $1.6 million.
Perhaps the science museums also need to re-frame themselves to maintain support from a jaded public as the LA Times suggests.
Experts even worry that the very name "natural history museum" has a Victorian tinge that makes it harder to compete for audiences and funding.

"It harks back 300 years and doesn't resonate anymore," said Krishtalka, the University of Kansas museum director who reclassified his venue as a "biodiversity institute." The challenge and potential salvation, he believes, lie in making visitors and donors understand the connection between the fate of the Earth and all those seemingly inert specimens tucked into drawers or arrayed on back-room shelves in jars of alcohol.

"Our collections and knowledge help inform solutions to the problems the planet's facing," Krishtalka said. "Our time is now, and museums that reach out and grab that mission strongly will be the ones who survive."
Perhaps this is a short-term dip and one that will be reversed by the brand new California Academy of Sciences which will reopen to the public next year.
A completely rebuilt California Academy of Sciences is due to open next year in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The museum, which will have a "living roof" of greenery designed by Renzo Piano, could be the canary in the coal mine. If a leading institution that has had a chance to reinvent itself with almost half a billion dollars can't score a hit, the future for all natural history museums could be a real dodo.

Driving the project, for which about $385 million in mostly private donations has been raised, was the realization that people had become bored with natural history museums, said curator John Patrick Kociolek, the former executive director who spearheaded the rebuilding. "Before you'd go, you could write down what you were going to see. The same stories were being told."

The new museum, he said, aims to stay fresh by uniting its public face with its hidden brain, clearly linking research to what visitors see by basing exhibits on the work of the museum's scientists.

For that to succeed, Kociolek said, there has to be a better exchange of ideas within the museum.

That's why Piano was asked to design hallways, office wings and other staff areas so that formerly "siloed" scientists would mingle routinely with colleagues in other departments.
Something to look forward to I suppose, even though the cynical realist in me has to wonder about that last part... are we en route to making museum relics out of scientists too by putting them on display, in laboratory dioramas mixed in with all the other exhibits?

[Crossposted to Reconciliation Ecology]


Laelaps June 11, 2007 at 10:01 AM  

Thanks for posting this; you should check out Stephen Asma's "Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads" if you haven't already, especially since the last chapter deals with just this problem. The case of the T. rex "Sue" is a case in point; the Black Hills Institute was essentially robbed of the find by the government, which was then sold to the Field Museum in Chicago, which could only afford the dinosaur by striking a deal with McDonald's and Disney, a Sue reconstruction greeting visitors at Disney's DinoLand USA and a McDonald's making its way into the museum. More and more I'm seeing corporate logos sneak into museums when previously they were only names on a list, and I wonder what's going to happen to great institutions if they can't secure enough funding? I know the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philly has been flailing, selling off rare collections to pay its bills (although this has, for the moment, stopped).


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