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How Natural History Museums Open Peoples’ Minds

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 20, 2016

Making new friends at the American Museum of Natural History (Photo: Jon Hicks/Corbis Documentary)

Making new friends at the American Museum of Natural History (Photo: Jon Hicks/Corbis Documentary)

by Richard Conniff, for

Recently I wrote a piece about the worldwide decline of natural history museums, partly at the hands of know-nothing politicians who don’t want to hear what science has to say. It stirred up a lot of strong emotions.


His Dimness

Readers protested what they called “the closing of the American mind” and the “denaturing of humanity.” A lot of them objected especially to the decision by first-term Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois to shut down the Illinois State Museum after 138 years. Rauner made his millions at a private equity firm specializing in leveraged buyouts and roll-ups—that is, spinning corporate numbers while producing nothing. But it somehow made sense in his dim little mind to save $4.8 million a year in state funding for the museum, even though it meant losing $33 million in tourism revenues—and that’s not counting the value of the scientific research such museums routinely produce. (You can speak up for the Illinois State Museum in a note to Gov. Rauner. On the subject line, I suggest you write, “Fat Wallet, Dim Mind.”)

But along with the anger, readers also remembered how natural history museums had helped open their own minds. One reader wrote that “my heart still beats faster each time I approach the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco,” and a former New York City resident recalled his childhood delight in discovering the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History: “I immersed myself in each tableau, completely captivated by the recreated reality, which connected me directly to the great natural world beyond my urban surroundings.” That seminal experience

opened the doors “to science and to love of the natural world,” enriching his life forever after, as it has done for countless other city children. (If you want to enjoy that sort of experience, you can become a member of your local natural history museum and get free access to a nationwide network of sister museums.)

Other readers recalled dazzling moments at natural museums around the world. One was overwhelmed at seeing the first fish “to crawl out of the water nearly 400 million years ago” and a foot-long dragonfly wing, both at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Another reader celebrated the extensive Darwin Centre recently added to London’s Natural History Museum, adding, “It’s hard to imagine the building of a Darwin Center in the U.S.” other than as a form of protest. Indeed, the state of Kentucky decided this year to hand $18 million in tax subsidies to a religious group called Answers in Genesis for a Noah’s Ark theme park scheduled to open in the summer. No naturalists need apply.

But my article also knocked the natural history museums, or at least the ones that have resorted to entertainment, rather than science, to boost attendance. One of the most poignant notes came from Reed Noss, a University of Central Florida biologist who has devoted his life to conservation: “As a child, my favorite place, after the woods and streams, was the Dayton Museum of Natural History in Dayton, Ohio. This museum not only displayed, but actively practiced and taught natural history in those days.” He took summer classes there in birding, fossils, the ecology of streams, reptiles and amphibians, and other subjects. Then about a decade ago, he took his family back to show them this inspirational scene from his childhood.

“We were horrified by what we found,” Noss recalled. “There was virtually no natural history on display. No truly educational exhibits. The place had been turned into a playground, with stupid games, slides, big plastic tubes to crawl through, and other nonsense.” It now calls itself the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery, maybe because the words natural history are just a little too edgy for tender Ohio minds. “Shame on you,” Noss concluded. “I shall never return.”

One thing readers neglected to mention: Natural history museums matter not just in shaping children’s minds but as centers for the kind of scientific research that shapes our understanding of the world. Most visitors don’t even realize that natural history museums, unlike most “science” museums, employ scientists behind-the-scenes to do important research with their collections.



So let me tell you about my favorite specimen, an early Cretaceous dinosaur named Deinonychus, which I came to know in the course of writing my new book, House of Lost Worlds, about the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Paleontologist John Ostrom discovered the five-inch-long claw of this creature sticking out of a Montana hillside in the summer of 1964. He spent the next few years gathering more fossils and studying them in painstaking detail. It led him to conclude that dinosaurs were not the plodding, stupid, swamp-bound evolutionary dead end they were then generally thought to be. They could be fast, agile predators, with metabolisms akin to that of modern mammals. The idea caused shrieks of horror among other paleontologists, but Ostrom prevailed, launching the modern dinosaur renaissance.

Then he began to notice similarities between the wrist bones of Deinonychus and Archaeopteryx, the “original bird” from 160 million years ago. That led Ostrom to argue that birds are living dinosaurs—the only dinosaurs to have survived the great extinction event of 66 million years ago. That idea is now accepted by almost all natural scientists, and it makes the creatures fluttering around our streets and yards infinitely more interesting.

But OK, if that’s not enough to make you see the value of natural history museums, let me also resort to entertainment: Ostrom’s Deinonychus in time became the model for the terrifying velociraptors in the Jurassic Park franchise. In real life, velociraptors were about the size of chickens, not genuinely big and scary like Deinonychus. But after doing his research with Ostrom, author Michael Crichton just decided velociraptor sounded sexier.

So, yes, natural history museums matter, in all kinds of ways—and yes, they are vanishing. I should end on another reader, who responded to my article with the words of novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder: “Every good thing stands moment by moment on the edge of danger, and must be fought for.” He concluded, “We must fight to protect these great institutions against the forces of ignorance and greed.”


Why, yes, yes, yes, of course you can buy my new book! How kind of you to ask!  Just click here to buy from Amazon (and if you do, please also post a review), or click here to buy from your local independent bookstore, because they also need your support.

Oh, hey, one last thing. I took a closer look at Bruce Rauner’s tie (see below), and its a bunch of fishing lures.  So apparently the guy has some interest in the natural world. Do you think he might sense some vague connection between the natural history science at the state museum and the fish he seems to enjoy catching?

Think again.



6 Responses to “How Natural History Museums Open Peoples’ Minds”

  1. dr.s.sethu said

    Thank you. I am the recently retired scientist of NMNH. New Delhi,India.The vast biological collection was engulfed by fire last month.utter carelessness ,and negligence of the administration can be held responsible for this huge big irreparable loss.I squarely blame the chief for making the fire fighters and sprinklers left unattended.eventually they were found not working during the fire broke out entire period.similarly the self-centered officer in command did not bother much to have any disaster management plan.The most funny thing is this arm chair scientist is trying hard to become the figure head of he is the only museologist in the Indo-Pacific area!!even after total destruction of NMNH

  2. Steve Pavelsky said

    A few years ago on a business trip I finally had the time to visit the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. I was hoping to see what I had envisioned as a wonderful display of American Paleontology or even Global Paleontology. Instead, I was met with Dinosaurs and Ice Age Mammals. Almost nothing else related to the history of life on earth. Obviously some Marketing Team had decided “what sells” and “what keeps the lines moving”. I wish we had museums like those of the 19th Century where there was value placed on exhibiting the wide range of flora and fauna on our earth and in its’ deep past. There is so much more to the story than damn Dino’s and Wooly Mammoths. If these are “Public Museums” the public should be privy to the massive holdings collecting dust that have been collected and deposited in them for decades. It is so sad that this material never gets interpreted for public consumption. So many amazing stories sitting dormant.

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  4. Victor said

    I visit the Field Museum here in Chicago quite often. What bothers me is the presence of what I call ‘cultural anthropology’ in the museum. Half the museum is taken up by this crap (my opinion). I mean humans have been a part of the life on earth for a couple of million years. But in a Museum of Natural History; we are way way over-represented. I would prefer that we have a separate museum of Cultural and Physical Anthropology and relegate all the human artefacts there and let the natural history museums deal only with non-human critters.

  5. bob said

    Victor – Perhaps you aren’t familiar with the history of the Field Museum, which grew out of artifacts assembled for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which were much more anthropological than natural-science
    The old Chicago Academy of Sciences had a small but very well crafted exhibit of natural history, but the City in its “wisdom” kicked it out of its building in Lincoln Park to be replaced elsewhere in the park by the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, an underfunded and IMO inferior institution.
    If you want to fund a large, exclusively natural history museum for Chicago, go ahead – although the Powers That Be in my city seem only interested in George Lucas’s Star Wars Museum. But don’t claim that your vision of the Field is what the Field should be – you didn’t found it, and there is no reason that I can see that it should conform to your particular set of prejudices.

  6. […] the decline in number of natural history museums, Richard Conniff at Strange Behaviors discusses why they are still vital to our imaginations, knowledge, and overall life enrichment. If […]

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