Triceratops, by O.C. Marsh at the Peabody Museum
My latest for The New York Times:
When people talk about natural history museums, they almost always roll out the well-worn descriptive “dusty,” to the great exasperation of a curator I know. Maybe he’s annoyed because he’s spent large sums of his museum’s money building decidedly un-dusty climate-controlled storage sites, and the word implies neglect. (“Let me know,” the curator advises by email, “if you want to hear me rant for an hour or so on this topic.”)
Worse, this rumored dustiness reinforces the widespread notion that natural history museums are about the past — just a place to display bugs and brontosaurs. Visitors may go there to be entertained, or even awe-struck, but they are often completely unaware that curators behind the scenes are conducting research into climate change, species extinction and other pressing concerns of our day. That lack of awareness is one reason these museums are now routinely being pushed to the brink. Even the National Science Foundation, long a stalwart of federal support for these museums, announced this month that it was suspending funding for natural history collections as it conducts a yearlong budget review.
It gets worse: A new Republican governor last year shut down the renowned Illinois State Museum, ostensibly to save the state $4.8 million a year. The museum pointed out that this would actually cost $33 million a year in lost tourism revenue and an untold amount in grants. But the closing went through, endangering a trove of 10 million artifacts, from mastodon bones to Native American tools, collected over 138 years, and now just languishing in the shuttered building. Eric Grimm, the museum’s director of science, characterized it as an act of “political corruption and malevolent anti-intellectualism.”
Other museums have survived by shifting their focus from research to something like entertainment. A few years ago, in the Netherlands, which has a rich tradition of scientific collecting, three universities decided to give up their natural history collections. They’re now combined in a single location, at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, and the public displays there struck me on a recent visit as a sort of “Animal Planet” grab bag, with cutout figures of a Dutch version of Steve Irwin steering visitors, with cartoon-balloon commentary.
The pandering can be insidious, too. The Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, which treats visitors to a virtual ride down a hydraulic fracturing well, recently made headlines for avoiding explicit references to climate change. Other museums omit Read the rest of this entry »