Stealing the Spotlight in Natural History Museums: How well do we advocate for our collections in exhibits?

Guest post by Katharine Corriveau

The purpose and value of natural history collections has evolved in tandem with our growing understanding of the patterns and processes that govern nature. In the 17th and 18th centuries, natural history collections were kept mainly as tangible evidence of life’s diversity and often as curiosities for curiosity’s sake. However, as specimens were amassed over time and space, this simple function transcended to one of greater scientific and cultural purpose. Natural history collections have come to represent a veritable reference library of the history of Earth, life and science, one that we can return to again and again to help answer the pressing questions of the day. And, just like a library of books, the knowledge covered and the future potential for use and discovery only grows with time.

Today, natural history museums generally function under a tri-fold mission – one of research and scholarship, one of collections preservation, and one of public education. Over the past century a slow evolution has been taking place, as primary functions of specimen research and preservation are overtaken by a push to be more visitor-centered – to disseminate knowledge more than increase it1. More recently, the adoption of myriad new functions from social work to environmental activism, now appended to the missions of many natural history museums, are increasing their involvement in the community and accountability to the well being of our planet.


Alpine chipmunk specimens housed at the University of California at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Many of these specimens were collected in the early part of the 20th century by the museum’s first director, Joseph Grinnell, and are now used alongside modern specimens to demonstrate the ecological and evolutionary consequences of climate change. (Photo credit: kqedquest/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

All kinds of museums are immersed in this paradigm shift, moving from being largely collections-focused to more visitor-centric and community-involved2. Though this shift is positive in many ways, some scholars have expressed concern that the increasing focus on education as the primary objective of museums is hindering their ability to differentiate themselves from other educational and entertainment institutions3. After all, the preservation, growth and research of valuable science collections are the primary reasons for which many natural history museums exist in the first place. Without collections and active research programs, a natural history museum becomes more like a science center, which is another kind of museum all together – more focused on general science education and less (or not at all) on preservation and scholarship. Both institutions are equally valuable in society, but for different reasons.

In a rapidly changing and increasingly resource-depleted world, the long-term datasets and specimens held in natural history museum collections have arguably never been more important – for instance, by providing a critical and entirely irreplaceable tool for unraveling the ecological consequences of climate change and tracking the spread of infectious disease4,5,6. Though their scientific and societal value is well understood by natural history collections professionals, natural history museums have had limited success in transferring this profound appreciation for collections and associated research to museum visitors and other public audiences7. As a result, there exists a growing disconnect between how scientists and visitors view natural history collections, and this lack of awareness and interest may be leading to a decline in resources and funding opportunities for critical natural history collection growth, maintenance and research8,9. It is now not uncommon to hear of natural history museums being forced to impose restrictive budget cuts on research and collections programs, of small collections orphaned and donated to larger museums, and even of institutions being forced to shut down completely due to a lack of resources and support.e.g. 8,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17

Building on the public’s appreciation for natural history museums to create an equal appreciation for collections will be an essential task of natural history museums wishing to stay relevant in the 21st century. At present, it seems that many museums may not be sufficiently active as advocates for collections within the walls of their own institutions, where the potential for visitor interaction and receptivity is greatest. Unless we are referring to research-only museums, exhibits provide the primary channel by which natural history museums communicate with the public. For many people, a museum’s exhibits are the only service they experience as a visitor. Consequently, if the scientific and societal value of a museum’s collections and research programs is not well expressed in exhibits, visitors may leave under the impression “that the only reason museums exist is to have exhibits”18 – in other words, that two of the facets of the museum’s tri-fold mission, scholarship and preservation, are basically irrelevant to the ultimate purpose of the museum from the perspective of the visitor.

Page Museum Saber-Tooth Cat

Visitors engage with the Page Museum’s Fishbowl Lab of Paleontology. Fishbowls are essentially glassed-in laboratories or collections areas where visitors can observe scientists at work. Many natural history museums have started using ‘fishbowls’ to better connect visitors with their behind-the-scenes missions of collections research and preservation. (Photo credit: Page Museum at the La Brea Tarpits)

In my thesis research, I explored this question by uncovering the primary challenges faced by natural history collections in the 21st century and quantifying how well natural history museums are advocating for their collections and research programs in front-of-house exhibits. Here, I will briefly preview some of my findings and provide some food for thought. To obtain a ‘snapshot’ of the state of natural history collections from the perspective of natural history collections professionals, I put out an online survey, from which I received 438 responses, and conducted 26 in-depth phone interviews with curators, collections managers and researchers across the United States and Canada. I want to open the ground for conversation and am curious to obtain your perspective on these results. Do you think natural history museums are effectively advocating for their collections in exhibits? What are the primary challenges and opportunities facing natural history collections in the 21st century?

Figure 1 outlines the primary challenges facing natural history collections in the 21st century, from the perspective of interviewees. Very clearly, challenges related to the lack of funding and resources are most significant in the eyes of natural history collections professionals. Staffing and space constraints, also mentioned, are likely linked to funding issues, whereas many other challenges discussed are societal or cultural in nature, such as the movement away from organismal biology in favor of molecular biology pursuits, the low science literacy rate among the general public, and the loss of taxonomists and taxonomy/systematics-related skills in the scientific community.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Important challenges facing natural history collections in the 21st century, from the perspective of 26 natural history collections professionals interviewed during my research. The y-axis reflects the percentage of respondents who brought up each challenge during their interview.

Figure 2 below represents the percentage of collections departments whose objects or specimens are prominently represented in their museums’ exhibits. Evidently, collection type matters greatly when it comes to collections advocacy in exhibits – over 60% of collections related to planetary science, paleontology, anthropology and geology benefit from prominent representation in exhibits, compared to less than 30% for entomology, genomics and botany collections. Nearly 55% of botany collections receive little to no front-end representation in their institutions! This question referred only to the presence of collection objects in exhibits – it did not delve into how or in what context these objects were displayed.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Online survey results reflecting the percentage of collections (by collection type) whose objects or specimens are prominently represented in their museums’ exhibits. Prominently was defined as the collection’s objects or specimens being the subject of at least one exhibit.

Though they represent only part of my research, I believe that these two sets of findings tell us a lot about our natural history museums. Two main conclusions that emerge are 1) it is clear that funding for collections preservation and research is harder and harder to come by, especially funding to cover infrastructural and basic curatorial expenses; and 2) the extent to which a collection is represented in its museum’s exhibits varies tremendously based on the type of collection. Are these two conclusions related? Maybe so, but that remains to be confirmed. However, I do think it is interesting that our museums’ exhibits are less concerned, on average, with presenting stories and concepts related to our Earth’s modern biodiversity, even though we are in the midst of a global biodiversity crisis, and potentially a mass extinction event. What does this say about the missions of our natural history museums and of human nature in general? Where does our curiosity truly lie?

Some more food for thought:

  • What major challenges and/or opportunities do you see facing natural history collections in the 21st century?
  • Why are certain collections more or less likely to be in the spotlight than others? What characteristics do they share?
  • If visitors do not physically experience a collection in a museum’s exhibits, how might this affect the collection in question and the people who care for it?

Stay tuned for more on this story when I publish my full thesis at the end of June 2014 (accessible through John F. Kennedy University’s Library), and later as a shorter academic article.

Katharine Corriveau is a Museum Studies graduate student at John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley, California.

Next time on Cracking the Collections:

May 28 – Professional Development post by blog team member Katie McComas, reporting on the 10th Conference on Fossil Resources being held May 13-15 in Rapid City, SD.


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