4 April 2018

THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM RETHOUGHT: CURRENT DIRECTIONS

MUSEUMS ON EARTH

BY: LANA TRAN

As stewards of nature, natural history museums dedicate a large proportion of their resources to the conservation and development of collections, from which an indispensable understanding of the Earth has come. It’s humbling to think that the careful categorization and analysis of specimens could create such a fundamental awareness of the history of existence itself. It seems, however, that such a feat is no longer enough.

Natural history museums need to do more, differently—or at least, that seems to be the prevailing conversation in the museum literature.

The speed of technological advancement and accompanying social movements are challenging museums to keep up. Citizen science and maker movements are finding space within museums, opening new options for visitor engagement. In collaboration with game developers of all levels, the Royal Ontario Museum's soon-to-be permanent gallery The Dawn of Life has already popped out some interactive apps—one being a dating RPG for, well, prehistoric invertebrates.
 
Screenshot of eCambrian dating game, Royal Ontario Museum. Source.

Meanwhile, more analogue, high-touch approaches could help connect urbanites with values in nature and culture that underlie contemporary issues. To do this, natural history museums will need to go beyond internally-focused practices to engage with the cultural realities of the immediate community.

One such example is the Environmental and Climate Justice Dialogue Initiative. Using object-based storytelling circles, museums can activate their collections, at the same time encouraging local people to see their individual experiences and talents as valid in the struggle for conservation.

4.5 billion-year-long story short, natural history museums are awakening to the idea that long-term relevance is not achieved in self-mummification, but adaptation. 

Further Reading

Dorfman, Eric. 2018. The Future of Natural History Museums. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

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