Natural History and a Unified Museum Definition


Much is being said within the museum industry about the definition of museums. ICOM is considering the current definition and whether it needs to be rethought. I think a review is worthwhile, regardless of whether changes are ultimately made. Robust thinking about museums (or any field, in fact), whether related to practice or theory, should be based on the intrinsic nature of the field. Defining museums is a critical step along that journey.

For natural history institutions, whose main business is to study and interpret the diversity of life, the relationship between museums and the state of the Earth must by necessity play an important role in constructing a definition. At the very least, an exploration of this relationship provides a context for natural history museum collections and, at best, it has the power to incite people to explore their identity and connection to one another through the prism of nature.

To some degree, natural history museums can be defined by what they do. At Carnegie Museum of Natural History, we have defined our work do through three distinct but interrelated lenses:

  • The Tree of Life: The study of evolutionary relationships among taxonomic groups,
  • The Web of Life: The collection-based and in situ study of ecological systems,
  • The Future of Life: The study of the trajectory of species, populations and ecosystems, especially in the context of anthropogenic disturbances, as well as actions to ameliorate those effects.

The collections and other infrastructure provided by our museum support this work and the story-telling that arises from them.

While the study of evolution and ecosystem relationships is the traditional work of natural history museums, the future of life bears further consideration. By most measures, conditions on the planet we bequeath to our descendants are highly uncertain. Even discounting the seemingly inescapable reality of a future effected anthropogenic climate change, many factors inhibit our predictive ability. Will we run out of power or meat? Will plastic and mercury pollution render produce from the oceans inedible? Will at least some of the planet run out of water in the face of increasing desertification?


These are “wicked problems” (Churchman 1967; Levin et al. 2012) – issues that have so many facets we cannot know the answers, but for which at least some of the alternative outcomes are negative. The interrelationships between these issues create bewildering complexity.

These effects have been recently amalgamated into the concept of the “Anthropocene”, a proposed geological era that reflects human impacts so pervasive as to influence the geological record. These effects will be detectable millions of years from now, by whoever might be looking, as an unprecedented band of plastics, fly ash, radionuclides, metals, pesticides, reactive nitrogen, and consequences of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations (Waters et al. 2016), as well as highly modified fossil composition, featuring an overwhelming preponderance chicken bones.

How does this ‘Age of Humanity’ structure our visitors’ perceptions and help them phrase questions about their environment? How will it influence our research? Most germane here, how does lack of certainty about the future of the planet influence the museum definition as it pertains to natural history institutions?

A Natural History Perspective

insect-3940790Fifteen of the world’s top natural history museums collectively contain, at rough estimate, almost 570 million specimens[1]. This represents the largest category of collection across the museum industry. Collections underpin the field. Any discussion of a unified perspective of natural history museums must therefore take into account the fact that collections form the basis of much of that is undertaken by natural history museums. This focus on collections, often from deep time, intertwines physical and temporal considerations:

Natural history museums and their collections are often thought of in terms of the past, which is not surprising. We are probably the only scientific research facility that can claim the ability to time travel, albeit in a patchy and far from perfect way. Our business is intimately connected with the past, both recent and deep time, and much of what humans know about the natural world a hundred, a hundred thousand, or a hundred million years ago arises directly or indirectly from the specimens held in our collections. When your child states with certainty that Tyrannosaurus rex lived in the Cretaceous they are, knowingly or unknowingly, drawing on the results of research done using museum collections. Norris, 2017, p. 13.

Norris (ibid.) follows this with a comment: “There is, however, a considerable difference between studying the past and belonging in the past.” Natural history institutions also focus strongly on the present and future and use information about the past uncover, contextualize and predict changes in the world around us.

Natural history museums, sitting at the crux between nature and its artistic representations have an important place in facilitating exploration of personal identity. Inasmuch as enhancing self-perception can have a positive influence on behavior, (see Falk, 2009), natural history museums’ capacity to contribute to society increases as their activities in this sphere become more purposeful. Those visitors who care about wildlife, and there are many, want natural history museums to deepen and expand their understanding. Museums like to feel that they occupy a place of credibility in the hearts and minds of the public that other channels of information, for all their worth, do not (but see Museums Association, 2013). Whether we truly are more credible than other types of institutions or not, our self-perception provides a significant opportunity to strive for best practice.

Albert Bierstadt: Rocky Mountain Landscape

The grounding of natural history museum practice in the study of physical specimens means that these institutions have at least a goal of objectivity, however influenced by curatorial subjectivity the framing of questions can sometimes be (see Dorfman, 2016). The articulation of evidential knowledge, concern over changing political environments, even in quality of governments themselves, is not new, nor restricted to the museum field.

How are museums responding to the melange of environmental, sociopolitical and technological changes that that are beginning to set the context in which they operate? Customer focus and using people’s own languages, both culturally and linguistically, to communicate touches every aspect of activities at natural history museums, including exhibitions, marketing, strategic planning, science, cleaning regimes and providing sufficient seating. Conflating individuals’ perspectives into stereotyped offers based on age, gender, race, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation undermines the relevance on which natural history museums pride themselves.  Every institution has the opportunity to provide leadership in the sense that Covey (2005) wrote “…leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.”

For natural history museums, the unique signature of our industry is formed by using collection-based and in situ research to elucidate evolutionary and ecosystem relationships, as well as the intersection of these processes with humanity and its impacts, and then facing these stories outwards to the public. For all the many facets of the work of natural history museums, this is the most important and the aligned with our mission.

The Definition Through the Eyes of Natural History

The current definition of a museum as provided by ICOM is as follows:

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment. (ICOM Statutes art.3 para.1)

At first blush, much of the definition of the definition as it stands is generic enough to include natural history museums. One question, however, that comes to mind is how well the term “humanity and its environment” fits the practice and perspective of our industry. For one thing, any organism that existed before the evolutionary rise of Homo sapiens (~2mya) could, by this definition, be considered irrelevant to the work of museums. While this is patently not the case, a careful review of the definition should take this wording into consideration.

This semantic argument notwithstanding, the implicit question embodied in the words “its” poses a deeper consideration, namely the ideological friction between the notion of ecosystem valuation versus that of the intrinsic worth of nature. Both these perspectives have their strong adherents.

forest-2735617Formal cost-benefit analyses and the generation of market value were first developed in 1997 by Robert Costanza, Distinguished University Professor of sustainability at Portland State University, Oregon, building on earlier discussions of economic benefits of the environmental (e.g. Rolston, 1988). Constanza and his colleagues calculated that such services were worth US$33 trillion annually, or US$44 trillion in 2019 currency (Constanza, 1997). The rationale for undertaking this exercise is that ecological system services and the natural capital stocks that produce them are critical to the functioning of the Earth’s life-support system for humans. They contribute to humanity’s welfare, both directly and indirectly, and therefore represent part of the total economic value of the planet.

Since then, the field of environmental economics has proliferated and non-market valuation has become a broadly accepted and widely practiced means of measuring the economic value of the environment and natural resources. A variety of methods, including opportunity cost, travel-cost, hedonic price and contingent valuation have been applied in highly nuanced and complex models (e.g. Weber, 2015). In most, but not all cases, environmental goods and services are geared solely toward protecting inter-generational human welfare. For instance, considering mangrove ecosystems, benefits might be characterized by direct ecological yield in the form of fish or timber, contrasting with indirect value, such as filtration services and storm protection. There is also a line of reasoning that suggests that sentimental or “existence” value: simply knowing something exists provides a distinct, discernible benefit (Krutilla 1967).

An opposing viewpoint lies in the philosophy that nature has intrinsic worth and that the environment should be protected based on its own merits without reference to real or potential benefits for humanity (McCauley, 2006). This viewpoint is strongly based in environmental philosophy and ethics (see, for instance Callicott’s 1992 criticism of Rollston, 1988).

Young humpback chub (Gila cypha) swimming in Shinumo Creek, inside Grand Canyon National Park soon after release. They are part of a reintroduction program of this federally protected specie with the goal to establish a second population, after they became extinct everywhere except a small part of Little Colorado River. Photo: Melissa Trammell, NPS

For instance, in discussing conservation efforts of the humpback chub (Gila cypha) a large minnow with no value to humans, native to the Colorado River, Smith (2010) suggests that all currently existing (biological) species have their own intrinsic goods, framed in terms of their ability to flourish. Based on this ethical stance alone, it could be argued that even a species like the humpback chub, that competes successfully with economically important introduced species (such as rainbow trout Oncorhynchus mykiss), should be preserved.

The work of natural history museums is firmly rooted in this second philosophy. For one thing, much of the research we do is based on advancing knowledge for its own sake or, like the example of the humpback chub, taking conservation action out of professional ethics and a moral sense that it is the right thing to do. Additionally, natural history institutions, like other types, use the museum medium of engagement to instill empathy with the subject. In the introduction to her book Fostering Empathy Through Museums, Elif Gokcigdem highlights this necessity:

…Having visibly altered our planet’s outermost layers, scientists are debating whether our footprint is worthy of naming an entire geological epoch on Earth’s billions-of-years-old timescale after ourselves: Anthropocene, the Age of Humans… A steady proliferation of new and ever more powerful technological tools seems unable to correct these ills. One must wonder why they have not succeeded. I believe it is because the tools that are at our disposal are most beneficial when filtered through a worldview that values the collective well-being of the “Whole” – our unified humanity and the planet, inclusive of all living beings as well as of its life-supporting natural resources. Such a unifying worldview cannot be attained and sustained without empathy, our inherent ability to perceive and share the feelings of another. (Gokcigdem, 2016. xix)

Connecting people both intellectually and emotionally to the world’s major stories sits firmly within the scope of work of museums. The opportunity to bring people outside themselves to engage more deeply with the world is an element of the definition of that should be incorporated across all its nuanced facets. If the definition of museums chases, these considerations should sit beside many others as influencors of the conversation.


[1] Information taken from the websites of the following museums: Smithsonian Museum of Natural History: 137 million; Natural History Museum (UK): 80 million; Jardin des Plantes: ‎68 million; Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History: 35 million; American Museum of Natural History: 32 million; Naturhistorisches Museum: 30 million; Field Museum: 30 million; Museum für Naturkunde: 30 million; California Academy of Sciences: 26 million; Carnegie Museum of Natural History 22 million; Australian Museum: 21 million Harvard University Natural History Museum 21 million; ; Natural History Museum of Geneva 15 million; Yale Peabody Museum: 13 million; Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales: 6 million. No attempt to verify these figures has been made.


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