Our natural history, endangered

Natural history museums - repositories of the 'endangered dead' - are facing an existential threat themselves

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 e-mail, "if you want to hear me rant for an hour or so on this topic.")

Worse, this rumoured 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 year-long budget review.

It gets worse: A new Republican governor last year shut down the renowned Illinois State Museum, ostensibly to save the state US$4.8 million (S$6.5 million) a year. The museum pointed out that this would actually cost US$33 million a year in lost tourism revenue and an untold amount in grants. But the closure went through, endangering a trove of 10 million artefacts, from mastodon bones to Native American tools, collected over 138 years and now just languishing in the shuttered building.

Dr Eric Grimm, the museum's director of science, characterised 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, three universities decided to give up their natural history collections. They are now combined in a single location, at the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre 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 recently made headlines for avoiding explicit references to climate change.

Other museums omit scientific information on evolution. "We don't need people to come in here and reject us," Dr Carolyn Sumners, a vice-president at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, explained to The Dallas Morning News.

Even the best natural history museums have been obliged to reduce their scientific staff in the face of government cutbacks and the decline in donations following the 2008 economic crash. They still have their collections, and their public still comes through the door. But they no longer employ enough scientists to interpret those collections adequately for visitors or the world at large. Hence the journal Nature last year characterised natural history collections as "the endangered dead". This view of the natural history museum as moribund is a terrible misunderstanding, on many counts. Natural history museums do indeed store specimens from millions or even billions of years in the past. (They even store dust, only it's called "pollen".)

But these collections are less about the past than about our world and how it is changing. Sediment cores like the ones at the Illinois State Museum, for instance, may not sound terribly important, but the pollen in them reveals how past climates changed, what species lived and died as a result, and thus how our own future may be rapidly unfolding. These specimens routinely affect our lives in ways we barely recognise. In the summer of 1996, for instance, a New York developer named Ingram S. Carner noticed that the sugar maples in the Greenpoint neighbourhood of Brooklyn were struggling. He collected a suspect beetle, and Dr Richard Hoebeke, then an entomologist at Cornell University, soon identified it as an Asian long-horned beetle, the first to be found in this country.

If it had gone undetected, a study by the US Forest Service later estimated, it could have killed a third of the trees in cities nationwide. Instead, the discovery touched off a major campaign to contain the invasion at a handful of sites.

The unsung hero? A natural history museum: Dr Hoebeke was able to identify the species so quickly only because Cornell happened to have a single specimen from China in its collections. Natural history museums are so focused on the future that they have for centuries routinely preserved such specimens to answer questions they didn't yet know how to ask, requiring methodologies that had not yet been invented, to make discoveries that would have been, for the original collectors, inconceivable.

The people who first put gigantic mammoth and mastodon specimens in museums, for instance, did so mainly out of dumb wonderment. But those specimens soon led to the stunning 18th-century recognition that parts of God's creation could become extinct. The heretical idea of extinction then became an essential preamble to Darwin, whose understanding of evolution by natural selection depended in turn on the detailed study of barnacle specimens collected and preserved over long periods and for no particular reason. Today, those specimens continue to answer new questions with the help of genome sequencing, CT scans, stable isotope analysis and other technologies.

These museums also play a critical role in protecting what's left of the natural world, in part because they often combine biological and botanical knowledge with broad anthropological experience. So when museum curators travel to a difficult habitat to conduct an environmental inventory, said Dr Debra Moskovits of Chicago's Field Museum, a team will typically work at the same time to understand the needs of surrounding communities.

After one such inventory in Ecuador, Dr Moskovits stood up to withdraw from a meeting when it seemed as if an outsider should not be part of the discussion. The attendees told her to sit down again, saying: "You have no nationality. You are scientists. You speak for nature."

Just since 1999, according to the Field Museum, inventories by its curators and their collaborators have been a key factor in the protection of 10.8 million ha of wilderness, mainly in the headwaters of the Amazon.

It may be optimistic to say that such museums have saved the world. It may even be too late for that. But they provide one other critical service that can save us, and our sense of wonder: Almost everybody in this country goes to a natural history museum at some point in his life, and these visits influence us in deep and unpredictable ways.

Dr Paul B. MacCready, for instance, became famous in the 1970s for building Gossamer Condor, the first successful human-powered aircraft, and then Gossamer Albatross, the first such craft to cross the English Channel. But growing up in New Haven, before engineering took hold of him, he used to visit the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History to indulge a childhood obsession with winged insects.

Years later, Dr MacCready revisited the museum. One thing he still vividly recalled, in the aftermath of his triumphs, was an image on the wall of a diorama he came across, something between an entomological drawing and Breugel's Fall Of Icarus: It depicted a dragonfly on the wing, over a body of green water.

Maybe it was a trivial detail. Maybe most of our visits to natural history museums can seem trivial, just a way to pass Sunday afternoon with the family. But standing beneath the figure of Tyrannosaurus, or staring back at the skull of an early primate, or reliving the feats of Polynesian mariners, we dimly begin to understand the passage of time and cultures, and how our own species fits amid millions of others. We start to understand the strangeness and splendour of the only planet where we will ever have the great pleasure of living.


•Richard Conniff is the author of the forthcoming book, House Of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, And The Story Of Life On Earth, and a contributing opinion writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline 'Our natural history, endangered'. Print Edition | Subscribe