Natural history museums: Facilitating science literacy across the globe
Published:November 27, 2018
Jere H. Lipps, 2018. "Natural history museums: Facilitating science literacy across the globe", Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making, Gary D. Rosenberg, Renee M. Clary
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Natural history museums’ (NHMs) primary missions are to collect, curate, and research natural history objects (life, earth, human cultures, and other specimens), and to use them for public education and outreach. The museums have the potential to enhance lifelong science literacy in unique, direct ways based on the collections they house. Ever since 1683, NHMs have exhibited specimens and educated visitors. Now, thousands of NHMs operate across the globe in ~100 countries, but no two of them are alike. Each resembles the others in the primary missions but differs significantly in collection size and diversity, research efforts, staff size and tasks, styles, public displays, outreach, and education. NHMs are thus complicated businesses due to the wide variety of tasks, objectives, and audiences.
Collections are the heart of a NHM, for everything depends on them. These collections are all biased for a number of reasons, but none of them could contain an example of every kind of natural history object. The big museums have the oldest and largest collections, while smaller NHMs have mostly local collections. Collections are further biased because only a small part of any of them can be exhibited; hence, specimens with certain attractive characteristics are selected for display and use in education and outreach. Many NHMs use replicas of specimens in occasional displays for a variety of reasons to enhance the visitor experience, chiefly to bring rare or fragile specimens to them. This is all normal and to be expected.
The overall outreach aim of NHMs should be to encourage and provide lifelong learning for everyone. People who attend NHMs are mostly educated, and, in Europe and America, chiefly white and middle to upper class. Ethnic or economically disadvantaged groups commonly find NHMs unwelcoming, alienating, and largely irrelevant to their own lives; hence, they make up only a small portion of attendees. In addition, people with physical and mental limitations of mobility, size, sight, hearing, and understanding must be accommodated in NHMs. Museums need to engage these people and to develop programs and exhibits that they will find attractive because these populations will increase in the future.
Exciting, stimulating, and engaging exhibits built around the collections of the NHMs can welcome all groups, if the culture and experiences of these people are understood. Sight, touch, sound, and smell are part of a more realistic exhibit and can reinforce the attractiveness of an exhibit. Real objects from the collections, displayed with imagination and creativity focused on the entire population served by the museum, can captivate and welcome people back again and encourage new visitors to attend.
Technology should be adopted to complement, not replace, exhibits of actual specimens from the NHM. Perhaps the most important computer technology will be artificial intelligence (AI). This bodes well for the future in planning, organizing, and integrating all aspects of the complicated functioning of a NHM.
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Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making
Natural history museums have evolved over the past 500 years to become vanguards of science literacy and thus institutions of democracy. Curiosity about nature and distant cultures has proven to be a powerful lure, and museums have progressively improved public engagement through increasingly immersive exhibits, participation in field expeditions, and research using museum holdings, all facilitated by new technology. Natural history museums have dispersed across the globe and demonstrated that public fascination with ancient life, vanished environments, exotic animals in remote habitats, cultural diversity, and our place in the cosmos is universal. This volume samples the story of museum development and illustrates that the historical successes of natural history museums have positioned them to be preeminent facilitators of science literacy well into the future.