Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bringing back the natural history

An Academic in American Illustration CareersPreserving the Future of Natural-History Museums 

At some point, apparently back in the 60s, natural-history museums began to focus on attracting children; it made sense for demographic reasons allied to the educational imperatives of the Cold War.

But now the museums have been child-centered for so long that it's hard to imagine the adults coming back. And with them, a more complex appreciation for the natural-history museum as a unique kind of cultural institution—as a place for aesthetic and historical appreciation—has been lost. 

There is something down at the heels about many natural-history museums, for all their esoteric attractions, compared with other parts of universities. It is as if the museums are allowed to continue but not allowed to significantly expand, just in case they need to be closed in the not-so-distant future.   A lifetime of visiting natural-history museums—along with conversations with a variety of people who have devoted years of service to them, such as Erickson—has led me to humbly submit the following recommendations, realizing that I am merely a humanist observer:
  • Do not sacrifice the history of your museum for the sake of being up-to-date everywhere you look. Showcase the development of science as a self-correcting, interdisciplinary enterprise that, nevertheless, has a past that is worth celebrating.
  • Foreground the art of science and the aesthetics of the museum. Regard the museum as a palimpsest, or exposed layers of sediment. Do not engage in expensive, wholesale renovations that destroy the work of prior generations of curators or the memories of older visitors.
  • Do not attempt to compete with other forms of entertainment. Audio-animatronic dinosaurs and do-it-yourself excavation pits are not the answer, nor are more interactive computer terminals that seem obsolete within a year of installation.
  • Stop condescending to children (most see through it and don't like it). Maintain standards of decorum, even if visiting parents and teachers are not willing to do so. Do not constrain the level of complexity in your displays. Develop tours that focus on different kinds of audiences.
  • Show people—in small groups—the museum behind the scenes. Reveal the natural-history museum as a living institution: the workrooms of the curators, the drawers full of insects, the cabinets full of skins, the shelves of specimen jars, and the technicians working with computers.
  • Apart from prehistoric human evolution—a branch of the history of primates—avoid anthropology, which has often led to ill-considered displays of indigenous cultures that are offensive and rightly scare away potential supporters.
  • Embrace the complicated history of the building of your collections. Present the museum as a biological archive; showcase your passenger pigeons, Tasmanian tigers, and quaggas, if you have them—and remind visitors which other creatures are going that way.
  • Encourage patrons to build their own natural-history collections and give them professional guidance on doing so.
  • Teach the conflicts, and, in so doing, push back against antiscientific trends in our culture. 
  • The most important point: The world is full of simulations. Natural-history museums should cultivate the aura of the real: the rare and unique, the beautiful, the exotic, and the grotesque. 
Always interesting, don't forget to visit your local museums and enjoy the work that went into it.

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