- Many important natural history museums are struggling to survive due to reduced funding and staffing, and so their collections are increasingly being split up, degraded, or hived off.
- A review of these trends, addressing the problems with such museums and suggesting solutions, was recently published in the journal Megataxa.
- “Institutional declines need not be seen as inevitable, but should at least be acknowledged before things may be improved. We have all-too-silently borne witness to declines or extirpations of natural history museums, not just in London, Paris or in the tropics,” a new op-ed argues.
- This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.
With the disappearance of European empires, many associated internationally important natural history museums (NHMs) are struggling to continue. They are being underfunded, short-staffed; collections split up and hived off. Many are, in short, dying, despite much window dressing with specimens being digitally archived away with even less access for naturalists who may need them.
Fred Naggs, previously of London’s NHM, recently provided a review of such trends in the science journal Megataxa in a wide-ranging, 27 page article addressing global biodiversity problems, with several suggested solutions. Given that firsthand observations about museum culture are rarely articulated, such observations should interest all those interested in institutions that are often publicly funded to support biodiversity research and conservation including zoos, societies and botanic gardens.
Although Naggs’s article concentrates on the Natural History Museum in London, its remit is much wider (uncredited quotations below are taken from it). Despite declines, many museums and institutes still seem to thrive – these include NHMs in Copenhagen, Sydney and at Harvard, and also the British Museum and Kew Gardens – perhaps the best-known botanical institute in the world. I’ve been fortunate to visit at least a dozen important NHMs around the world, including a tiny one in Riga, Latvia, and expanding modern ones such as in Singapore.
Several museums and their collections have been severely damaged or destroyed by fires such as the Lisbon NHM in 1978, the Delhi NHM in 2016, and the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro Brazil in 2018, erasing centuries of work and countless biological specimens.
The interestingly-named Darwin Museum in Moscow, founded by the enthusiasm of Eugenia Aleksandrovna and Alfred Kohts in the early 20th century, when interest in the natural world in the West peaked beyond levels seen today, is clearly struggling. This museum now maintains a low profile while collections in Ukraine face devastation.
In the context of better-known institutes such as the NHM in London, the problems are seen as self-imposed under the intervention of government ineptitude: “[barely any] of the U.K.’s 650 members of parliament holds a degree in a biological subject.” This situation is clearly not unique to the U.K. Most politicians today tragically lack the enthusiasm for the natural world of, say, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who helped found the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, which has retained many traditional features such as the ‘lifelike’ African wildlife dioramas that are now well over a century old. Naggs’s contribution is one of very few similar documents – an insider’s perspective that helps explain why the role of some NHMs seem to be in terminal decline, at a time when they are urgently needed.
Naggs is among many of us who have palpably witnessed rapid biodiversity destruction – especially tropical rainforests: “To state that progress on biodiversity protection has proved elusive since the first Earth Summit … is an understatement …” Most ambitious UN conservation targets have not been met, and such stated goals “will not stop the current extinction crisis, … there is no such thing as sustainable growth in a finite world.”
Large collections, as were set up in London initially, turned into veritable black holes for specimens. Most collectors or ‘sportsmen’ (just for mammals and birds rather than invertebrates) bequeathed their collections to museums like London’s, at a time they were welcome with due caution, but without the same degrees of restrictions in place today, especially when wildlife was historically more abundant. “The great majority of collections were accumulated in the nineteenth century …”
In a unique audit conducted at the London NHM for about 20 years until 1904, there were then approximately 55,000 mammal and 400,000 bird specimens. Currently there are estimated to be about 800,000 preserved fish and 8 million mollusks, largely in the form of empty shells. “The current estimate for zoological holdings (including insects) is 63 million specimens and for botany, 6 million … with particularly strong representation from Britain’s colonial empire…,” which implies important collections from parts of Africa, Canada and Australasia as well as South Asia, Burma, Malaya and parts of modern Indonesia. There would be many specimens collected by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, to name but two outstanding naturalists, and others that could never be replaced, such as the lost foot of a dodo (now only existing as a plaster cast). “The NHM’s collections are the core of its being …”
The Convention on Biodiversity, among other frameworks, has prevented museums from the unrestrained acquisition of international terrestrial specimens since about 1990, without due qualification, and sometimes ironically, such as confiscated illegally imported specimens of potential research value. Modern museums often acquire collections through collaborative research with international partnerships, where specimens will be shared with local researchers and institutes, and are imported with permits.
Thanks to barriers in such diplomacy and interpretations, especially if hampered by degrees of ‘bio-nationalism,’ many NHMs have scaled back collecting from abroad and London’s is no exception. It is not as ambitious in acquisitions as compared to the past: “The fact remains that the NHM does not have targeted and ambitious programmes to collect from non-marine habitats in tropical biodiverse countries, which are in the frontline for extinctions.”
The NHM has its origins in the natural history collections of the British Museum (BM) that opened to the public in 1759 in Bloomsbury. The British Museum (of Natural History), an impressive neo-gothic building, was opened to the public in 1881 in Kensington to house the BM’s natural history collections. Declared independent from the BM in 1963, it was renamed the Natural History Museum in 1992. A similarly palatial Vienna NHM arose concurrently, with variations in scale reflecting power and geographic reach.
Until recently the museum was comprised of the departments of Zoology, Botany, Entomology, Paleontology and Mineralogy, each with their dedicated heads or ‘Keepers.’ These five departments have since been amalgamated into ‘Life and Earth Sciences’ before being lumped into a hollow ‘Science Group.’
During these simplifications, it is not only Keepers who have been eliminated. There has been a progressive diminution of curatorial staff, researchers and assistants, whereas the numbers of specimens have not similarly declined. According to Naggs, in the Fish Section alone in the 1970s, there were at least 10 researchers employed full time with a “prodigious publication output.” There are now no fish researchers, and two remaining curators. There have been similar declines across life sciences, including in the Mammal Section.
Many visiting researchers have noted a loss of curatorial standards, with some wet specimens drying up due to inadequate top-ups with preservatives (e.g., amphibians) – in part due to staff cuts. Scientific staff have been replaced by a “clique of empowered administrators …” (and unpaid volunteers). Their role and that of PR has emerged stronger than science. Whereas the museum supports PhDs and postgraduates, very few have been recruited to employment positions. Departmental simplifications and staff cuts have been progressing since the 1990s and had been criticized earlier in Nature. The museum has also lost its in-house taxidermists, since the 1980s (Vienna NHM still employs at least 3).
With such changes, the specimens have tended to lose their home at the museum itself. Many were re-homed temporarily in storage sites such as the cetaceans and corals; the bird collection was sent from London to Tring in an amalgamation with the Rothschild Museum. Plans are now being implemented to deposit about half of the collections and scientific staff in Reading, in collaboration with Reading University. There are also plans to digitize specimens to a far higher degree – which unfortunately is problematic, as many specimens are not adequately catalogued or identified. “Digitisation of NHM collections needs to be focussed, selective and prioritised … Even collections made by experts in the latter half of the twentieth century have been shown to have fewer than 80% of samples correctly identified …”
As with many similar museums, other kinds of specimen storage should be adopted for conservation priorities such as cryogenic specimen storage and bio-banking. Naggs considers that London could take a species conservation lead by adopting large scale storage of viable cells. Splitting the specimen collection and researchers will damage institutional identity and integrated function.
Given a general lack of funding for taxonomy, exacerbating a “taxonomic deficit,” the museum has declared that it will change direction, specializing towards “applied environmental, agricultural and medical research,” competing with several institutes, both commercial and government-funded, already serving these needs.
Anyone familiar with the London NHM since the 1970s, like this author is, is likely to have noted the following changes: many biodiversity galleries, such as the large fish, paleo-mammal, evolution, bird and even British wildlife galleries have been demolished, dismantled or replaced (you can no longer see a mounted, red-faced malkoha). They weren’t just stuffed displays. The central hall, once devoted to large specimens, has now been cleared – given it is needed for evening celebrity led functions (evocative of Matthew 21:13).
This extends to the replacement of the famous diplodocus by a suspended whale, freeing up even more footprint. Dinosaurs have become a much bigger attraction than they ever were, towards “Disneyland-inspired public exhibitions …” Whereas the museum remains a very popular public attraction, more space is now devoted to coffee shops, and much less to prominent neontological specimens. Taxidermy dioramas, as once existed, barely survive.
Given that there appears to be a decline, who is to blame? Cuts and priorities in government funding are partly responsible, as are alterations in administrative structures. Strategies for external scrutiny and oversight of the museum such as ‘visiting groups’ have now been dismantled, and the museum administration seems more centralized than ever before. Criticisms as made by Naggs and in Nature are insufficiently addressed by the museum. Meanwhile, an imperial-sized collection open to global researchers will probably be increasingly split, re-homed and scattered, based on questionable amalgamations, far from London.
Declines in museum culture, driven not by science but by more commercial forces and leadership at odds with goals associated with highlighting biodiversity and conservation, are certainly not confined to the NHM, as Naggs indicates. Cultural shifts related to NHM declines have been noted in New Zealand and currently in the Paris NHM, where staff are openly rebelling against the changes and have launched a petition.
Many NHMs in the Global South have been victims of declines in standards since a more prosperous colonial era. A re-organization of the Colombo NHM in Sri Lanka in the 1990s made the displays worse, and more open to attack by moisture and pests. Similar declines apply to Manila in the Philippines.
Indeed, it is very difficult to maintain temperate climate-style natural history museums in the humid tropics, due to insect and fungal encroachment, let alone book libraries that also decay much faster. For decades, the London NHM has been a vital repository of African and Asian biological collections among other global treasures, but for how much longer?
The current stated declines seem to tragically mirror the fate of much of tropical biodiversity, at a time when we may need to increase taxonomists by twenty-five fold, to mention an unaddressed concern issued in 1990. Since then, many institutes such as Kew Gardens and even London Zoo have survived, even allowing for declines in conservation or engagement.
Institutional declines need not be seen as inevitable, but should at least be acknowledged before things may be improved. We have all-too-silently borne witness to declines or extirpations of NHMs, not just in London, Paris or in the tropics. Articulations of this have been less evident and may merit a wider appreciation, given that biodiversity has never had a substantial voice of its own.
Rajith Dissanayake earned a PhD studying Funambulus palm squirrels and works at Birkbeck College/University of London. Find his latest thinking on Twitter via @Lanka_Wildlife.
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