Taxidermy specimens can be used to connect people with environmental topics on a number of different levels

Supporting sustainability through natural history displays

Henry McGhie, 15.10.2014
Henry McGhie on how Manchester Museum is connecting people with the environment
Museums can support environmental sustainability through their operations and use of resources, but they can make a far greater impact through the programmes they provide.

Museums with natural history collections in particular have enormous potential to connect people with the world around them, and make a positive environmental impact through their work.

Natural history collections have two main uses in regard to environmental sustainability. Firstly, they can help people make sense of and enjoy the natural world. They can encourage reflection, debate and critical thinking on the environment.

Secondly, they are a record of the natural environment. The information contained in them can help specialists better understand the present and former status of species, habitats and natural resources, a vital step in order to understand and protect them effectively for the future.

Collections of preserved animals, plants, rocks and fossils were put together by people with a curiosity about the world around them. Although collecting specimens is no longer a mainstream hobby (although many people probably collect the odd stone, bone or feather), interest in the natural world has never waned.

Green culture

The majority of visitors to museums with natural history collections profess some level of interest in nature and concern for the environment.

This is reflected in mainstream culture, to judge from the popularity of recycling and of TV series such as Springwatch and Autumnwatch. The health and wellbeing benefits of access to nature are also increasingly understood and acknowledged.

Museums exist to help people explore and make sense of the subjects that relate to their collections. For museums containing preserved animals, plants, rocks and fossils, that means connecting with issues of contemporary relevance about the world around us.

The environment is known to be changing at an unprecedented rate, with much of the change being due to human actions. For example, the 2013 State of Nature report found that 60% of wild species are less common in the UK than they were 50 years ago.

The UK is party to a number of international treaties and laws promoting the conservation and safeguarding of species and habitats, notably the Convention on Biodiversity, signed by 150 governments (including the UK) in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit.

This recognised that “biological diversity is about more than plants, animals and micro-organisms and their ecosystems – it is about people and our need for food security, medicines, fresh air and water, shelter, and a clean and healthy environment in which to live”.

This is to say that humans do not exist in separation from nature, and the fate of human societies is closely linked with the environment in which they exist. The loss of biodiversity is one key issue; minimising and adapting to climate change is another great challenge that will affect all of us in years to come.

Taking action

Museums with natural history collections are the cultural institutions best placed to connect people with these international movements, concerns and issues.

Museums should aim to have a positive impact on their users, on society and on the wider environment, aims that are enshrined in the Museums Association's Code of Ethics.

This states that museums should “value and protect natural and human environments” and “be sensitive to the impact of the museum and its visitors on natural and human environments”.

Museums should avoid promoting ideas or subjects that are bad for the environment, for precisely the same reasons that they would not promote sexism, racism or homophobia: they have no place in civil society.

To engage effectively, museums should avoid being too “preachy” or presenting environmental issues in ways that risks depressing visitors.

They should support people to connect with their environment by providing opportunities for them to reflect on their values and relationships with nature, helping them understand the impacts that they make, and providing them with opportunities, suggestions and encouragement on how they can take any further positive steps they wish to make in their lives.

Behind the scenes, the millions of specimens preserved in collections can make an invaluable, and unique, contribution to nature conservation.

Preserved specimens are snapshots of a changing environment: they provide a historical dimension to the distribution of plants and animals, and are points of reference that can always be rechecked in future.

New techniques can be applied to old specimens, revealing new information on the changing environment. In order to maximise their potential, museums with natural history collections should promote their holdings and make them available to researchers.

They should balance preservation of specimens against the wider benefit that those specimens may make through any research that is applied to them. In doing so, they can help their collections continue to have a relevance beyond being historical anachronisms.

As we appreciate that the world is rapidly changing, preserved specimens have an ever-increasing importance. In an increasingly urbanised world, experiences of nature, even if mediated through museums, will become increasingly important, and we should aim to give visitors with high-quality experiences using high-quality specimens.

If scientists are to continue to use museums to explore the world around them, then collecting will need to become more active than it is in many museums at present.

Museums should not just focus on preserving the past, but should support the continued existence and welfare of wider natural heritage in the present and the future, the principal of environmental sustainability.

Henry McGhie is the head of collections and curator of zoology at Manchester Museum