The Future of Natural History Museums, edited by Eric Dorfman
Henry McGhie
This book is part of a scholarly series titled Advances in Museum Research, which has been developed by the International Council of Museums (Icom). This volume grew out of two conferences for the Icom Committee for Museums and Collections of Natural History – one in Krapina, Croatia, in 2014 and the other in Taipei, Taiwan, the following year. These were focused on identifying and addressing the challenges faced by natural history museums.

The first of the four sections is on collecting and preserving objects, and collections-based research. Christopher Norris, the senior collections manager at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, US, introduces the discussion about natural history museums in the context of the Anthropocene – the “age of us” – and the ethics of collecting. The discussion is between the US-based Emlyn Koster, the director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and Eric Dorfman, the Daniel G and Carole L Kamin director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, along with Terry Simioti Nyambe, the assistant curator of ichthyology for the Livingstone Museum in Zambia.

Hanna Pennock, the senior adviser at the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, looks at risks to natural history collections and addresses the growth in the theft of rhinoceros horns and ivory from museums. And Frank Howarth, the president of Museums Australia, writes about the ongoing decline of museum-based research (or at least that done by museums).
There is a chapter on the role of institutions in biodiversity conservation by Felicity Arengo, the associate director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, including a discussion on the importance of engaging people with nature conservation. There is a lack of focus on young people here, as we should be aiming to connect with as broad a spectrum of society as possible.

The second section, on visitor experience, includes a chapter by Kara Blond, the director of the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum in Washington DC, US, on the possibilities of natural history exhibitions incorporating greater interactivity, social media connection and crowdfunding, and engaging with climate change, biodiversity issues and the Anthropocene.

Christopher Garthe, the head of concept at the creative agency Studio KLV in Berlin, imagines a natural futures museum, in what I think is one of the best chapters in the book, with an institution repositioned to take a future-focused frame that engages people with global challenges.

In part three, Interfaces, Gerald Dick, the executive director of the Switzerland-based World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, discusses the evolution of zoos and natural history/science museums. This discussion is continued by Anna Omedes, the director of the Natural Science Museum of Barcelona, and Ernesto Páramo, the director of the Parquede las Ciencias in Granada, who look at the evolution of natural history museums and science centres.

Lynda Knowles, a lawyer who works for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in the US, discusses legislation such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the Convention on Biological Diversity (Rio convention) and links between Icom and Unesco.

The final section is a commentary by Conal McCarthy, an assessor for the Australian Research Council, on the future of these museums.

This is an interesting and well-written book, but I would have liked more critical discussion of the key assumptions and terms: I prefer “natural heritage” to “natural history”. Also, there could have been more discussion on the importance of leadership in museums of natural heritage. A lot of the book relates to museums that are dedicated to natural history, yet, at least in the UK, the greatest challenges are faced in museums with mixed collections.

Natural history in museums is often sidelined in media coverage of cultural events so how can it get more recognition? And how can museum workers connect natural heritage collections with the widespread interest in the subject? This book can help answer these questions and I recommend it to all those with an interest in capitalising on the potential of museums for connecting people with the natural world, and those who support nature conservation and environmental sustainability.

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

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