Natural History Museums in a changing world
Natural History Museums are hybrid institutions; they study and profess to be authorities on the natural world, they are also popular, much loved places to visit and as informal learning environments they are trusted. These properties are shared by a number of other institutions which combine research with public engagement of the natural world including botanic gardens, zoos and aquariums. They come in many guises, run by governments, local authorities, universities and private trusts. Historically the science research was largely shared among peers, while visits by the public were initially tolerated, gradually becoming part of a core educational remit, and increasingly in recent decades pervaded with edutainment as they have hybridized with science centers and visitor attractions.
But we live in rapidly changing times and there is a call from the UN Secretary General downwards that the rapid deterioration in our environment, the loss of biodiversity and the threats to sustainable development cannot be halted by a business as usual approach. Rio+20 the UNCSD highlighted these inexorably interlinked domains. At no other time has human society needed such a step change in how we innovate, to adapt to and to mitigate against the environmental changes of an increasingly human influenced world. Biodiversity and its loss has often been overlooked and yet it is actually the glue upon which the issues of managing the environment and creating sustainable communities ultimately depend. Sharing this understanding must become the core province of Natural History Museums and the other hybrid institutions as they re-position themselves for the future. If they are to remain trusted institutions they must adopt of role of engagement and leadership in guiding society and culture for the coming decades of change. One organisation which is rising to this challenge in the Museum of Natural Science in North Carolina USA where its new Natural Science Center and its Prairie Ridge outdoor ecology centre are engaging visitors with the science behind environmental change. Ultimately Museums will need to become more central to the life of communities if they are to help people overcome their anxieties about the uncertain future, and provide the much needed leadership role to help secure the future of the natural world.
Short video exploring the Museum’s as a safe place place for public dialogue, engagement and discussing dangerous ideas.