A Day at the Museum

One of my very favorite places in the world is a natural history museum – all those minerals, fossils, plants, and animals – so much to see and marvel at! I also enjoy science museums and science centers, particularly if they contain biological exhibits, but I still prefer those museums labeled as “natural history” because these are: (1) more likely to contain numerous exhibits of both extinct and modern species and thus emphasize the “historical” or evolutionary aspects of nature; and (2) they are more likely to appeal to both adults and children as opposed to only children. Of course, other than my interest in the subject, the primary reason I frequent natural history and science museums is because they provide an opportunity to observe nature without having to deal with all that pesky sunshine, wind, rain, stinging insects, and, most importantly, the fatigue of hiking for miles. Not that one can’t suffer exhaustion at a museum – some are so huge that an entire day of walking isn’t enough time to visit all the exhibits – but at least there are usually benches on which to rest and no danger of slipping and falling off the side of a cliff. Also, museums have the advantage that they contain labels, which nature most definitely does not. Hence, there’s no wondering if the plant you just rubbed against was poison ivy, or if the growling you hear behind that tree is emanating from a hungry mountain lion; thanks to labels, you know that the plant in the artificial forest is toxic and that the mounted cougar is dangerous . . . or at least they would be if they were alive.

Image Credit: (L) Amanda, Flickr, CC BY 2.0; and (R) Alex Proimos, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0, Cropped at Right The exterior and rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History,  Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. – perhaps the world’s largest natural history museum.

Image Credit: (L) Amanda, Flickr, CC BY 2.0; and
(R) Alex Proimos, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0, Cropped at Right
The exterior and rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.–
perhaps the world’s largest natural history museum.

Natural history museums were not always quite so educational, however. The beginnings of these museums first appeared in Europe during the Renaissance as “curiosity cabinets,” or rooms in which aristocrats, explorers, and merchants displayed the exotic animal mounts and art objects that they had purchased or collected during their travels around the world (the word “cabinet” referred to a “small room” during the Renaissance and only later did it come to mean a piece of furniture). Such rooms, located in the palaces or homes of their owners, were educational in the sense that they were intended to entertain and inspire wonder in the collectors’ visitors (often by being arranged in such a manner as to tell a story), but they were also intended to establish the collectors’ socioeconomic status, i.e., their wealth and ability to acquire such collections. In addition, the specimens in these “cabinets” were not necessarily labeled or organized in any way that could be described as “scientific,” and it was not uncommon for them to contain “fake” animals in among the real.

Image Credit: Smithsonian Institution Libraries,  Wikimedia, Public Domain The “Musei Wormiani Historia,” the frontispiece from the catalog, Museum Wormianum,  depicting the curiosity cabinet of Ole Worm, AKA Olaus Wormius (1588-1654).  Worm was a Danish physician and antiquary. The contents of his collection  ranged from fossils to animal mounts to Native American artifacts.  His catalog, published after his death, contained engravings of his collection,  along with Worm’s speculations as to the meanings of its contents.

Image Credit: Smithsonian Institution Libraries,
Wikimedia, Public Domain
The “Musei Wormiani Historia,” the frontispiece from the catalog, Museum Wormianum,
depicting the curiosity cabinet of Ole Worm, AKA Olaus Wormius (1588-1654).
Worm was a Danish physician and antiquary; and the contents of his collection
ranged from fossils to animal mounts to Native American artifacts.
His catalog, published after his death, contained engravings of his collection,
along with Worm’s speculations as to the meanings of its contents.

Eventually, the contents of some curiosity cabinets expanded to inhabit entire buildings, necessitating more extensive curation (selection, preservation, and maintenance) and thus becoming more museum-like in nature. The goals of these earliest museums also expanded beyond entertainment of the few to creating a complete inventory of nature appropriate for study by scientists. The museum curators organized and displayed their natural collections in a variety of ways, ranging from similar colors or sizes to degree of human usefulness to level of complexity. Gradually, however, as scientific research delved into the mechanisms of living organisms, structure and function (anatomy and physiology) became the dominant way in which collections were organized. And, although most of these museums continued to offer only limited accessibility, a few of them began to open to the public.

Image Credit: (L) Benh LIEU SONG, Wikimedia, CC BY 3.0; and (R) Joe deSousa, Wikimedia, CC0 1.0 The Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and its Grande Galerie d’Évolution, located in Paris.  This was perhaps the first “modern” natural history museum;  it began as a garden of medicinal herbs in 1635 (now the Jardin des Plantes),  and opened to the public as a natural history museum in 1793.

Image Credit: (L) Benh LIEU SONG, Wikimedia, CC BY 3.0; and
(R) Joe deSousa, Wikimedia, CC0 1.0
The Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle
and its Grande Galerie d’Évolution, located in Paris.
This was perhaps the first “modern” natural history museum;
it began as a garden of medicinal herbs in 1635 (now the Jardin des Plantes),
and opened to the public as a natural history museum in 1793.

After Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the organization of collections in natural history museums began to reflect evolutionary relationships. The number of these museums also dramatically increased during the latter half of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century, usually at the behest of governments intent upon educating the public as to the order and rationality of nature. Today natural history museums continue to emphasize evolution as the organizational framework of their collections, but there is an increasing trend towards also displaying the diversity and ecological relationships of living organisms, and the damage that industrialized societies may be inflicting upon these organisms.

Image Credit: (L) David Iliff, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA-3.0 The London Natural History Museum,  which moved from the site of the British Museum to its current location in 1881. The white statue at the top of the lower staircase off the Central Hall is that of Charles Darwin.

Image Credit: (L) David Iliff, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA-3.0
The London Natural History Museum,
which moved from the site of the British Museum to its current location in 1881.
The white statue at the top of the lower staircase off the Central Hall
is that of Charles Darwin.

Modern natural history museums tend to be quite popular with the public, especially with families and children. However, many of their exhibits are not without controversy. For example, one issue that has arisen is how museums should handle religious and political objections to scientific theories such as evolution and climate change. Some museums deal with this issue by not discussing evolution or climate change at all, which some argue is a violation of the duty these museums have in educating the public. Those museums choosing to discuss evolution and climate change, however, certainly have no obligation to cover religious or political objections, because these objections simply have no scientific significance. The only duty museums have, in fact, is to present the current scientific theories, which, as I have discussed in previous posts, consist of conclusions drawn from a wealth of physical evidence and logical reasoning. The above-mentioned objections are simply beliefs, and any so-called “scientific” evidence supporting them has been shown over and over again to either be cherry-picked out of context or outright untruths. If, indeed, museums construct exhibits designed to confront these types of objections, the best use of their resources would be to thoroughly explain the scientific process, and to emphasize that the information in all the museum’s exhibits is based on this process.

The Darwin Centre at the London Natural History Museum; and the Climate Change exhibition at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences. The exhibits in the Darwin Centre both explain the scientific process  and emphasize the importance of evolution. Unfortunately, the Climate Change exhibition at the Cal Academy  was removed in 2012 due to “lack of interest” on the part of the public.  Although I didn’t find this exhibition terribly inspiring myself,  the importance of its subject matter could have dictated the changing of its design rather than a complete disassembly.

The Darwin Centre at the London Natural History Museum; and
the Climate Change exhibition at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences.
The exhibits in the Darwin Centre both explain the scientific
process and emphasize the importance of evolution.
Unfortunately, the Climate Change exhibition at the Cal Academy
was removed in 2012 due to “lack of interest” on the part of the public.
Although I didn’t find this exhibition terribly inspiring myself,
the importance of its subject matter could have dictated the changing
of its design rather than a complete disassembly.

Another issue facing natural history museums is whether exhibits should be primarily educational or primarily entertaining. Certainly, the main objective of these museums is to educate, but this objective doesn’t necessarily rule out an element of entertainment (“edutainment”). Museums are inherently visual, relying more on objects, artistic renderings, and reenactments than on text or mathematics, and thus appealing on both an emotional and intellectual level. Further, if an exhibit creates a certain mood, whether one of inspiration, laughter, or sadness, that mood may strengthen the memory of a concept. I would point out, however, that entertainment should never be at the expense of education; for instance, certain interactive exhibits, which are becoming more popular in natural history as well as science and children’s museums, may be too complex or overwhelming to impart much information, and hence should be designed with simplicity and immediate understanding in mind.

Exhibits from the Hall of Birds and the Nature Lab at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County . . .  and good examples of how incorporating humor, simple interactives,  and digital technology can result in effective exhibits.

Exhibits from the Hall of Birds and the Nature Lab
at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County . . .
and good examples of how incorporating humor, simple interactives,
and digital technology can result in effective exhibits.

A third issue is whether natural history museums should attempt to educate the public solely on the science and history of their particular collections or instead on the entirety of natural history. I would argue that for smaller natural history museums, it is perfectly acceptable to concentrate their efforts on only building exhibits that display and describe the local minerals, geology, fossils, plants, animals, and native cultures. For larger, more cosmopolitan museums, however, I believe that an attempt should be made to cover most or all of natural history, even if exhibits for which the museum has no representative specimens must instead be constructed from two-dimensional art and/or three-dimensional replicas. To do otherwise risks leaving visitors with an incomplete and inaccurate picture of the history of nature.

Image Credit: (L) Ingfbruno, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA-3.0; and (R) LollyKnit, Wikipedia, CC BY 2.0 The American Museum of Natural History  and its Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, located in New York City. This is the second largest natural history museum in the United States,  and one of the most comprehensive in its coverage of natural history.

Image Credit: (L) Ingfbruno, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA-3.0; and
(R) LollyKnit, Wikipedia, CC BY 2.0
The American Museum of Natural History
and its Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, located in New York City.
This is the second largest natural history museum in the United States,
and one of the most comprehensive in its coverage of natural history.

As I have yet to visit a museum that presents what I would consider a complete history of nature, I recently decided to design my own natural history museum! Not that I expect anyone to actually build it, of course; and with no architectural training whatsoever, there are undoubtedly several technical problems with my design. Nevertheless, below are the floor plans for my museum, along with more detailed descriptions of each exhibition hall, and images from actual museums to illustrate the types of exhibits that might exist in each hall.

The plans for this museum consist of three floors of exhibits: the first floor concentrates on the physical, geological, and  biological history of our planet prior to modern humans; the second floor concentrates on the diversity and structures  of living organisms; and the third floor concentrates on the interactions  between geological, biological, and human environments.

The plans for this museum consist of three floors of exhibits:
the first floor concentrates on the physical, geological, and
biological history of our planet prior to modern humans;
the second floor concentrates on the diversity and structures
of living organisms; and the third floor concentrates on the interactions
between geological, biological, and human environments.

A tour of my imaginary museum would reveal the following . . . on the first floor, there is a fossil skeleton of a dinosaur in the entrance rotunda; and along the walls of the rotunda, a timeline of natural history beginning with the Big Bang and ending with the first modern humans would be on display.

Image Credit: (L) FunkMonk, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0 “Sue,” the most complete fossil skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex  ever discovered, on display in the rotunda of the Field Museum, Chicago; and an example of a timeline of life on earth at the California Academy of Sciences. Fossil skeletons of dinosaurs can be found in the entrance halls of most large natural history museums – which is always a spectacular introduction to the history of life on earth.

Image Credit: (L) FunkMonk, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0
“Sue,” the most complete fossil skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex
ever discovered, on display in the rotunda of the Field Museum, Chicago; and
an example of a timeline of life on earth at the California Academy of Sciences.
Fossil skeletons of dinosaurs can be found in the entrance halls of most
large natural history museums – which is always a spectacular introduction
to the history of life on earth.

Directly to the left of the entrance is the first exhibition, the Hall of the Universe, Stars, & Planets, which contains displays regarding the origin and evolution of the universe, matter and energy, stars, planets, and galaxies. Moving clockwise around the floor, the second exhibition is the Hall of Minerals & Rocks, where the structure of the earth is explained, and the formations, physical characteristics, and chemical compositions of the various minerals and rocks are described. The third exhibition is The Changing Earth Hall, in which displays regarding the geological evolution of our planet are located. Unfortunately, it is unusual to find exhibits regarding the universe and its contents in natural history museums (a notable exception being the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Hall of the Universe at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City). And, although most museums of this type have displays of minerals and rocks, many of them have no exhibits regarding our planet’s geology . . . despite the fact that plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanoes, mountains and other landforms, oceanography, lakes and rivers, the atmosphere, and climate are all important aspects of natural history.

Image Credit: (Lower L) Daderot, Wikimedia, Public Domain  Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . .  An exhibit regarding astro-elements and planetary composition  at the Houston Museum of Natural Science; an exhibit regarding mineral formation at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Country; an exhibit of minerals and gems at the  Carnegie Museum  of Natural History, Pittsburgh; and an exhibit regarding plate tectonics at the London Natural History Museum.

Image Credit: (Lower L) Daderot, Wikimedia, Public Domain
Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . .
An exhibit regarding astro-elements and planetary composition
at the Houston Museum of Natural Science;
an exhibit regarding mineral formation at the
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Country;
an exhibit of minerals and gems at the
Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh; and
an exhibit regarding plate tectonics at the London Natural History Museum.

The fourth exhibition on the first floor is the Hall of Early Life, which contains displays regarding the origin of life, the evolution of prokaryotic cells and then eukaryotic cells, and finally the formation of multicellular organisms (4000 to 542 million years ago). The fifth exhibition is the Hall of Paleozoic Life, where the life forms that evolved during the Paleozoic Era (542 to 251 million years ago) are on exhibit or described. Many natural history museums manage to ignore this part of our planet’s history of life, perhaps due to a desire to avoid controversy or because they have no relevant fossils to exhibit.

Image Credit: (Lower Left) Ryan Somma, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . . An exhibit regarding the origin of life at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science; an exhibit describing the structure of the cell at the London Natural History Museum; a diorama exhibit of life during the Ordovician Period of the Paleozoic Era  at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; and an exhibit of the fossil skeletons of the synapsid Dimetrodon and  the amphibian Eryops from the Permian Period of the Paleozoic Era at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Image Credit: (Lower Left) Ryan Somma, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . .
An exhibit regarding the origin of life at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science;
an exhibit describing the structure of the cell at the London Natural History Museum;
a diorama exhibit of life during the Ordovician Period of the Paleozoic Era
at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; and
an exhibit of the fossil skeletons of the synapsid Dimetrodon and
the amphibian Eryops from the Permian Period of the Paleozoic Era at
the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

The final two exhibitions on the first floor are the Hall of Mesozoic Life (251 to 66 million years ago) and the Hall of Cenozoic Life (66 million years ago to the present). Most natural history museums excel at displaying the large reptile and dinosaur fossils of the Mesozoic Era, and some are equally outstanding at exhibiting the bird and mammal fossils of the Cenozoic Era. Fewer museums, however, display hominid fossils from the Cenozoic Era, again due either to their controversial nature or to their lack of availability.

Image Credit: (Upper L) Simon Q, Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0; (Lower L) Daderot, Wikimedia, Public Domain; and (Lower R) Tom W. Sulcer, Wikimedia, CC0 1.0 Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . . An exhibit regarding plesiosaurs at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History; an overview of the Dinosaur Hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; an exhibit of the fossil skeleton of a Columbian mammoth at the Natural History Museum  of Utah in Salt Lake City; and an exhibit of fossil hominid skulls at the Rutgers University  Geology Museum in New Brunswick.

Image Credit: (Upper L) Simon Q, Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0;
(Lower L) Daderot, Wikipedia, Public Domain; and
(Lower R) Tom W. Sulcer, Wikimedia, CC0 1.0
Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . .
An exhibit regarding plesiosaurs at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History;
an overview of the Dinosaur Hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County;
an exhibit of the fossil skeleton of a Columbian mammoth at the Natural History Museum
of Utah in Salt Lake City; and an exhibit of fossil hominid skulls at the Rutgers University
Geology Museum in New Brunswick.

In the rotunda of the second floor of my museum, there is a fishbowl lab through which visitors can observe scientists at work . . . sequencing DNA, examining organisms through the microscope, and/or cleaning fossils. Along the walls of the rotunda, a comprehensive explanation of the scientific process as well as a timeline of the history of scientific discovery is on display. In addition, on one side of the rotunda is a Discovery Center, where both adults and children can run simple chemistry experiments, examine slides under the microscope, and dig for fossils. Fishbowl labs have become increasingly popular over the years at natural history museums, and discovery centers of one type or another can almost always be found in natural history and science museums. Exhibits regarding the scientific process are far less common, however, which is unfortunate because, as discussed above, the topics addressed in natural history museums are often the subject of more controversy than those in other science museums.

Image Credit: (L) InSapphoWeTrust, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.0 A laboratory at the Natural History Museum of Utah; and  an exhibit in the Nature Lab at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Image Credit: (L) InSapphoWeTrust, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.0
A laboratory at the Natural History Museum of Utah; and
an exhibit in the Nature Lab at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

To the left of the Discovery Center is the Hall of Fungi & Plants, which contains displays highlighting the diversity of fungi and plants as well as explaining the structures of these organisms and how they function. The second exhibition on this floor is the Hall of Marine Invertebrates, where the diversity, structures, and functions of organisms such as sponges, jellyfish, sea anemones, corals, worms, mollusks, crustaceans, and echinoderms are described. The third exhibition hall is the Hall of Terrestrial Invertebrates, in which exhibits regarding terrestrial and freshwater organisms such as worms, mollusks, spiders, insects, centipedes, and millipedes are located. Many natural history museums have these types of exhibits, although most concentrate on the diversity of organisms rather than on structure and function. In addition, displays of marine invertebrates are often reserved for exhibitions of ocean ecosystems, which tends to limit the amount of information presented regarding their structures and functions.

Image Credit: (Upper L) Jordiferrer, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0; and (Lower R) Daderot, Wikimedia, Public Domain Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . . An exhibit of plant structures at the Blue Museum (Museu Blau)  of Natural Sciences in Barcelona; an exhibit regarding sponges and echinoderms at the  Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History; an exhibit of crustaceans and mollusks at the London Museum of  Natural History; and an exhibit of butterflies and other insects at the Kunming  Natural History Museum of Zoology in Yunnan.

Image Credit: (Upper L) Jordiferrer, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0; and
(Lower R) Daderot, Wikimedia, Public Domain
Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . .
An exhibit of plant structures at the Blue Museum (Museu Blau)
of Natural Sciences in Barcelona;
an exhibit regarding sponges and echinoderms at the
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History;
an exhibit of crustaceans and mollusks at the London Museum of
Natural History; and an exhibit of butterflies and other insects at the Kunming
Natural History Museum of Zoology in Yunnan.

The third and fourth exhibitions on the second floor are the Hall of Fish & Amphibians and the Hall of Reptiles & Birds. Once again, structures and functions of these organisms are emphasized as much as diversity. Almost all natural history museums have displays of birds; far fewer have exhibits regarding fish, amphibians, and reptiles. This latter deficiency might be explained by a lack of specimens or simply a greater interest in birds on the part of the public. In any event, neglecting the structures and functions of fish, amphibians, and reptiles leaves out an important part of natural history . . . the evolution from fish to amphibians and their structures, the evolution from amphibians to reptiles and their structures, and the evolution from reptiles to birds and their structures. (Some scientists have concluded that birds are so closely related to reptiles that they are actually a sub-class of reptiles rather than a separate class of vertebrates, but not everyone agrees.) Finally, even if the evolution of these organisms has been described in exhibitions of ancient life, a comparison of the tissues and organs of living organisms is a vivid confirmation of this fact.

Image Credit: (Upper R) John Cummings, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . . An exhibit of fish at the Blue Museum of Natural Sciences; an exhibit of amphibians at the London Natural History Museum; an exhibit of live turtles at the Natural History Museum  of Los Angeles County; and an exhibit regarding bird structures and functions at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Image Credit: (Upper R) John Cummings, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . .
An exhibit of fish at the Blue Museum of Natural Sciences;
an exhibit of amphibians at the London Natural History Museum;
an exhibit of live turtles at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; and
an exhibit regarding bird structures and functions at the Natural History
Museum of Los Angeles County.

The final two exhibitions on the second floor are the Hall of Mammals and the Hall of Humans. As with the exhibitions of the invertebrates and other vertebrates, structures and functions would be stressed in addition to diversity in the mammal displays, and is the primary emphasis of the human exhibits. Most natural history museums are moderately good at describing mammals and their structures, but many have no exhibits regarding the anatomy and physiology of humans.

Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . . An exhibit of mammals at the London Natural History Museum; an exhibit of North American mammals at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History; an exhibit regarding the human skeleton at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science; and an exhibit regarding the human senses at the London Natural History Museum.

Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . .
An exhibit of mammals at the London Natural History Museum;
an exhibit of North American mammals at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History;
an exhibit regarding the human skeleton at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science;
and an exhibit regarding the human senses at the London Natural History Museum.

In the rotunda of the third floor of my museum, there is a re-creation of a rainforest, one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on our planet. Visitors are able to walk through this rainforest, learn about its composition, perhaps “meet” a human inhabitant of the rainforest, and observe some of the modern human impacts upon this ecosystem. Along the walls of the rotunda, a timeline of the relationship between the geological, biological, and human environment is on display. This timeline highlights the major natural events that have impacted humans throughout their history, as well as the types of impacts that humans have had on their geological and biological surroundings. In addition, on one side of the rotunda is an exhibition hall for temporary exhibits related to our planet’s biodiversity.

Image Credit: (R) Anagoria, Wikimedia, GFDL The rainforest exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences; and a biodiversity exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.

Image Credit: (R) Anagoria, Wikimedia, GFDL
The rainforest exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences; and
a biodiversity exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.

To the left of the temporary exhibition hall are the Hall of Ocean Ecosystems and the Hall of Terrestrial Ecosystems. Instead of emphasizing structures and functions, these halls highlight the general characteristics of these ecosystems, including the numbers and distribution of species, the participation of representative species in food chains and food webs, and the cooperation or competition between species. In addition, the impact of the removal of particular species from an ecosystem is explored, as well as the direct impact humans have had on these ecosystems by fishing and hunting. (Less direct human impacts are discussed in the final exhibition hall on this floor.) Almost all large natural history museums have exhibitions of ocean ecosystems, and many also have rainforest ecosystem exhibits. Fewer, however, have exhibits describing wetlands, temperate forests, grasslands, deserts, and polar regions.

Image Credit: (Upper L) Pp391, Wikimedia, SS BY-SA 3.0, Cropped Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . . An overall view of the Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; an exhibit regarding the intertidal zone at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History; exhibits regarding the streamside woodland ecosystem at the Santa Barbara  Museum of Natural History; and an exhibit regarding the desert ecosystem at the  California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Image Credit: (Upper L) Pp391, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Cropped
Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . .
An overall view of the Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History;
an exhibit regarding the intertidal zone at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History;
exhibits regarding the streamside woodland ecosystem at the Santa Barbara
Museum of Natural History; and an exhibit regarding the desert ecosystem at the
California Science Center in Los Angeles.

The third and fourth exhibitions on the third floor are the Hall of Africa and the Hall of Australasia. The displays in these halls describe the specific ecosystems of Africa, Australia, and Asia, as well as the early or rural history of humans on these continents. Because there is some feeling that cultural artifacts alone should be exhibited in cultural history or art museums rather than natural history museums, the human displays in these halls stress the use of natural resources and the impact this has had on the geological and biological environment; thus, any cultural artifacts are incidental to the main focus of the exhibits. (Some museums resolve the tension between “nature” and “culture” by calling themselves museums of “natural and cultural history.”) Some natural history museums in the United States have displays regarding the peoples of Africa . . . far fewer have exhibits regarding the peoples of Australia and Asia.

Image Credit: (Upper L) Jllm06, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Cropped (Upper R) Chensiyuan, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 (Lower L) Daderot, Wikimedia, CC0 1.0 (Lower R) Biswarup Ganguly, Wikimedia, GFDL Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . . A diorama regarding African plants and mammals at the  Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; a diorama depicting the animal husbandry of the Pokot people  at the American Museum of Natural History; a diorama regarding Australian plants and animals at the Finnish Museum of Natural History in Helsinki; and a diorama depicting the people of the Indus Valley at the National Science Centre in New Delhi.

Image Credit: (Upper L) Jllm06, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Cropped
(Upper R) Chensiyuan, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
(Lower L) Daderot, Wikimedia, CC0 1.0
(Lower R) Biswarup Ganguly, Wikimedia, GFDL
Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . .
A diorama regarding African plants and mammals at the
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County;
a diorama depicting the animal husbandry of the Pokot people
at the American Museum of Natural History;
a diorama regarding Australian plants and animals at the
Finnish Museum of Natural History in Helsinki; and
a diorama depicting the people of the Indus Valley at the
National Science Centre in New Delhi.

The fifth and sixth exhibitions on the third floor are the Hall of Europe and the Hall of The Americas. As in the adjacent exhibition halls, the displays in these halls describe the specific ecosystems of Europe, South America, and North America, as well as the early or rural history of humans on these continents. Many natural history museums in the United States have displays regarding the peoples of North America, and some have exhibits regarding the peoples of South America, but very few have displays regarding the peoples of Europe.

Image Credit: (Upper L) Daderot, Wikimedia, CC0 1.0 (Upper R) LepoRello, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 (Lower L) Giovanni Dall’Orto, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.5 IT (Lower R) Evan Howard, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0 Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . . A diorama exhibit regarding the reindeer found in both Europe and North America at the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt; a diorama depicting a Celtic fort at the Heuneberg Museum in Hundersingen; a diorama exhibit regarding the sloth at the Natural History Civic Museum of Milan; and a diorama depicting a Native American bison hunt at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Image Credit: (Upper L) Daderot, Wikimedia, CC0 1.0
(Upper R) LepoRello, Wikipedia, SS BY-SA 3.0
(Lower L) Giovanni Dall’Orto, Wikipedia, SS BY-SA 2.5 IT
(Lower R) Evan Howard, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0
Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . .
A diorama exhibit regarding the reindeer found in both Europe and
North America at the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt;
a diorama depicting a Celtic fort at the Heuneberg Museum in Hundersingen;
a diorama exhibit regarding the sloth at the Natural History Civic Museum of Milan; and
a diorama depicting a Native American bison hunt at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

The final exhibition hall on the third floor is the Hall of Environmental Impact. This hall contains displays regarding (1) the natural events (earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, pandemics, etc.) that have impacted humans the most; (2) the types of impacts (urbanization, the mining of minerals, coal, oil, and gas, pollution, climate change, ozone depletion, endangered and invasive species, overpopulation, etc.) that humans have had on their geological and biological environment; and, perhaps most importantly, (3) the possible solutions to the problems that humans have created (reduction and conservation, renewable energy sources, recycling, carbon capture, wildlife corridors, etc.). Unfortunately, only a very few of natural history museums maintain exhibits related to the impact of human civilization, perhaps because they prefer to highlight the past rather than the modern nature of life on this planet; nevertheless, with the start of the Industrial Revolution during the nineteenth century, humans’ already sizable impact on the land has been magnified by a huge factor, expanding to the oceans, waterways, and atmosphere of our planet. This in turn has resulted in the extinction of numerous species and a possibility of the collapse of major ecosystems, which surely is, or will be, an enormous event in the history of nature worthy of discussion in a natural history museum.

Image Credit: (Upper L) Tim Evanson, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.0, and (Lower L) Blahedo, Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5 Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . . An exhibit depicting the Copper Queen Mine at the Smithsonian  National Museum of Natural History; an exhibit regarding the Hanford Nuclear Site at the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry; an exhibit of crushed steel bales destined for recycling at the Central European Waste Management Company in Austria; and an exhibit regarding invasive species in the Nature Lab at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Image Credit: (Upper L) Tim Evanson, Wikimedia, SS BY-SA 2.0, and
(Lower L) Blahedo, Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5
Upper left to right, then lower left to right . . .
An exhibit depicting the Copper Queen Mine at the Smithsonian
National Museum of Natural History;
an exhibit regarding the Hanford Nuclear Site at the Oregon
Museum of Science & Industry;
an exhibit of crushed steel bales destined for recycling at the
Central European Waste Management Company in Austria; and
an exhibit regarding invasive species in the Nature Lab at
the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Having listed certain deficiencies on the part of many natural history museums, I must state again that I love these types of museums, I have learned something new at almost every natural history museum that I’ve visited, and I applaud all the hard-working educators and scientists who labor at these institutions. I also realize that most museums do not have the funding and space to accommodate all of the exhibitions that I have included in the design of my ideal museum; hence, many natural history museums must either leave out, or rely on other science museums in their cities to provide, the exhibitions that they simply do not have to resources to build. My museum, however, has one primary strength that many people desire, and that is: it tells a story – one that begins with the Big Bang and the formation of our planet, and that ends with the ways in which a highly technological human society can sustain itself with minimal impact upon other species. Thus, it might be worth the effort for the larger natural history museums to at least add a few exhibits describing the early history of life on our planet and/or the impact that humans have had on other life forms and themselves. After all, viewing the complete story of nature and life under one roof can only inspire a greater appreciation for nature in general, and might even encourage museum visitors to implement whatever strategies they can to preserve life in the future.

Museum visitors in the “From the Beginning” gallery at the London Natural History Museum. It was exhibits like these that inspired me to become a biologist, and a girl can dream that perhaps they might also inspire others to better  recognize the importance of nature in their lives.

Museum visitors in the “From the Beginning” gallery at the
London Natural History Museum.
It was exhibits like these that inspired me to become a biologist,
and a girl can dream that perhaps they might also inspire others to better
recognize the importance of nature in their lives.