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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.