The origins of the Natural history museum don’t differ too drastically from other types of museums. For instance, both art museums and natural history museums grew out of private collections owned by wealthy individuals during the renaissance, and while art museums grew from galleries and salon, natural history museums grew from the cabinets of curiosities. During this time, there was a great interest in the natural world and for those in the upper class to have more power and influence over their counterparts. For many, it became a sort of competition to always have more. The larger the collection of artifacts, the more well traveled or scholarly an individual would appear. Taxonomy, too, was having a resurgence as the world got wider and the discovery became more abundant. There seamed to be a new rush for wealthy men to really make a name for themselves.Harvard Museum of Natural History

The biggest difference between a natural history museum and other museum types, for me, is the range and diversity of subjects and a larger role in the community. Natural history museums cover a range of topics including current and historical records of flora and fauna, andother parts of their environments. They are really just a snapshot of the natural world. Plants and animals are displayed in their natural state, without frills, in order to show us parts of the world around us that we might not be able to see other wise, due to location, or even extinction. As science museums, they cover a range of fields like paleontology, geology, ecology, ect. While these museums have a public element, their main purpose is educational study. As Historians and scientists are able to view broad and well document collections that can help them with various research projects. While all museums tend to lend themselves to the education of a populous, the wealth of research that can be discovered within natural history museums is unlike any other. With my personal experiences with smaller community based art centered museums, there was always a much larger emphasis on community outreach and engagement, events and classes, with almost no interest in collection and cataloging and I remember when a friend of mine, who interned at a local natural history museum, would tell us about how her days were filled more with sitting in front of a computer documenting and cataloging their collections.

The coolest part about the role of natural history museums in modern life is how much can still be learned from the plants and animals from the past. Research around the effects of climate change, genetics and even just general classifications is fascinating to me and with the development of modern technologies, more information is being shared more easily between such museums and institutions, which is very exciting for the future of research.

Museum of Natural History: behind the scenes - Business InsiderIf there’s one part of the museum that could possible be better, it would be engagement and accessibility. From my personal experience, I have always found natural history museums….boring. I say that with the utmost respect for what they stand for, but often times they can come of as clinical or pompous. One thing that really bothers me is dusty taxidermy or exhibits that look like they haven’t been moved, modified, or changed in many many years or exhibits that have too much diversity in one area that it borders on just poor planning. I know the second part doesn’t really apply to larger well organized museums but does anyone else feel like they could be doing more to be more engaging, or do they have a responsibility to keep exhibits fresh or updated? And again I want to emphasize that my background is in the art world and my museum experiences skew heavily toward art museums over natural history museums.



Harvard Natural History Museum

Behind the Scenes at the Smithsonian

(this second article has lots more great pictures behind the scenes at the Smithsonian’s collections)

4 Thoughts to “Week 2: Types of Museums”

  1. Michael Hubert

    I think that it the museum to responsibility to keep one the collections, I was reading a article that during this time with covid that some museums were taking the time to really go back and look at collections and update them and make sure that they were preserved. I think this is good to see these collections and update information for others in case that they want to look at the collection. this would also give them time to maybe digitize some items to let other see them.

  2. Barbara Long

    Good Evening,

    I enjoyed your post. Yes, some Natural History museums can be a bit dry. However, I usually find something that peaks my interests. As for your question. An excellent museum will change their exhibits and do routine housekeeping. This includes cleaning displays and repairing exhibits, if need be. Collections are usually rotated depending on their subject matter. I remember one museum that had a box at its front door for suggestions on dream exhibits. They received numerous suggestions from students throughout their district as well as the occasional visitors from nearby communities. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Tony Thompson

    Hi Xochi!

    I think it’s great to bring up the history behind NHMs and the influence that the wealthy had on their development. Wow, I find it interesting that you have found NHMs a bit dry in the past, but I totally understand. I think it comes down to context. An exhibit containing biological/geological/etc. artifacts alone without providing information about the relevance or importance of those artifacts would be boring indeed. I think the onus falls on the museum and the folks in charge of the exhibit to communicate the science well enough and in an interesting way to public in order to make the topic engaging.

  4. Angela Linn

    Great points Xochi – for students who find natural history museums less engaging than art or cultural museums, how do you feel about museums that use art to help interpret science and natural history concepts? This is part of the STEAM push… I’ve even heard of projects promoting SCTEAM (science-culture-technology-engineering-art-math)… at what point are we just using a holistic and integrated approach to learning about the world around us? I think it’s important for general museums to use all the tools at their disposal to provide entry points for learners of all kinds. Even if the collections are not someone’s first choice, maybe they can learn to appreciate the subject matter through a lens of art or history or cultural relevance?

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