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.
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.
If 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 hmnh.harvard.edu
Behind the Scenes at the Smithsonian https://www.businessinsider.com/museum-of-natural-history-behind-the-scenes-2016-3
(this second article has lots more great pictures behind the scenes at the Smithsonian’s collections)