Monday, August 9, 2010

Saving Natural History (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this essay, I argued for the critical importance of natural history as a powerful and timely approach to communicating science, one with great potential to (re)place humans within nature. I further claimed that expertise in natural history—an in-depth understanding of local plants and animals—is sorely lacking, and that natural history institutions may represent the greatest hope for disseminating this kind of knowledge traditionally associated with naturalists. Today I will further articulate this vision.

First, the problem. We are enveloped in an ecological crisis that threatens to rend not only the web of life, but the very fabric of civilization. If species extinctions proceed at current rates, we may lose about half of today’s biological diversity by the end of the century. If we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at present day levels, the planet will warm by at least three degrees, causing runaway melting of polar ice, flooding of coastal regions, and desertification of arable land. The best science confirms that we have perhaps a generation to turn things around and establish a sustainable course. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the fundamental crisis at this critical moment in history is much less an external crisis of environment than an internal crisis of mind. Far more than innovative, “green” technologies, we need a new mindset that reinserts humanity inside nature.

Surely, then, part of the solution to the sustainability crisis must include natural history museums, aquariums, zoos, and botanical gardens, whose mandate includes conveying natural sciences to the general public. (Zoos, in my estimation, are currently much more a part of the problem than the solution, conveying to visitors the unspoken and erroneous message that we are masters of nature.) In recent years, these institutions have begun to address sustainability issues, from research and exhibits on extinction, conservation, and global warming to "citizen science" programs that engage volunteers in the actual practice of science, often with an eye toward conservation [1,2]. Yet these efforts simply are not enough. We need a true re-envisioning—or, more accurately, transformation—of natural history institutions. Below I focus in particular on museums, where my experience lies.

Within the walls of natural history museums, much hand-wringing occurs over the topic of advocacy. Should museums, many of which are publicly-funded, be advocates of anything? Fears of offending donors, board members, or the general public often result in watered down messages, even with regard to sustainability. But let’s be frank. If museums of natural history can't become strong advocates for a healthy future on planet Earth at this critical juncture, exactly what institution should we appoint to serve this role? In my view, if museums shy away from advocating for a healthy planet, they deserve to go extinct along with the practice of natural history. Conversely, if institutions of natural history are to survive and thrive in this century, a combination of strong leadership and strong vision are required, with an unrelenting focus on sustainability.

Let me begin, then, with what some will undoubtedly interpret as a radical vision. Imagine for a moment natural history museums becoming agents of social change. Imagine if they fostered a new, more sustainable worldview by connecting people with local (nonhuman) nature. Imagine if the information flow went two ways instead of one, with museums acting as centers for convocation, catalysts for conversation about the current state of our community, our country, our world. And imagine if these institutions functioned more as trailheads than destinations, with strong emphasis on getting people outside to experience nature firsthand [3]. Such a vision would not only include advocacy, but embrace it.

Taking this transformational vision as a starting point, what kinds of educational activities would 21st Century natural history museums engage in? I propose three. The first activity is translating natural science basics and key issues for the general public. This task has long been a mainstay of science museums, yet they could do a much better job of demonstrating how human systems are inextricably interwoven with nonhuman systems. Moreover, museums must communicate not only the essentials of hot button issues like species extinctions and global warming, but also the ecological impacts of our daily decisions and the need to lobby our elected representatives (e.g., for immediate and drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions).

The second key role for natural history museums is to promote a meaningful sense of place through education and outreach programs that focus on local bioregions, including plants, animals, and landscapes. Returning to the point made in my last essay, how can we expect people to protect and nurture the places they live if they don’t know or care about them? In stark contrast to the traditional "cabinets of curiosities" model of museums, strong emphasis must be directed toward outdoor, experiential education programs that seek to foster wonder in equal amounts with knowledge. With these goals in mind, indoor exhibits become educational tools designed to inform the outdoor experience. Ultimately, a key goal should be fostering ecoliteracy, such that residents can adequately answer the question: How does this place work and who are the main characters involved?

The third key role is communication of the Epic of Evolution, the multi-billion-year story of the universe from the Big Bang to the present day [4,5]. In addition to a sense of place founded on ecoliteracy, we require a “sense of cosmos” [6] grounded in a meaningful understanding of our deep time evolutionary epic [7]. Here the goal is evolutionary literacy, or “evoliteracy,” encompassing cosmos, life, and culture. How are we to know or care about where we’re going if we have no idea of where we’ve been and the ways in which our lives and our local places are enfolded into the cosmic story? Broad dissemination of this grand saga, arguably the greatest contribution of modern science, may just be an essential element in achieving sustainable societies [7].

At present, museums engage a fair amount in the first activity, very little in the second, and virtually none in the third. Almost since their inception, museums have translated natural science concepts for nonspecialist audiences. Yet advocacy remains contentious, even when it relates to something as general and seemingly noncontroversial as healthy environments. The second activity, place-based education, is something that regional natural museums have been doing to some extent for many years. Yet I would argue that these efforts have met with minimal success. In particular, until recently, little effort has been directed toward outdoor education, and we have all but failed to recognize the vital importance of engendering a sense of wonder.

With regard to the third activity, championing evoliteracy, I’m not aware of any museum that has made the Epic of Evolution a core part of their vision. This is in spite of the fact that the Great Story has tremendous potential to connect people to their cosmic heritage, and thus to the natural world, in meaningful ways [7]. Who better to tell the Epic of Evolution—the scientific story of cosmos, life, and culture—than natural history museums? After all, these institutions frequently possess both the necessary expertise and tools, sometimes including planetarium theaters. In this century, natural history should be redefined more broadly, and more literally, as the astounding history of nature, and therefore of us.

Like universities, museums have succumbed to the siren song of reductionist science, subdividing the evolutionary epic into bite-sized chunks that leave few opportunities for influencing a sense of meaning or purpose. The end result tends to be a spewing of quantifiable “facts,” with little consideration allotted to the big picture. Additionally, becoming an agent of social change will require not only advancing intellectual knowledge, but encouraging a profound shift in ethics. Thus, if museums are to be advocates of sustainability, as proposed here, they will need to consider the role of human psychology in shifting behaviors. Among other things, we would do well to consider how we might “reinvent the sacred” [8], helping visitors develop a keen sense of the wonder, awe, and mystery of nature.

While great ideas can come from any level in the museum (or from outside the institution), in my experience the implementation of new, transformative ideas invariably requires strong leadership, beginning with the institution’s chief administrator. Without unwavering support from the top, visions tend to fade and die, or at least become empty. Of course, any vision must be backed by sufficient funds to pay salaries and keep the museum doors open. But this should not stop us from using our imaginations to generate fun and inspiring programs that enable us do the Great Work [7] that needs to be done.

Let me be clear. I do not mean to disparage all institutions of natural history. Many facilities, programs, and individuals are already actively engaged in aspects of this work. Among institutions of natural history, the Monterey Bay Aquarium may come closest to the vision described above. This remarkable institution combines a vibrant, sustainability-based vision with effective leadership to create an amazing and inspiring experience; and I'd bet that most visitors depart with a much deeper appreciation of the changes that need to occur if we're going to conserve the nature we have left. Nevertheless, within the profession as a whole, a gaping chasm exists between the activities of present day natural history institutions and the vision articulated here.

At the risk of sounding grandiose, natural history has a vital cultural role to play in saving both nature and civilization. With the terrible potential for impending environmental disaster and untold human suffering, is there really another viable and responsible vision for natural history institutions in this century?

Notes and References
1. Cornell Ornithological Lab:
2. Wilson, E. O. 2005. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. W. W. Norton, New York, 175 pp.
3. The new Utah Museum of Natural History has embraced the notion of trailhead over destination. See: Sampson, S. D. and George, S. B. 2004. Reinventing a Natural History Museum for the 21st Century. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 55, Suppl. 1 (13): 283-294.
4. Swimme, B. and T. Berry. 1992. The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to Ecozoic Era. Harper Collins, New York, 305 pp.
5. Chaisson, E. 2006. Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos. Columbia University Press, New York, 479 pp.
6. Needleman, J. 2003. A Sense of Cosmos. Monkfish, Rhinebeck, NY., 192 pp.
7. Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, New York, 242 pp.
8. Kauffman, S. A. 2008. Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. Basic Books, New York, 320 pp.

Image Credits
All images courtesy of National Geographic:


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Terrific essay, but I would say that NMNH has done a fair job in recent years of making Evolution the unifying theme of the museum. There are many exhibits entirely devoted to it (e.g. the new Hall of Human Origins), as well as the "Evolution Trail" which confronts visitors as soon as they come in, leading through different areas such as the Ocean Hall, with great information on early life and our ecological as well as phylogenetic relationship to the sea, and to the exhibit on the coevolution of flowers and their pollinators which highlights the importance of ecological interactions in evolution.

    I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household, and visited NMNH often. At that time, you could go through the museum as a Creationist without feeling terribly awkward. The exhibits stated the true dates in a matter-of-fact way, just as you would find in a textbook. And, just as you could a textbook, you could ignore them. Things are different now. Just as, thanks to the infamous trials, Salem, Mass is now full of "real" witches, I feel that one of the few positive impacts of creationist assaults on science education has been an increased emphasis on communicating the facts on evolution (the process and the historical fact) to the public.

  3. I was thinking of the Monterey Bay Aquarium before I reached your mention of it. Wonderful institution! Another thing that comes to mind is a quote that has stayed with me since I watched Carl Sagan's Cosmos, as a child--We are all star stuff. A wonderful phrase for the Great Story, don't you think?

  4. Monterey Bay Aquarium for sure, but also the California Academy of Sciences.

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