Thursday, July 29, 2010

Saving Natural History (Part 1)

As a youngster, I was fascinated by all aspects of nature, regularly coming home with pocketfuls of sticks, rocks, bugs, or some other terrestrial flotsam and jetsam discovered during my daily travels. Returning from family camping trips in the wilds of British Columbia, there were inevitably heavy, oddly shaped rocks or fossils to be unloaded and placed in a corner of the yard with collections from previous excursions. For me, the highlights of these camping adventures were the guided walks, where I would stick like glue to the park naturalist and ask an unending flurry of questions. When I was five years old my mother recognized this passion by signing me up for the “Young Naturalists Club.” I still remember the excitement I felt when my membership package finally arrived, including a white button emblazoned with the club name and the face of a smiling raccoon. Finally, I thought, I was a real naturalist.

This passion for nature (including dinosaurs, of course) persisted through my childhood and teen years, despite the near absence of nature study I received in school. When I finally arrived at university in the late 70’s, I immediately searched the course listings for offerings on natural history, and was dismayed to find that the only such courses were for senior students specializing in a particular area of biological study: for example, oceanography, ornithology, or entomology. Little did I know that I was about 20 years too late [1].

For the first half of the 20th Century, natural history—the systematic study of natural objects and organisms—was not only a thriving discipline within the natural sciences, but a major part of growing up for vast numbers of people in Western societies. Practitioners of this respected subject, including many lacking formal credentials, were known as “natural historians,” or, more simply, “naturalists.” Naturalists identify and categorize the denizens of their local environs. Serious enthusiasts tend to be collectors, with rocks, plants, butterflies, and beetles among the common targets. Serious birders, who collect observations rather than specimens, can also be placed within these ranks. Most importantly, naturalists love to spend time outdoors interacting with the nonhuman world. Many, perhaps most, children raised prior to the close of WW II were introduced to the practice of natural history, often at school and at home.

Then, for the latter half of the 20th Century, natural history underwent a steady and precipitous decline. At the professional level, the scientific study of natural history, with its focus on observing whole organisms, was largely supplanted by a suite of reductionist sub-disciplines like cell and molecular biology. Even fields with a larger perspective, like ecology, placed overwhelming emphasis on “rigorous” experimental studies, eschewing as quaint and outdated the kinds of subjective observations that are the bread and butter of naturalists. Among laypersons, fewer and fewer people were trained in nature study, largely because those doing the training had no successors. Other trends, like the migration from rural to urban settings and the increased emphasis on “hard” sciences like math and physics, further relegated natural history to a neglected corner of the library stacks [1].

Today, although children (and adults) can identify dozens of corporate logos, few can name even a handful of the plants and animals that live around them. Fewer still spend significant amounts of time outside, choosing instead to remain plugged into the artificial reality of cyber-world instead of experiencing the real world beyond the front door. As a result, natural history teeters on the edge of extinction, threatening to take down much of the biosphere with it. It seems highly unlikely that people will save something they don’t care about. And they’re certainly not going to care about something with which they’ve had no meaningful experience. That’s why the loss of nature study embodied by natural history is so tragic, and dangerous.

To compound matters, the demise of natural history teaching means that the overwhelming majority of educators today lack any background in nature study, and thus they are ill prepared to convey even the basics on local plants and animals. Fortunately, the number of exceptions to this disturbing trend is growing, including remarkable teachers and initiatives often gathered under the umbrella of “environmental education.” Yet even these outdoor-focused programs tend to have a strong ecological bent, emphasizing the big picture of ecosystem function, with minimal time spent identifying local plants and animals, let alone sitting quietly in the company of one’s nonhuman neighbors.

Outside of formal education, the primary cultural institutions engaging in natural history are museums, augmented by nature centers (and, to a lesser extent, zoos, aquaria, and botanical gardens). Natural history museums emerged in the Victorian era as “cabinets of curiosities,” places where one could witness rare, beautiful, and/or ancient objects from the natural world--everything from minerals and fossils to animals and artifacts—often collected in distant lands. They remained very popular through the 20th Century, with institutions like the American Museum of Natural History (New York), the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum (Washington, DC), and the Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago) amassing vast collections.

Here in the early 21st Century, museums of natural history are struggling to reinvent and reinvigorate themselves. Of particular concern are issues like relevancy and the balance of education versus entertainment (the “edutainment” conundrum) [2]. Recognizing natural history as a dying practice that few today can even define, some museums are electing to divorce themselves from the term (e.g., the Chicago institution is now formally known as “The Field Museum”). Although most natural history museums still engage in collections-based research, only a smattering of the scientists doing this work could honestly identify with the term “naturalist.” Rather than making detailed observations of local flora and fauna, these scientists engage in analytical, often experimental studies like those of their counterparts at universities. Most museum staff (including the scientists) would struggle to name multiple examples of local plants, rocks, insects, or birds.

As someone with almost 25 years of experience around natural history museums, I am of the strong opinion that natural history deserves not only to be saved, but to be resurrected to its former glory. However, like the museums housing the collections of plants, animals, rocks, and artifacts, the notion of natural history itself must be reinvented to address the pressing needs of our time. I think that museums are the best available candidates to carry out this resurrection/reinvention. We desperately need more systematists, researchers who can go out and catalogue the world’s biological diversity. Of the estimated 10-15 million species alive on earth today, less than 3 million have been formally named, let alone investigated in detail [3]. Speaking of which, we also need more field biologists and ecologists to carry out firsthand studies of organisms living in their native habitats. Only by understanding how those habitats work (for example, the flow of energy and the cycling of nutrients) can we begin to determine how to preserve them.

Natural history museums have an equally vital role to play in the realm of education. They possess the expertise and tools (collections, exhibits, and other programming) to help children and adults (including educators!) learn about the plants and animals native to their region. This statement applies particularly to regional museums like the Denver Museum of Science and Nature, the Utah Museum of Natural History (Salt Lake City), and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which tend to have more of a local focus than their larger sister institutions like the AMNH and Field Museum. Both personally and professionally, I am very pleased to see “Young Naturalist”-type organizations popping up once again, some of them linked closely to museums. More than ever before, we need to raise a generation of naturalists!

I suspect that relatively few in the museum world would disagree with the above statements. Scientists like the renowned biologist E.O. Wilson have long sounded the clarion call for more systematists and field biologists [3,4]. Indeed Wilson, a self-proclaimed naturalist, is striving for no less than a comprehensive Encyclopedia of Life, with an entry for every species on Earth [5]. Similarly, museum educators, swept up in the rapidly growing “No Child Left Inside” movement [6], are now spending more time developing outdoor education programs.

Nevertheless, in my view, more of the same kind of science and education simply won’t cut it. If we are to face the sustainability challenge head-on, we need a bolder, more encompassing vision well beyond that generally being considered within both formal and informal education circles. To my mind, natural history must be central to that vision. In stark contrast to the cabinets of curiosities model, natural history museums in the 21st Century have the potential to reinvent themselves as key players in the drive toward sustainability. In my next Whirlpool of Life post, I will delve into this vision.

Many of the ideas presented here and in my next post were developed while I served as chief curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT. I am indebted to the UMNH for allowing me to pursue some of these ideas, and am happy to say that the new UMNH facility, scheduled to open late in 2011, will include some of the concepts addressed in this blog. For more info, check out:

1. R. M. Pyle. 2007. The rise and fall of natural history. In B. Lopez (ed.), The Future of Nature. Milkweed, Minneapolis. (This article was originally published in Orion Magazine in 2001)
2. Weil, S. 2002. Making Museums Matter. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
3. Wilson, E. O. 2005. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. W. W. Norton, New York. 4. Wilson, E. O. 2002. The Future of Life. Knopf, New York.
5. Encyclopedia of Life Project:
6. Children & Nature Network:

Image Credits
All images courtesy of National Geographic:


  1. Wonderful observations. As you've noted in previous posts, dinosaurs are a great hook to get young people interested in the natural world. I am thankful that some museums are leading the charge. Had not heard of "No Child Left Inside." Imagine that: children outside. I am so proud to say I got my daughter hooked early and now she has a master's in animal science and is a wildlife rehabilitater.

  2. Insightful post. I am a student in Ecology & Evolution at the University of Maryland, currently an intern at NMNH. Not all, of course, but truly most of the researchers I have come into contact with here at the museum are in natural history fields such as systematics. My boss, for example, spends many of his weekends promoting naturalism for children.

    I must confess to being fairly interested in the, as you say, "reductionist sub-disciplines," but I certainly share your sentiment. When I was younger, the first thing I ever wanted "to be when I grow up" was an entomologist.

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  5. Very nice! My daughter, now six years old, loves to visit our small local natural history museum with its cases of "curiosities", mostly specimens of local flora and fauna. We fondly call it "The Natural" for short. It tickles me that she finds it such a fascinating place, as I do. Your views on education continue to inspire me.

  6. I am fourteen and I have loved dinosaurs (and wanted to be a paleontologist) since I was six. Dinosaurs got me interested in genetics, ornithology, herpetology, and other branches of biology. Thanks for this astute observation!!!

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