What Does The Future of Natural History Museums Look Like?

David Grimaldi pauses before a gleaming white cabinet, one of dozens arranged in long rows in a sparse, high-ceilinged room on the first floor of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. With care, Grimaldi pulls a glass-topped box from its shelf, revealing row upon row of jewel-bright butterflies pinned to a backing board, their yellow and aquamarine hues little dimmed by age. The smell of mothballs wafts from the interior, the ghost of the paradichlorobenzene used decades ago to keep beetles and other pests away from the precious collection.

“Our collection of butterflies is probably the best-organized in the world,” says Grimaldi, an entomologist and curator of invertebrate zoology at the AMNH.

That’s no mean feat, considering that some 1.3 million butterfly specimens reside in the museum, including 21,000 just recently added from a private collection. The AMNH gets dozens and dozens of requests each year from researchers around the world hoping to borrow butterflies for study. These scientists may excise small pieces of the specimen (to be preserved and returned) to analyze its DNA, parse the molecular isotopes inside its body to study its life history, put it through a CT scanner, or examine it with any number of other high-tech techniques.

Upstairs in the amber collection, housed in three nondescript cabinets in his office, Grimaldi places a sliver of fossilized tree resin under a microscope. Inside is a tardigrade, so well-preserved that its tiny claws are still visible. The creature is 92 million years old, Grimaldi says.

It’s been said by some researchers that collections like these are the closest thing we have to a time machine, offering scientists access to specimens hundreds of years old that can hold troves of information. Items in museum collections, from sauropods to star maps, can enable researchers to trace disease outbreaks, track the progression of climate change, and safeguard vulnerable cultures, to name a few.

But collections are not without their controversies — and their challenges. Long-overdue conversations about repatriating stolen items are roiling the sedate world of museum collections, even as some scientists worry that a drop-off in the accumulation of additional specimens could leave gaping holes in our knowledge of the natural world. And as social media and the turbulent news cycle compete for visitors’ attention, museums must also rationalize their existence to the people who come through their doors every day. In a world where any piece of information you might care to find lives on your phone, what exactly is the purpose of a building filled with old bones and curious artifacts?

It turns out, there’s vastly more information inside those bones than anyone might have guessed 50 years ago. New technologies are continually yielding fresh discoveries from old samples, and revealing a past that is wilder and more complex than previously imagined. The insights from museum collections can be paradigm-altering, from the discovery of new species to subtle physical differences between specimens that reveal the hand of evolution in action. And it’s not just scientists: Museums may be equally important for the everyday people that walk through their doors.

“When museums are effective, they not only move people’s heads, but there’s an emotional experience,” says Lauri Halderman, the senior vice president for exhibition at the AMNH. “We want people to come in and have their jaw drop and their eyes wide open.”

Specimens from the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates showcase the stunning diversity of colors, patterns, shapes, and sizes among birds. (Credit: Vanya rohwer)

Looking for “Dark Data”

The word museum, from the Greek mouseion, or “seat of the muses,” evokes a very specific kind of institution, one that formed in the expansionist, imperialist world of 19th-century Europe. Beginning in the late 1800s, museum curators pursued an encyclopedic vision as they focused on “collecting the world,” says Diana Marsh, an information scholar and anthropologist who studies museums.

At the time, the ideal museum contained one of every species, mineral, fossil and specimen on planet Earth, like a far more exacting Noah’s Ark. The idea, perhaps, was that to understand the world, we simply needed to gather every unique bit of it together in one place. “Old-school expeditions would go into the field, collect a bunch of stuff, stick it in a museum, go back out into the field and collect more,” says Rob Voss, the curator of the Department of Mammalogy at the AMNH.

The world proved a good deal more diverse than the curators of the day imagined, and their acquisitiveness soon led to far more specimens than there were scientists to study them. As a result, many specimens in museums have only been glanced at by scientists. The AMNH contains 34 million specimens, objects, and artifacts; the Smithsonian is estimated to have around 155 million.

Many of these specimens represent what scientists call “dark data” — items difficult to study, or even find, because they don’t show up in digital catalogs. Today, scientists routinely find entirely new species hidden inside museum collections, packed away decades ago by field scientists.

That dark data has proven to be far more expansive than the scientists of the past imagined, largely thanks to new and innovative approaches for mining those vast reservoirs. With technologies like DNA sequencing and CT scanning, researchers have managed to glean insights from old specimens never thought possible before. For example, CT scans of wasps trapped in amber allow scientists to construct minutely detailed 3D models of insects from millions of years ago. Meanwhile, genetic tests of microbes contained inside specimens are helping scientists track the emergence of new infectious diseases back before they ever appeared on epidemiologists’ radar.

Museum patrons explore the AMNH’s Northwest Coast Hall, a series of exhibits on the cultures and artifacts of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The gallery reopened in 2022 after a five-year renovation, with new exhibits developed with the region’s Indigenous communities. (Credit: Brian Logan Photography/shutterstock)

Cause for Alarm

Museum specimens aren’t just useful for studying the distant past. Natural history collections have proven critical for understanding the present, as well. For example, bird eggs held in both museum and illegal private collections were crucial to establishing the role of the pesticide DDT (short for dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) in thinning eggshells in the 1960s and ’70s. Back then, scientists compared specimens from decades earlier — before the advent of DDT — to the eggs of contemporary birds, meticulously linking increasing levels of the pesticide to progressively thinner shells that would eventually shatter under the weight of a roosting parent.

In the 1990s, researchers used specimens collected in previous decades to track the spread of the devastating chytrid fungus, which has wiped out dozens of amphibian populations around the globe. With data from museum specimens, they tracked the fungus as it moved from southern Mexico in the 1970s to Costa Rica in 1987 and then to Guatemala by the early 1990s, leaving millions of dead amphibians in its wake. Further research on bird specimens from museums showed how the fungus hopscotched from region to region so quickly. Scientists turned up evidence of chytrid DNA in samples from the birds’ feet — meaning the fungus was likely using them to hitch a ride and sow death in entirely new areas.

Museum specimens also contain stark evidence of the ways that ecosystem changes ripple outward. For example, stable isotope analysis on marbled murrelets, a seabird, in California between the early 1900s and early 2000s, revealed a huge shift in their diets, from sardines to krill. By comparing older museum specimens to wild birds, researchers found evidence the diets of the birds had gotten steadily worse, potentially imperiling their young. That decline in diet correlated with the collapse of sardine fisheries on the Pacific Coast, revealing how overfishing was harming species throughout the ecosystem.

But some scientists worry that collections — and by extension, the crucial insights they contain — could be in trouble. In an opinion piece published in the journal PLOS Biology in 2022, behavioral ecologist Vanya Rowher and his co-authors point out that the addition of new physical specimens from major vertebrate groups to collections has declined by as much as 76 percent since 1965. For some, the rate of collection is lower than it was during World War II. That could threaten the nearly unbroken record of the natural world museums help preserve.

A drought of specimens should be cause for alarm, says Rowher, who’s also the curator of the bird and mammal collection at the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates. Physical specimens offer data no photograph or journal entry could contain, from DNA samples to the delicate eyelashes of individual birds. “It provides a really rich picture of how these animals that we share the world with [have] adapted to life out there, how they overcome challenges, how they attract mates, how they undergo migrations, how they are successful,” he says.

Key learnings — from the deadly role of DDT to the silent spread of chytrid — would have vanished had diligent curators not gathered and preserved specimens for later study decades ago. The same could be true years from now. Expanding collections today represents an investment in future science, says Alison Davis Rabosky, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Michigan. “Let’s say scientists 100 or 200 years from today would want to know exactly how the planet is changing right now,” she says. “If you don’t make new collections there will be no independently verifiable record that anybody could have access to at any point in the future.”

Ethical Dilemmas

One reason for the decline is that collecting specimens today is simply more difficult. Where curators once had free reign to cart off almost anything they wanted to, collecting is now typically subject to rigorous permitting processes and quotas. That’s usually a good thing, curators are quick to note, but some believe the process can sometimes be needlessly prohibitive, to the detriment of collections today and in the future.

Plus, it’s true that these historic collections did come at a steep — and often underrecognized — cost. Many museum items can be traced to an era of rampant colonization and marginalization of Native peoples, when it was common for researchers and institutions to take things from places and peoples not their own. To the curators of the time, they were simply collecting. Today, it’s clear many of these specimens were stolen.

Some modern researchers have argued that these practices can be considered a form of natural-resource extraction. And while museums around the world, including the AMNH, have begun taking steps to repatriate items taken from Indigenous peoples, many of the cultural items and even some specimens in collections today are tarnished by a legacy of theft.

For example, a 2023 report by The Washington Post found that most of the 255 human brains held at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History were gathered without consent, often from marginalized people and under-resourced communities. Some of the brains may have been scavenged from cemeteries shortly after burial, the Post notes, or taken without a family’s permission.

In another example of how the legacy of scientific extraction lingers in collections, a 2023 study compared the diversity of herbarium collections to their colonial histories. The countries with the most diverse collections were the ones that formerly owned colonies overseas, while the former colonies, which typically contained far more natural diversity, had collections that were significantly more spartan in their own museums. What’s more, the colonial collections — removed from the places they came from — contain crucial knowledge about endangered species and changing ecosystems that local scientists may need.

For its part, the AMNH announced in October of 2023 that it would no longer display human remains from its collection. The move came amid criticism that the museum was falling behind on its promise to repatriate many of the 12,000 human remains in its collection, many of which were likely gathered without permission.

“None of the items on display are so essential to the goals and narrative of the exhibition as to counterbalance the ethical dilemmas presented by the fact that human remains are in some instances exhibited alongside and on the same plane as objects,” AMNH President Sean Decatur said in a statement. “Addressing the complex legacy of the human remains collection and putting more resources toward renewing our stewardship must be a priority for our institution.”

The Gilder Center at the AMNH features a butterfly vivarium, as well as 3,000 artifacts and specimens on display from the museum’s collections. (Credit: A. Keding/© AMNH)

Collection Connection

Just a floor up from the butterfly collection in the AMNH, 80 species of butterfly — the living counterparts to the carefully pinned species in the museum’s collection — flit nimbly amidst a riot of tropical flowers in the vivarium. A crowd of visitors circulates, shedding jackets due to the humidity. A boy pauses uncertainly while two flutter around his face. “There it is!” a woman shouts, pointing to a flash of color near the wall.

These butterflies, both living and dead, are part of the new Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation at the AMNH. Nearly a decade in the making, and with an eye-popping $465-million price tag, the addition is meant to be a showstopper. Walking into the museum’s new entrance on West 79th Street, visitors’ heads crane upwards to take in what appears to be a four-story cavern of arching walkways and branching side tunnels, filled, on a beautiful spring day, with natural light pouring in from skylights overhead. The shotcrete interior looks smooth and water-carved from afar, but is rough up close, the knobbly texture of tree bark.

The Gilder Center includes multiple new exhibits, high-tech classrooms, a public reading library, a dazzling, immersive projection room and more, all in service of bringing the wonders of Earth closer to the public. The new addition was born from a practical necessity that doubled as an obvious metaphor: In its previous state, the 150-year-old museum suffered from a profusion of dead ends in its many halls. It needed a place for connections. Now, where walls once stood, visitors can, for example, flow seamlessly from the hall of minerals right into the brand-new insectarium, linking the world of chemistry to the world of biology in just a few dozen steps.

While the museum’s collections ground the space, and indeed, serve as the focal point for some exhibits, the Gilder Center offers a subtle rejoinder to the museums of yesteryear, which sought to explain the world through the objects they contained. The new halls suggest the true story is not in the items a museum holds, but in the links between them. The emphasis on connections extends to the museum’s collections themselves, some of which are now housed in glass-fronted rooms along the Gilder Center’s walls, allowing visitors to peer inside.

In these storage rooms-turned-displays, an area known as the Collections Core, visitors can view jars of preserved fish specimens, their skin turned translucent, their skeletons stained a bright red. Meanwhile, just behind the shelves of specimens, scientists from the museum and around the world put specimens just like them under microscopes. “Our entire fish collection is in this new building,” says Cheryl Hayashi, the provost of science at the AMNH and a spider biologist. “It shows the evidence for our science.”

At the Gilder Center, the hope is that showing visitors some small part of the infinitely complex, worryingly delicate ecosystems the world contains might yield a moment of reflection. “We’ve tried to show, in each of the exhibits we do, how life on the planet is connected, and how we are part of those connections,” Halderman says. “Because we have a heavy hand in how the planet runs.”

In the leafcutter ant exhibit, visitors can watch half a million tiny ants scurry industriously to and fro, hefting shards of leaves above their heads like tiny sails. Follow an ant on its journey through the miniature forest in the case — up a column, across a rope strung above visitors’ heads and down into the hand-blown glass spheres that house their colonies — and you’ll witness the continuation of a symbiosis that’s existed for millions of years. The ants feed the leaves to a species of fungus that doubles as their home; in turn, the ants feed the fungus to their own young.

This delicate relationship persists in some of the most threatened environments on our planet in Central and South America. You could read about it in a book or see it in a documentary. But watching it happen in front of you, with millions of beings tending to the processes that sustain their lives, may underline the fragility of that relationship like little else can.

Carrying Stories

The undeniable power of physical displays could also explain a startling statistic: While significantly less than half of Americans say they trust science and scientists, museums are among the most trusted institutions in this country. In a 2021 study of 1,200 Americans, the American Alliance of Museums found that almost 90 percent of respondents said they trusted museums, with little difference across political lines. One big factor in that trust, respondents said, was that museums show the objects they’re talking about.

It’s tough to contest the validity of evolution when you can see the remains of primates and ancient humans lined up in front of you. Similarly, marveling at the beauty of an endangered butterfly makes the biodiversity crisis feel personal in a way that’s tough to replicate online. But the visceral value of these objects sits uneasily beside the painful history of how some of them got there in the first place.

Creating a museum that teaches and safeguards history, without exploiting the sources of that history, may require a different approach. The First Americans Museum in Oklahoma offers a glimpse of what that could look like. Opened in 2021, the museum holds objects, traditions, and songs from members of the 39 distinct tribal nations in Oklahoma, around 10 percent of its population — many of whom were taken there by removals during the 19th century. Meanwhile, the museum itself functions as a cosmological clock, as parts of the building align with the Sun’s orientation on solstices and equinoxes. (The photo to the right shows a part of the building, at sunset, aligning with the 2019 summer solstice.)

In Indigenous traditions, the cultural objects passed down through generations are imbued with a life of their own through care and prayer, says Heather Ahtone, the director of curatorial affairs at the First Americans Museum. “These objects help and have been participating in our communities as cultural beings since they were made,” Ahtone says.

Curators in the past took countless Native items for museum collections, including some stolen from graves, ripping them from the cultural context they originated in and placing them behind glass for curious spectators. The First Americans Museum’s collections policies explicitly forbid the possession or display of objects taken from the graves of ancestors, Ahtone says. The museum also makes a point of honoring the wishes of the items’ makers, and disclosing the full context of the objects.

Those priorities can be seen in, say, a replica of a bison skull painted with red hematite — the oldest painted object in North America at around 12,000 years old — which explains both the history of the object and the rationale behind displaying a detailed facsimile, rather than the sacred original artifact.

Modern objects like a beaded bandolier bag made by Sac and Fox Nation artist Marilyn Spoon also possess their own powerful stories. Today, members of the Sac and Fox Nation travel to the museum to experience their culture firsthand, embodied by the intricate, vibrant beadwork that adorns the bandolier bag. For generations, bags just like it have been used by Native families to carry feast bowls to celebrations.

In other cases, collected objects have helped reveal newfound knowledge. When curators brought an Osage coat collected in the early 1900s to the living descendants of the original owner, the family was able to tell them who had made the coat and who had worn it, revealing new insights into its history. “That’s the gift that these objects carry and have that we as humans do not,” ahtone says. “Well cared for, these objects can be passed along, live and carry our stories, carry our songs [and] carry our cultural knowledge across multiple generations.”

At the First Americans Museum and at other institutions worldwide, bits and pieces of the world, both those made by nature and those made by humans, live on. They may be lit by spotlights under glass or tucked safely inside cabinets. They may fill entire rooms or be so small they cannot be seen without a microscope. But inside each object resides a wealth of knowledge that we may not even be able yet to adequately calculate.

Future generations may want to know how our rapidly altering climate imperiled a single species of ant from Ecuador, or they may need to trace the evolution of a viral pandemic threatening lives. Or, they may simply want to understand their history, and hear the stories that explain why their world looks the way it does. Whatever the question, they are likely to find the answers inside a museum, waiting to be uncovered.

This story was originally published in our May June 2024 issue. Click here to subscribe to read more stories like this one.

Source : Discovermagazine