Preserving the Future of Natural-History Museums

Brian Taylor

October 30, 2009

Last month I met a man who holds my childhood dream job: an "exhibit preparator" at a university's natural-history museum. That may not sound so exciting, but I think his position should be one of the most coveted in all of academe because it brings together so many things that make for an enjoyable, varied, and creative professional life.

It's not a job that one is likely to see advertised. Hires are made by the planetary alignments of person, place, and timing. It helps a lot if you happen to have degrees in both art and biology, along with experience in manufacturing. All of that makes Daniel Erickson at the University of Michigan's Exhibit Museum of Natural History a rare species, indeed.

His laboratory, a cross between the studio of MythBusters and a cabinet of curiosities, is an unselfconscious work of art that rivals anything you'll find elsewhere in the museum. You step through the oak door of Room 4511, and your eyes wander from the replica head of a Neanderthal, nestled amid a row of gilded 19th-century periodicals, to a massive oak cabinet on which sits a curiously smiling fiberglass Dimetrodon, to a cluster of ferocious-looking industrial machines (a lathe, table saws, and a drill press). You begin to understand that the peculiar attraction of this kind of museum is not merely the latest scientific theories about the proper position of the tail of the Allosaurus (horizontal, of course); it is the intersection of art, history, and the cultures of science stretching back at least four centuries. It's all about the aura of things that are real.

The stimulating juxtapositions of Room 4511 result from the day-to-day activities of people who have worked at the museum for generations. What one sees are the accidental accumulations of time, rather than the clean, uniform, and often deadening spaces created by committees governed by the orthodoxies of a narrowly defined mission.

In many respects Room 4511 reflects the university's museum as a whole, with its layering of the periods of display from the 19th century to the present. The main hall on the second floor seems to have evolved slowly, adding one exhibit at a time or making modest changes to an old one. It appears to have never undergone the kind of wholesale renovations that have desecrated some historically important museums, like the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Without abandoning contemporary science, Michigan's museum does for mid-20th-century natural history what Philadelphia's Wagner Free Institute of Science does for the 19th century: It preserves a piece of the art and history of natural history.

Walking through the exhibits is a powerful experience for an adult not so much because of the science—which is completely familiar—but because it brings back vivid memories of the cultures of natural history, stretching back to my childhood visits to such museums and, before that, to the kind of dream-knowledge we all have of our parents' and grandparents' experiences.

During my last visit, I particularly relished a side-room exhibition in the Eames style, filled with candy-colored,wax-and-rubber dioramas of "Life Through the Ages" that reminded me of the illustrated Golden Guide to Fossils (1962), possibly the most thoroughly devoured book of my childhood. (An inexpensive paperback, it's still in print from St. Martin's Press, although heftier volumes, like DK's just-published Prehistoric Life: The Definitive Visual History of Life on Earth, may be even more visually stimulating for the young naturalist.) What makes the dioramas rare and fascinating is that they are undisturbed relics from another era of natural history.

Given that sensibility, I appreciate the museum's handling of one of its major attractions: the massive skeleton of an Edmontosaurus, a reptile that was up to 43 feet long and could weigh more than four tons, still seemingly half-embedded in the site of its excavation. Behind it was a large mural—perhaps 30 feet wide—by George Marchand, painted in 1954, that shows the creature in a natural setting and is reminiscent of the famous mural, "The Age of Reptiles," a highlight of Yale's Peabody Museum, painted by Rudolph Zallinger in the 1940s.

Marchand's Edmontosaurus is depicted incorrectly, with its limp tail dragging on the ground, but that was the generally accepted view at the time. The skeleton has been partly repositioned while a plaque on the railing illustrates our updated understanding of dinosaur locomotion while respecting the muralist's work.

Apparently, there was once some movement toward removing the mural because, as some have said, "it represents everything that's wrong with the museum," Erickson told me. I'm convinced that it represents everything that's right about Michigan's museum and others that have preserved their histories while presenting the most recent science.

The patrons of these museums are different from art fans; one sees few adults unaccompanied by children, who sometimes outnumber the grownups by a factor of 30 to one, like a playground outside an elementary school. Could you imagine a sharply dressed couple walking through a natural-history museum, making sophisticated remarks about the archaeology of knowledge and the frisson of old and new epistemologies?

At some point, apparently back in the 60s, natural-history museums began to focus on attracting children; it made sense for demographic reasons allied to the educational imperatives of the Cold War.

But now the museums have been child-centered for so long that it's hard to imagine the adults coming back. And with them, a more complex appreciation for the natural-history museum as a unique kind of cultural institution—as a place for aesthetic and historical appreciation—has been lost. There is something down at the heels about many natural-history museums, for all their esoteric attractions, compared with other parts of universities. It is as if the museums are allowed to continue but not allowed to significantly expand, just in case they need to be closed in the not-so-distant future.

A lifetime of visiting natural-history museums—along with conversations with a variety of people who have devoted years of service to them, such as Erickson—has led me to humbly submit the following recommendations, realizing that I am merely a humanist observer:

  • Do not sacrifice the history of your museum for the sake of being up-to-date everywhere you look. Showcase the development of science as a self-correcting, interdisciplinary enterprise that, nevertheless, has a past that is worth celebrating. For an excellent recent example of this approach, see Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science, and the Visual Arts (Yale University Press, 2009), edited by Diana Donald and Jane Munro.
  • Foreground the art of science and the aesthetics of the museum. Regard the museum as a palimpsest, or exposed layers of sediment. Do not engage in expensive, wholesale renovations that destroy the work of prior generations of curators or the memories of older visitors. For examples of this sensibility, consider the work of Rosamond Wolff Purcell and Stephen Jay Gould in Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors (Norton, 1992), and the recent "Animal Logic" photographs of Richard Barnes (
  • Do not attempt to compete with other forms of entertainment; there are few museums that can provide the mindless thrills of Dinoland U.S.A., nor should they. Audio-animatronic dinosaurs and do-it-yourself excavation pits are not the answer, nor are more interactive computer terminals that seem obsolete within a year of installation.
  • Stop condescending to children (most see through it and don't like it). Maintain standards of decorum, even if visiting parents and teachers are not willing to do so. Do not constrain the level of complexity in your displays. Develop tours that focus on different kinds of audiences.
  • Show people—in small groups—the museum behind the scenes. Reveal the natural-history museum as a living institution: the workrooms of the curators, the drawers full of insects, the cabinets full of skins, the shelves of specimen jars, and the technicians working with computers.
  • Apart from prehistoric human evolution—a branch of the history of primates—avoid anthropology, which has often led to ill-considered displays of indigenous cultures that are offensive and rightly scare away potential supporters.
  • Stop being ashamed of dead animals. Embrace the complicated history of the building of your collections. Present the museum as a biological archive; showcase your passenger pigeons, Tasmanian tigers, and quaggas, if you have them—and remind visitors which other creatures are going that way.
  • Purge the schlock and stock the museum store with items that you can't find easily on the Internet. Encourage patrons to build their own natural-history collections and give them professional guidance on doing so.
  • Teach the conflicts, and, in so doing, push back against antiscientific trends in our culture. The extinction of the dinosaurs is a great springboard for a consideration of the risks of climate change. And stop worrying about giving credibility to well-financed pseudo-scientific museums: Take them on, aggressively.
  • The most important point: The world is full of simulations. Natural-history museums should cultivate the aura of the real: the rare and unique, the beautiful, the exotic, and the grotesque. Better to showcase one crackalured bone for the great rarity that it is than to add one more fake-looking T-Rex skeleton, in midattack, posed as a photo op. Consider some icons of natural history—generally small and steeped in the history of science—presented in The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HarperResource, 2004) and Treasures of the Natural History Museum, published just this year.

I don't assume that museum directors haven't considered all of those possibilities, and I'm sure someone will explain to me why my recommendations are misguided. But since I am outside of the usual channels of professional socialization (and responsibility), I hope a few of these can serve as springboards for productive discussion.

I am not asking natural-history museums to make any drastic changes, but rather to be careful about making them, and to rethink the way they define themselves in relation to the public, to give more people more reasons to revere these museums, as I do, to encourage their development, and to preserve them for future generations. Even though I didn't grow up to be a curator, I want to know that there will always be people like Daniel Erickson, following their calling in the secret rooms of natural-history museums.

Note: This essay continues topics first considered in "The Decline of the Natural-History Museum" (The Chronicle, October 9, 2006) and "Revisiting Natural Science" (The Chronicle, December 12, 2008).

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at