The future of Natural History and Science Museums
True disruption is not temporary: the changes wrought by a once-in-a-century pandemic, a transformative societal movement to fight anti-Black racism, and the accelerating pace of human-driven climate change have left many cultural institutions reeling with the knowledge that they cannot — and should not — return to business as usual, even if and when the current maelstroms abate.
“It would be a mistake to try to reopen the same museum that we closed. This is an opportunity to leapfrog over where we were into some new realm,” said Judy Gradwohl, President and CEO of the San Diego Natural History Museum. She was speaking at a virtual Summit on the Future of Natural History Museums and Science Centers facilitated by Lord Cultural Resources.
Other speakers echoed Gradwohl’s sentiment that although the current metamorphosis of science-based cultural institutions is largely driven by external circumstances, these institutions control how they change, and embrace a future that builds their inclusivity, resilience, and ability to serve their communities.
And while many museums will continue to offer on-site exhibitions and events in one form or another, on-line experiences are also now here to stay. And that not only opens up the possibility for new, creative, truly groundbreaking exhibitions, it also means being able to reach audiences anywhere in the world.
“To divest yourself from the tyranny of the building is a liberation,” said Lord Chief Operation Office Kathleen Brown, who moderated the discussion.
In addition to traditional exhibitions and on-line experiences, speakers also identified a third type of space that has ascended in importance as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: natural, outdoor spaces.
“We feel a responsibility towards the wellness of our community to be able to engage them in a place of respite, joy, and learning about the nature that's all around them,” said Lori Bettison-Varga, President and Director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Considerations around institutions’ responsibility for community wellness extend beyond the types of gallery experiences museums can offer: many are also rethinking the kinds of stories they tell, and the points of view they need to represent. That can mean ensuring they include voices and perspectives from groups who have historically been excluded from museum discourse. It can also mean standing up for science itself. On issues as diverse as climate change, evolution, and viruses and vaccines, many natural history museums and science centers feel a greater responsibility than ever to present a science-driven approach to decision-making and education.
““[Science] is fundamentally a conversation with the universe. That's what it is. You're asking nature questions with whatever tools you're clever enough to devise, and it answers with something we call data,” said Ken Phillips, the Curator of Aerospace Science at the California Science Center.
While that conversation typically leads to as many new questions as it does answers, history and science museums have a responsibility to assert science-driven data at the centre of many personal and political discussions and decisions.
“I don't know if activist is quite the right term. I think what we would say is that we aggressively tell the truth. The science doesn't lie,” said Jesse Rodriguez, Deputy director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
That doesn’t mean that science — or science-based cultural institutions — intend to tell people what to think, believe, or do. It means inspiring them to use evidence, data, and the scientific method to help inform themselves.
“Science is a way of thinking about the world. It's a way of seeing the world. If we can draw that out in the activities or in the stories we're telling in our museums, and connect them to local examples, I think that that helps people see themselves in science,” said Judy Koke the Deputy Director and Director of Professional Development at the Institute for Learning Innovation.
Naturally, museum leaders attempt to live by the same principles that their institutions are based on. They all are asking questions, collecting data, and assessing the evidence that will guide where they go from here. Some truths — such as that digital-first experiences are here to stay, and that engagement with communities will never look the way it once did — are well accepted. But with a potentially volatile future with many unknowns, flexibility, openness, and adaptability remain key attributes of long-term resilience and success.