The Natural History Museum: Drifting without purpose

A miserable specimen

The Natural History Museum seems to have lost faith in the ability of children to understand new concepts and facts

Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Mummy, we are go see diiiinosaurs!” Walking up the entrance ramp to the Natural History Museum with an elated two-year-old and her little best friend chirruping away, I was swept up in the excitement of the moment, filled with happy memories of childhood visits and student excursions to this giant treasure trove.

Family holidays to London were never complete without a visit to the NHM for a good science quiz to explore with. Accessing the museum freely for lectures and meteorite research as a student always felt like an amazing privilege at a time when entry fees still applied. And so it was that I naturally brought my own daughter to meet the fauna, discover some of the exhibits and start learning a little about what mummy did (I am a geologist).

From a small child’s perspective, there was barely anything of interest, let alone of educational value

Trudging along the long corridor towards the Dino room, toddler enthusiasm notably waned as we passed bare wall after bare wall, and the most exciting part was the sound of their voices echoing around the empty, cavernous space. Of course, this is a rather unusual situation: in pre-Covid times my own visits to the galleries have unfortunately been memorable for the oppressive cacophony of hundreds of voices bouncing around the hard surfaces through the thick, stale air.

Still, we finally made it to the entrance of the exhibition, where we were asked to come back in about 15 minutes as waiting times were too long. We took the opportunity to visit one of the more classic neighbouring galleries, filled with stuffed animals in glass cases, “just like when we were growing up”. The girls loved naming the beasts and guessing what the more unusual ones could be.

As we returned to the immutably long dinosaur queue, the charm of the tigers and polar bears started to wear thin while we attempted to keep our offspring focused on the fascinating creatures to come. The missed opportunities started to take over: we found ourselves blankly staring at plain wall coverings, where exciting factoids and informative illustrations about dinosaurs could so easily have featured.

Good old animatronics T-Rex, installed as a key attraction of the new dinosaur exhibition in the 1990s as part of a new commercial partnership concept with Kokoro Dreams, continued to deliver its retro magic and was an instant hit with the children. Yet when we moved onto the rest of the exhibition, the familiar sinking sensation took hold of me as we navigated the tattered, outdated, poster boards and handful of spotlit exhibits in awkward corners. From a small child’s perspective, there was barely anything of interest, let alone of educational value. From an adult’s standpoint, it was hardly any different.

This state of affairs is a sad representation of the current position of a much-loved institution

We found ourselves squinting up in the air, attempting to understand the skeletal outlines hanging over us. Long gone are the days of climbing up to the gallery section to take a good look at the specimens and read the associated descriptions. We struggled even to find the names of many of the species.

This state of affairs is a sad representation of the current position of a much-loved institution. To those of us interested or employed in this domain, it is not news that natural history, and all sciences associated with it, sometimes referred to as “soft sciences”, are often seen as a child’s pastime. As such, there is a natural tendency to view institutions involved in these sciences as an extension of a child’s educational framework. Yet it remains crucial to engage with an adult audience alongside the younger generation. As Max Barclay, a senior entomology curator at the museum, stated in a lecture: “Just as maps are physical representations of what is known about the physical world, so natural history collections are representations of what is known about the living world.”

The Natural History Museum was created with educational entertainment as a goal but with an equal emphasis on it being a serious, productive science and research institution. Looking through its history, the conflict between its two main functions has been ongoing from the start, and has not been fully resolved. There appears never to have been a time when objectives were clear enough, and budgets sufficient, to meet the needs of both sides successfully and simultaneously, although this ideal goal was almost reached in the 1970s.

A minimalist approach has been taken to a maximalist science

In recent decades, the entertainment aspect has been encroaching on the scientific mission. The exhibitions are now clearly targeted at young children; the language used as well as the simplification of facts appears to be aimed at ten-year-olds rather than the original age level target of 16.

Swathes of specimens have been removed and entire galleries cleared out to be transformed into shops and café areas, some standing empty or closed post-lockdown. A minimalist approach has been taken to a maximalist science.

Where data quantity and displays are key, modern curation has created voids and intellectual precipices; cabinets have been unceremoniously disposed of, and even murals haven’t escaped the sanitised, impersonal sweep of mediocrity, painted over and defaced by a display screen that barely anyone looks at. The latest updates to the main Hintze Hall involve sparse, beautifully presented but woefully uninformative “exhibits” showcasing, for instance, a collection of birds with absolutely no information provided about habitats, lifestyles or indeed genus names for these items and species, making them unidentifiable and thus entirely defeating the museum’s purpose. Exhibits are now more about the exhibit itself than the science behind it.

Most regrettably, the museum management seems to have lost faith in the ability of children to learn and understand new concepts and facts. Yet most parents bring their children to be educated, not just entertained. It is also pretty unattractive for the accompanying parents due to the poor scientific content and general babyfication of the exhibits. This is worlds apart from the NHM’s mission to educate a broad audience and display its current and past work and research. In this vision, visitors should understand the wonderful legacy of knowledge this important institution holds, and the potential it offers for future discoveries.

It has become a badly fitted-out version of a children’s amusement park

The NHM’s leadership seems completely unaware of its responsibility to the scientific community, the international conservation movement and to British taxpayers, their heritage and education. This is causing the museum to drift without purpose and wantonly removes its only means of staying afloat.

Sadly, the museum appears to have regressed to a substandard shopfront rather than a world-renowned scientific institution. It has become a badly fitted-out version of a children’s amusement park, running large-scale yoga classes as a priority over lectures and workshops in its disused, multi-million-pound lecture theatre.

As we dodged in and out of trees and shrubs in the popular wildlife garden, searching for invisible insects (wrong season) and wandering diplodocuses (wrong era), the earnest words of Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the museum and keen student of the natural world, came to mind: his legacy was intended so that “The same may be rendered as useful as possible, as well towards satisfying the desire of the curious, as for the improvement of knowledge, and information of all purposes.”

How are the mighty fallen.

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