A BRIEF HISTORY OF NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUMS: 1635–2012

A 2005 treatise on the earliest museums with a natural history focus gave this summary:

“… the term conjured up quiet study, spiritual contemplation and, most important of all, collections of rare and wondrous objects … A museum became a physical experiment … a space that ordered natural objects and fostered tentative mingling between the social classes who came to view them … loose coalitions of wealthy amateur naturalists, boosters, professional scientists, and politicians joined forces to establish new museums of natural history … the word “museum” came to imply a diligent middle-class respectability and civic ambition.”

The first expeditionary collections were amassed by the Royal Society in London and the Académie des Sciences in Paris. The first publicly accessible museums included the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris in 1635 and Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1683. The Museo de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid opened in 1752 and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels in 1846. In the U.S., initial ones included Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia in 1812, American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1869, North Carolina State Museum of Natural History in 1879, and Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh in 1896. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History opened in 1910.

Recalling the American Museum of Natural History though the 1940s–50s, its retiring director opined:

“…it seems evident that the natural history museum has reached a stage in the evolution of its relationship to society where the generally prevailing opportunistic vagueness of intentions is becoming a liability which must be replaced by a well-considered, well-integrated, and well-defined philosophy concerning the museum’s place in the general research and educational system of the nation.”

In the early 1990s, driven by mounting concerns over humanity’s intrusion into the Earth’s interdependent ecosystems, a deputy director at the Smithsonian urged a new approach in natural history museums. He advocated for a holistic framework of global issues with a desirable shift in the mindset of visitors from passive curiosity to active engagement.

While collections remain the foundation of major natural history museums, albeit with rising concerns over insufficient funding for their preservation and growth, two recent international convenings have chronicled the breadth of their external significance.

2007, Paris: representatives from natural history museums and research institutes issued The Buffon Declaration …

“Given that science is critical for sustainable management of biodiversity and ecosystems and, through it, survival of human populations on this planet, the vital contributions of these institutions are fourfold: a) They are the primary repositories of the scientific samples on which understanding of the variety of life is ultimately based; b) Through leading-edge research they extend knowledge of the structure and dynamics of biodiversity in the present and in the past; c) Through partnerships, and through programs of training and capacity-building, they strengthen the global capability to address current and future environmental challenge; and d) They are a forum for direct engagement with civil society, which is indispensable for helping bring about the changes of behavior on which our common future and the future of nature depend.”

2012, Washington, D.C.: representatives from mainly U.S. natural history organizations issued the following declaration (I was a member of its task force) …

“Humanity is embedded within nature and we are at a critical moment in the continuity of time. Our collections are the direct scientific evidence for evolution and the ecological interdependence of all living things. The human species is actively altering the Earth’s natural processes and reducing its biodiversity. As the sentient cause of these impacts, we have the urgent responsibility to give voice to the Earth’s immense story and to secure its sustainable future.”

Emlyn Koster, PhD
emlyn.koster@naturalsciences.org
Director, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences


Past Columns in the Naturalist