Involve the Public – Natural History Museum
A second challenge (also common to all kinds of museums) is to find more, and more dynamic, ways of integrating the public with the research uses of collections. If that can be developed, the opportunities for funding will grow. The main new opportunities are in the field of computer-based access to information. Four issues in particular will preoccupy the 21st century natural history collection:
- Growth of collections seems inevitable; we do not know what proportions of the world’s living species have been found and identified. We only fear that it may be less than 50 percent, even 10 percent. Therefore collecting, particularly of small to microscopic species and of new kinds of samples, will remain an essential activity of museums. But it is not known who will pay for the facilities needed or where the next generation of skilled professionals will be trained.
- Computers have long been at the heart of museum information systems. One of the main tasks at the moment is to collect the information dispersed in the collections of different institutions into discrete searchable databases (with images) that users can access remotely. This is well under way in many areas but is very costly in terms of human power if it is done well (that is, data are checked before being included). Another digital advance will be the development of software for species identification. These systems and databases can then also be the foundation for new modes of online public access and educational programming.
- Many museums have collections that no longer fit their research purposes. An obvious, if unpopular, step would be rationalization, that is, the physical exchange of whole collections among institutions in order to build strengths in particular areas in given museums.
- Even more unpopular would be to make unused and unusable collections inaccessible. But this has to be considered seriously in order to maximize use of resources.
Perhaps the greatest overall challenge for natural science collections is for the great research museums to dispel, once and for all, the image of collections sitting somewhere in the basement of a building, the specimens and their curators gathering dust together, and all devoted to some arcane exercise of identifying and classifying the results of someone else’s science. The reality is that the modern museum is a constantly evolving entity, home to a heady mixture of sciences—evolution, biogeography, environmental biology, human biology, geology, and molecular biology—all in the context of growing public interest and a need for new modes of public access.“
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