Monday, January 1, 2018

Start the New Year with an Intellectual Bang!

Please, please read The Future of Natural History Museums, edited by Eric Dorfman and published by Routledge for ICOM. It is a marvelously thoughtful, well-researched, and energetic look at where natural history museums have been, are right now, and may rightly go if their staff and leaders are courageous enough to venture forth in the manner humanity requires.

The international set of authors provides the perfect perspective  to summon museums to challenge business as usual and to confront the changes to our planet. All other forms of museums have a place in confronting Humanity's worries, yet the authors make it clear that the natural history museums have a special mandate to do so.

If you are...
...looking for inspiration...
...teaching in museums studies or citizen activism around climate change
...a futurist
...a museum leader...
then I strongly recommend this important book.  It should be a backbone text in any personal or professional program of study as we each prepare for a dramatically different future for the museum profession.

Christopher Norris writes in his Introduction, "There is considerable difference, however, between studying the past and belonging in the past." "Natural history collections are widely recognized as part of the national and international research infrastructure..."

Lynda Knowles' essay "International and National Legislation" is very through (especially given space available) and valuable - do not miss it; you need it to lay your role in this global profession.

The multi-author chapter on "The Essential Role of Museums in Biodiversity Conservation" beautifully addresses the intricacies of the science and natural history museums' responsibility for citizen engagement for biodiversity: " can they 'inspire the citizenry to become the environmental conscience of the nation' (Krishtalka and Humphrey, 2000)? [Natural history museums] need to lower the barrier to conservation action by capitalizing on easy access to information through digital and virtual platforms, and the popularity of social media to promote solutions through specific, locally relevant, choices for action."

Nearly all the authors bring the present-day status of natural history museums into context with the Anthropocene, "a proposed geological era that reflects human impacts so pervasive as to influence the geological record. These effects will be detectable millions of years from now, bu whoever might be looking, as an unprecedented band of plastics, fly ash, radionuclides, metals, pesticides, reactive nitrogen, and consequences of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations." (Editor Eric Dorfman, p. 2, referring to Waters, et al., 2016.)

Eric Dorfman, Emlyn Koster, T. Simioti Nyambe, in making a case for relevancy of natural history museums, write "nature-focused museums should whole-heartedly become resources to illuminate the meaning and implications of the Anthropocene." and "The Anthropocene represents the best available frame of reference for engaging society in planet Earth's best possible future."

Christopher J. Garthe, in his excellent, excellent chapter "That Natural Futures Museum" (you see that, yes, Futures?), writes "The central challenges of the twenty-first century, whether pertaining to climate change, food security, intellectual property, or traditional knowledge, all have interconnections with the natural sciences. Additionally, as humankind is part of the natural world and all global challenges innately concern humans, natural history museums are - especially as compared to other museums -- perfect places to learn about, and address, the issues of the twenty-first century."

This book is for and about natural history museums. It's the best yet out there as a call to action and an absolute must-read for anyone in the museum profession. It often mentions zoos, aquariums, and science centers. We can easily widen this call to all types of museums - I do all the time. I hope you can all hear me now after reading how natural history museums are staking out important territory to their benefit and the planet's. Wouldn't you want to as well?

The Anthropocene is about what man has done to the planet. It can be argued that the zoos, aquariums, and science centers have more of an emphasis on the planet than on mankind compared to the art and history and children's museums, yet the arts and humanities are not - by any stretch of the imagination - exempt from this discussion! They must contribute to this discussion. Why and how has mankind come to this point, and how will we respond? This is the responsibility of each of us in the museum field, no matter what type of institution we work for: study ourselves and the world around us so we can make a better future for all. 

Conal McCarthy in his terrific closing "Commentary" writes "This long-held division between the sciences and the arts is unfortunate and debilitating, but, as it is itself the product of history, it can be overcome." "The longtime split between the 'two cultures' of the sciences and the humanities has to be healed, and the two sides integrated, so that students in courses and professionals in museums benefit from a more holistic and interdisciplinary nexus of training, practice, theory, and research."

May these synergies become the marks of success in the New Year for us all.

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