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The Natural History Museum, London: A late unpleasantness!

I wrote the article below in 1990 when substantial protests, including strikes by staff, faced The Natural History Museum, London. Muse News was the publication of the Museums Association of Australia.


The Natural History Museum, London: What Is Really Going On?

(from Muse News, No. 3 & 4 1990, p 10-13)

In the last few months the pages of journals such as the British weeklies New Scientist and Nature have featured articles and letters about the Natural History Museum, London. Complaining letters have appeared on the desks of the Director, Trustees and Ministers, and even Prime Minister Thatcher, from scientists around the World. Meetings have been held between the Director and distinguished scientists and other citizens, the House of Commons had debated the matter and the scientific staff have formed a Science Defence Committee to fight the changes.

The Natural History Museum (officially known as the British Museum of Natural History) is situated on Cromwell Road in Kensington. It has taken over the Geological Museum next door and has a staff of over 800. In size it ranks with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Its collections contain animals and plants from all over the world including many of the first animals collected by British expeditions to Australia.

Scientists from all over the world visit the Museum and borrow specimens from it for their scientific research. Its scientific focus has been on systematics or taxonomy, the science of classifying and naming animals and plants. Taxonomy is fundamental to many other branches of biology and is increasingly important in the study of biodiversity and general ecology; there is an urgent need for more such research. There may be as many as 40 million animal and plant species, yet at present we know the names of less than 5 million.

The Museum faces this crisis at a time when there is growing evidence, according to an article in the Guardian Weekly on November 26, 1989 that museums [and the arts] are not only intrinsically worthwhile but also a dynamic part of the economy. A study published in 1988 (edited by John Myerscough), by the Arts Council and the Centre for Policy Studies showed dramatically that investing in [them] was better than investing in lots of other things: it produced greater economic benefits! Museums and Galleries are to receive a 13 to 15 per cent increase in their funding, according to the Guardian Weekly report.

Earlier, on 7 May 1989, Martin Bailey and Peter Beaumont writing in The Observer, had reported on “the historic masterpiece of Government financial neglect” – leaving the ‘National’ Museums struggling to survive.  Britain’s museums are in crisis, they report. Historic buildings housing priceless masterpieces are falling into disrepair.  Rising labour costs means fewer staff, forcing museums to shut galleries or accept greater security risks. Cuts in curatorial staff are hitting scholarship… Unless the Treasury provides more money, museums will face a disastrous crisis, according to Peter Longman, secretary of the Government’s Museums and Galleries Commission. And Museums Association President Dr Patrick Boylan, says, “unless more money is found there will be massive staff cuts with devastating effects.”

It would seem that the Natural History Museum is being driven more by the environment described by Bailey and Beaumont than by recognition of the economic worth of museums: to listen to much of the criticism one would believe that it is not going to be part of any resurgence in government support but will have to do for itself and may well decline to insignificance.

The Museum faces many extraordinarily difficult challenges. Two years ago the Museum decided to charge general admission. Since then attendances have dropped: whilst initially it seemed that the decline might be as much as 40%, it seems to be no more than 15% according to an interview with the Marketing Director two years ago on the ABC Science Show.

A total of 50 posts have been lost since 1983, wage increases have significantly exceeded the increase in funding and a further 40 posts have remained unfilled. The wages bill accounts for 98% of the total funds received from Government and, despite substantial increases in Government funds in 1990-91, staff costs will reach 100% of the Government Grant by 1994-95 if present levels are maintained,  placing ‘an impossible strain on the Museum’.

The Museum has increased funds from merchandising and venue hire – you can get married among the Dinosaurs – and total non-Government funds now represent 25% of total funds available (up from 17% in 1987) and are planned to increase to 30% by 1995. This is very high for a public museum in Britain (or even Australia!). Amongst other recently introduced revenue programs are a more aggressive approach to selling its scientific services in Britain and internationally.

Despite this the Museum faces a funding gap of £400,000. A £5 million appeal was launched in November 1989 through its Development Trust to help set up its newly refurbished galleries and already £3.6 million has been raised.  Of the total exhibition spaces 55% are empty or house exhibitions over 15 years old. The building need substantial maintenance which the Trust must pay for out of their own funds. (The Waterhouse building has been functionally obsolete for many years and requires reroofing; 12,000m2 of space at the Rutslip ‘outstation’ is to be vacated in 1995 but it is asserted that under the Museum’s legislation the Government will have to pay for a new store.

Directing the Museum now is Dr Neil Chalmers, formerly Head of Britain’s Open University. He took over as Director of the Natural History Museum two years ago, succeeding foraminiferan expert Dr Ron Hedley, under whose leadership the new emphasis on the public’s visiting experience had commenced. Hedley had also commenced corporate planning at the Museum and had felt it necessary to curtail activities such as research on birds (at a separate site in Tring) and on plants, measures which also drew international protest.


The Museum’s Trustees, headed by Sir Walter Bodmer, FRS, approved early this year a Corporate Plan for the next five years to 1995.

Key objectives have been spelled out for each operational area of the Museum. Research will be concentrated on six areas: biodiversity, human origins, human health, environmental quality, living resources and mineral resources. Some 100 staff positions are to be abolished: of these 51 (of a total of 300 existing) are scientific. (Interestingly, the furore has never mentioned what the other 49 posts to be deleted are.) Of the 51 positions to be lost, 12 are in taxonomic entomology (study of insects) and behaviour and 6 concern studies of fossil birds and mammals and plants; a further 10 are in various collection curation areas.

Tenure is to be abolished in favour of short-term contracts and thereby, it is hoped, the wage-bill will be reduced. The new system is intended to foster curatorship as a profession with a career structure. However, career opportunities will be limited because each post will carry a specific civil service grade and promotion will be possible only when senior staff depart.

The level of maintenance of exhibitions is to be improved and exhibitions staff reorganised into multi-disciplinary teams, five new exhibitions designed and constructed (design and production of new exhibitions contracted out), the education program tailored to the needs of the new National Curriculum and facilities for visitors improved.

The reaction to the Plan has been dramatic: it has been attacked and Dr Chalmers’ ability and understanding has been denigrated and maligned. The onslaught has been directed at one decision: the restructuring of science. Researchers at the Museum went on a one-day strike on 24th April to protest. On 26 April, the researchers resolved to strike again on 4 May if the museum’s director, Neil Chalmers refused to withdraw the plan.

A staff publication, “The Banner” has pulled no punches. After noting, ‘We .. agree with the Director that inter-disciplinary research, not bounded by systematic group, ought to be encouraged.  We likewise agree that DNA studies ought to be pursued … Curation has been re-organised in all the scientific Departments.  Some staff in the Life Sciences can now see their duties more closely defined, along with aims and targets’ it continues, ‘We suspect that the management is contemptuous of systematics as an intellectual discipline and that our present troubles stem from this contempt.  We suspect this partly by reason of management’s recent brutality and partly because the Director was never a systematist, the Associate Director has long since ceased to be one and there is only one systematist on the Board of Trustees.’

The Science Defence Committee (established by staff) writing of what it calls ‘Corporate Curation’ says, ‘the Corporate Plan does not take adequate account of the number of scientists who visit the collections and the subsequent work involved in loans and donations, senior management do not fully understand the processes of curation.  Curators resent the lack of consultation, and lack of information at all levels.  Some senior managers have no detailed hands-on knowledge of the collections… there is a widespread fear that the Museum will be reduced to a skeleton staff of curators within a decade.

‘Changes have been made in a high handed manner show that years of experience are of no account.’ Termination of research in certain areas, transfer of staff and non-filling of vacancies are laid at the door of Dr John Peak, appointed Associate Director for Research Development in June 1989. ‘The Corporate Plan carries his fingerprints’ the ‘Banner’ said.

And the debate has gotten into the House of Commons. In the adjournment debate at 3:15am on 21 June, Tam Dalyell MP pointed out that the real threat to Britain is not “the armies of Mr Gorbachev”, but global warming, the destruction of the ozone layer, acid rain and other environmental problems.  He told the House how the Museum provides “crucial raw material for the battle against that threat”. Shadow Arts spokesman Mark Fisher MP joined Dalyell in pressing Richard Luce [Minister for Arts and Libraries] on funding for the Museum.  Whilst supporting the approach set out in the Corporate Plan, Luce revealed that the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government is in discussion with the Director and the Chairman of Trustees about its wider implications.

Special meetings have been held by Chalmers with many eminent people from outside the Museum, including David Attenborough. Scientific staff have also met these people although it is reported that Chalmers tried to inhibit the meeting proceeding.

Although some staff have said that Chalmers has failed to communicate effectively with staff about the changes and “presented the proposals as ultimatums”, others assert that there are clear lines of communication from scientific staff to the Director and vice versa and that all had their input into the corporate plan.

Amongst the strongest criticism is that from the Geologists’ Association. Their immediate past President said of the Corporate plan “[it]… has been cobbled together in American-style business jargon presumably courtesy of Disneyland where many of the museum’s administration went to learn such jargon…” [The Museum sent its senior staff to Disneyland to learn more about how to help visitors because Disneyland are experts at excellent customer services.]

Whilst admitting that taxonomic research is “deeply unsexy” scientists have suggested that the cuts imply that the study of biodiversity in the United Kingdom is marginal. Others condemn the cuts as “ludicrous”. “Museums provide a unique environment suitable for specimen-based, non-applied research which is too often ignored by other institutions” says Philip Currie, of the Tyrrell Museum of Palaeotology in Drumheller, Alberta. “the choice of subject area are “catchy buzz-words … are these not functions normally performed by government departments, universities and consulting firms?”.

The Director of the Natural History Museum of Switzerland, in Basel, Switzerland, Dr Peter Jung, wrote “For much more than a century the British Museum has been accepting material on the understanding that this would be actively curated and made available. Can a major collection be actively curated if experts in that field are no longer part of the staff? … once the personnel with the taxonomic knowledge have been removed, the collection will be relegated to storage and, slowly, to disuse… We have an obligation to former generations of scientists who dedicated their whole lives to the building up of vital collections, ..  A great deal of public and private money was willingly spent on these collections in the expectation that later generations would continue to maintain and expand them…”

But Director Chalmers points to the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History in New York as institutions with traditions of short-term as well as permanent staff. “Gone are the days”, he says, “when NHM could hope to cover all areas of the natural world in equal depth.”  Whilst the new round of letters and petitions from around the world asserts that the end of the Museum is nigh, Chalmers claims that there will continue to be good curatorial support for all their collections, even if they don’t have staff conducting research on them.

Nature, in an editorial of 3 May said, “The troubles at NHM go back for decades, so cannot be laid at the door of the present management of even the present government.  During the 1950s and 1960s, when the pattern of research elsewhere was being transformed, the museum gave the impression of being deeply asleep … it never had the wit to find ways of recruiting a stream of graduate students on its own account (although plenty from elsewhere use its collections), while the supply of short-term research posts has been pitifully small (and shrinking).  Increasingly since the early 1970s, the museum’s staff has been shockingly paid and even less able to attend important scientific meetings…  Who can now be surprised that a new management has taken the knife to it?  Thus do bad decisions often justify themselves…. ”


What is really going on? After all two years ago, the Museum staff were described as fully committed to success. At the nearby Science Museum, under the guidance of Dr Neil Cossons, despite the new style exhibits and entry charges, there is no great outcry.

Once large numbers of staff in museums, especially curatorial staff, lose their jobs, their colleagues complain loudly. The situation is reminiscent of the that about 12 months ago when substantial reorganisation and the ‘voluntary’ retirement of seven senior curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum led to an outcry around the world: petitions circulated vilifying Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, librarian turned Director and claiming that the separation of collection management and research functions would lead inevitably to the deterioration of the collections and that the Trustees were incompetent.

I am aslo reminded of the situation some five years ago when the Board of the Bishop Museum in Hawaii decided that many of the staff had to be retrenched. Entomologists and others beseeched their colleagues all over the world to complain, to write to the Director telling him he was wrong. The trouble was that the Bishop Museum Board had failed to vigorously defend the Museum and had even allowed an appropriation to the Museum to lapse on the floor of the State Legislature. Visiting the Museum now, with its new exhibition and collection conservation building and its active research and collection management programs, one would not imagine that those problems had existed.

In fact, the changes at the Museum have been going on since the 70s. One could say that some of the people at the Museum and inside have only just caught up with them. It is important to remember that the Thatcher Government has been reducing funds for universities and for science and for education. Some scientists at universities have said that they are not prepared to do anything about the Museum because when Universities were facing massive cuts, the curators at the Museum said, “well, thank heavens we missed out” and went back to their work.

The Natural History Museum has become known for its drive to make its exhibits more appealing to the public. Under the guidance of Roger Miles, a distinguished vertebrate palaeontologist who for the last 20 or more years has been Head of Public Services, the Museum has radically changed its style of exhibition and carefully surveyed its visitors. It has unashamedly gone in for marketing in the sense of considering visitor wants in designing their exhibitions. (One might observe that some critics of the new orientation to the public believe that the exhibitions are absorbing funds that might have gone to science: there is no evidence for that at all!) Miles has become internationally recognised as an expert on the behaviour of visitors and on museum exhibitions and the processes which museums staff go through in designing and constructing them. He is a trenchant critic of the way in which some museums staff approach the process and once described the process as doomed to failure from the start.

Some of the critics of the Museum’s exhibitions seem to have not yet realised that not only is it no longer possible to display the entire collections of the Museum in the public galleries but that the public learns little from such a display. One of the first new exhibitions, that on human biology, aroused a furore amongst some people: models, flashing lights, technology all replaced the traditional rows of skeletons and mounted animals – and there was a definite message!. Similar furore greeted other exhibits including the new Dinosaur Exhibition which explained evolutionary trends using modern cladistic methods. (Cladistics uses mathematical analysis of various characteristics to explore relationships between species and groups of species.) Some people had said the dinosaurs were to be hidden away.

One of the most trenchant critics has been geologist, Professor Beverly Halstead, now the President of the Geologists Association. Halstead, writing in 1978, said, “it has always been assumed by people outside the museum, it now transpires mistakenly, that the public galleries reflected the responsibilities of the scientific staff working in conjunction with the exhibition staff. The fact that the new exhibition scheme seems to be going ahead in spite of serious opposition from the scientific staff is surely a matter for deep concern… Once it is conceded that it is an appropriate role for a national museum to be concerned with aspects of social engineering by promoting concepts that happen to be current in the present climate of opinion, then a most dangerous precedent is set which has sinister implications. Suddenly it becomes possible to visualise the museums contributing to the indoctrination of the more inarticulate sections of the community Just so long as the natural history museums are primarily concerned with the displaying the materials in their charge there is always the passibility that the facts will shine through the prevailing dogmas.”

Such views would be radically out of step with those of many American museum people such as Professor Peter Raven at the Missouri Botanic Gardens, an ardent conservationist and member of many museum committees, and Michael Spock (at the Field Museum), Robert Sullivan (previously at the New York State Museum at Albany and now at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum). Nor, significantly, are they consistent with all the visitor studies, especially those at the Natural History Museum over the last 20 years.


One can indeed understand the wrath being poured on the Director and Trustees of the Natural History Museum. But in the end, one must ask, “What actions will most likely succeed in changing the  proposals to sack staff and reorient the Museum? Is that what we want? Or is it the very survival of the Museum itself that is at risk?” I believe it is the last of these that must concern us. It is doubtful that good taxonomic research is going to go down the tube, although it will certainly be affected: much needed reforms are being put in place. In that context it is impossible to avoid some very difficult situations. Perhaps the corporate plan might have been sold better but communication is not only a two-way process, it is a joint responsibility. And vigorous defence of what museums as a whole stand for is vital.

Museums have to change, just like all other organisations do. Better, more informative and more exciting exhibitions are a vital part of the activities of all museums that are doing anything at all. If the Museum has to get more money from outside government then it must attract more visitors: treating them well is an important part of that strategy. And whilst some aspects of commercial life, including marketing, can seemingly pay scant regard to the values that professional museum people would espouse, much of the marketing process is of vital importance to any enterprise, even to seminaries and their monks.

I think there are several lessons for Australia in this situation. One of the most important is that when museums are asked to impose entrance charges they should ask what the agenda is, whether the money is to go to benefit the museum or whether it is a matter of saving the government money. It should also ask what other items there are on the agenda. Imposing entrance fees at the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum seems to have been the start of other events such as staff reductions, corporate planning, commercialisation; there are similarities with the reviews and subsequent reorganisations in CSIRO.

The British Government is doing its best to reduce all Government expenditures – they say – and the cuts are going down the line of least resistance. The argument is that public benefits are hard to identify and that private benefits should be paid for privately. Arguments about contribution by museums to the general good of the nation or the world don’t go down well in this context.

I am reminded of that medieval piece of logic cited recently by Barry Jones, Morton’s fork: if people will pay part of the cost of something then why don’t they pay for all of it but if no-one will pay for it, why have it at all. Such logic assumes that in the commercial world, the full cost of all goods is reflected in the price. The fallacy of this is shown in the way governments deal with other activities such as steel production, major highway construction and private transport, not to mention the military industrial complex and international trade.

What has happened in this debate is that curators and their supporters outside the Museum have lined themselves up against the Director and Trustees to defend taxonomy. There are two fundamental results of this.

The first is that a war is being waged in the Museum. The Science Defence Committee is ruthlessly attacking the enemy, running a propaganda campaign, asserting the rightness of its views, gathering allies and making demands. Those demands are quite clear: establishment of an group of scientists having the right to discuss all matters of science policy with management, freezing job cuts, appointment of systematists to the Board of Trustees and retention of the organisation of Life Sciences along the [traditional] systematic lines [Protozoa, Coelenterates, Molluscs and so on]. Demands are negotiable and there is an opportunity for that to occur. But there is no understanding of the fact that the world has changed, that the practices of the past cannot determine the future. And, most of all, there seems little recognition of the extraordinary costs of war. The costs of this conflict will be borne in the next few years, probably by the staff whether there is a stronger effort by management to pursue the changes or whether political support declines because of concern about the management’s credibility.

The second relates to politics. Achieving things is in large part a matter of politics. It requires co-ordinated, organised action around a platform of substantial appeal to the potential allies or constituency. Those people must be able to exert influence. So, rather than curators joining together with each other, museum people should be joining together with other parts of the cultural industry to demonstrate the benefits of their activities to the citizenry. (Arts Action in Australia might be an example.)

Complaints that scientific research will no longer be done on sponges and fossil birds and that curators from other parts of the world won’t be able to use the museum’s collections easily are hardly something around which a noisy and influential constituency might rally. But inability of the museum to support environmental programs and substantial declines in the educational opportunities of the young are another matter altogether. (Some of these arguments have been used but they have been mixed up with demands to halt any change, a failure to recognise the problems the Museum faces and the complete disregard for all other sections of the Museum who also face reductions in funding.) The demonstrated economic benefit of museums in job creation and in ordinary everyday activities (surely) is also a politically useful argument: investing in museums [and the arts] makes good economic sense. (However, one UK Museum person recently told me that the initial reaction to the Myerscough Report by Mrs Thatcher was that enough money had already been supplied to ‘the north’.)

Of course, Thatcher’s Britain is not necessarily the place where action of this kind and arguments such as these will immediately have acceptance. Remember the coalminers’ strikes. Then there is the interesting spectacle of the Thatcher Government paying state aid in the amount of &44.4 million in what the European Commission has decided were “illegal sweeteners” to British Aerospace to buy the Rover auto group. The then Trade Secretary Nicholas Ridley suggested that &11.4 million which BA must now pay back could be returned to them through a tax rebate.

And there is the recent proposal by Transport Secretary Cecil Parkinson, endorsed by Cabinet despite the conflict with legislation which prevents the use of taxpayers’ money in the tunnel program, to help subsidise the cash-strapped Channel Tunnel high speed rail link with a one-off payment of up to &1 billion. Payment of the money ostensibly as a capital grant to help improve British Rail’s commuter services on Network Southeast is seen as the only practical way of side-stepping the legislation.

What would you do if you lived in Britain and wanted the Natural History Museum to survive?