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Natural History Museums, the Natural Environment and the 21st Century

Planning for the 21st century and preparing for the next 500 years

[A paper presented to The International Symposium on the Preservation and Conservation of Natural History Collections, Madrid, Spain, May 9 through 15, 1992; International Symposium and First World Congress on the Preservation and Conservation of Natural History Collections (CL Rose, SL Williams & J Gisbert, editors), Vol 3: 405-426. Direccion General de Belles Artes y Archivos, Madrid]

Museums exist to encourage and instil the joy of intellectual and aesthetic discovery

Lee Weber, former Director of the Field Museum (of natural history) receiving the Distinguished Service Award at the 1989 American Museums Association conference.

This symposium and its proximity to the Earth Summit (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) in Brazil recognises that we in museums are concerned now about more than just what we have in our collections. It recognises that our collections must serve the broader purpose of encouraging understanding among peoples and of the world around us. Nature conservation is an issue about people – us – as much as it is about other animals and plants.

Wetlands, Maryland, USA (More)
It is important to remember the contributions of others, especially of indigenous people. Europeans arrived 500 years ago in the ‘New World’ where rich civilisations already existed in a sustained natural environment. Throughout their existence indigenous people lived in a cycle which passed on to their generations far in the future the natural environment that they had been born into. They had a rich understanding of the world in which they lived. Although their understanding might not be ours it worked for them. Their landscape was full of meaning, the environment and the land was not so much part of them as they were part of it. Their streams ran free. In their considerations of the future, the wisdom of the past was always with them [1]. And those who led them were the wise.

Conditions have been imposed on people in Third World countries which remove their opportunity for making sensible choices, which remove flexibility, which remove a large degree of independence. We have induced the discarding of varied cropping and hunting regimes in favour of monocultures, the products of which are subject to price and currency fluctuations beyond their control (2). Now we are now telling them what they should do and how they should respond to our concerns about environmental degradation, situations which often they have been the victims of, not the cause. The negotiations about the conference in Brazil are proceeding along the usual North-South lines of conflict: as they see it we in developed countries are demanding that they pay for our sins. And denying them the opportunity to benefit from exploitation of their resources and refusing to credit their intellectual property rights.

I intend to summarise the history of natural history museums and proceed directly to some major issues for planning: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats and analysis of stakeholders. I close with the identification of some goals: an outline set of objectives and comments on preparing for the next 500 years.

A lot of the everyday life of museums has been counter-productive in its focus: arguments have been about retaining narrow power bases instead of developing future coalitions to achieve globally important objectives

I come to museums with a tremendous commitment to the environment: I experience frustration at the ongoing wars in museums (3). Like all wars they are unproductive and extremely costly. Time is like energy: it can be neither created nor destroyed, only managed. I think a lot of the everyday life of museums has been counter-productive in its focus: arguments have been about retaining narrow power bases instead of developing future coalitions to achieve globally important objectives.


Understanding where we have come from tells us something about where we are going. At the very least it tells us about the culture in which we work, our beliefs and the way we seek to construct the world. Listen to Robert Sullivan writing only a few months ago.

Almost all the great natural history museums emerged under the lengthening shadow of the Victorian paradigm of ascending progress. At the top of that ascending spiral was rational-logical, scientific, technological Western man. With quasi-religious fervour and divine sanctions, natural scientists roamed the world collecting, categorising, and classifying creation and sending it back to .. institutions that groaned under the load of nature’s hold. Largely scholarly and scientific .. these first natural history museums presented a fragmented, “ologized”, and exotic natural and cultural world, normally hanging or mounted or stuffed with Darwin’s evolutionary theory…. In an increasingly urbanised, pre-television, pre-automobile, pre-jetliner world, natural history museums were the primary places to tangibly contact nature: the exotic, the bizarre, the primitive, the curiosities of the world that lay beyond the city limits.“

Robert Sullivan, ‘Trouble in Paradigms’, Museum News, 41-44 (Jan/Feb 1992)

Museums grew as collections were obtained and displayed to show to “civilised” peoples the curiosities from the ends of the earth. Admittedly they represented wealth, treasure troves. Closed to the masses, they were able to be viewed by only a small circle of cognoscenti.

During the first 100 years that followed Columbus’ landfall, colourful bestiaries and herbals gave way to finely illustrated books of natural history (4). By 1516 Raphael had models for the American birds he painted in the Loggetta of the Cardinal of Bibbienna at the Vatican. Before the end of the sixteenth century more public viewing places were open to visitors. By the mid-seventeenth century these ‘cabinets of the curious’ had become prototypes for the private museums of natural history.

The grand voyages of circumnavigation launched by France, Britain and Holland during the late eighteenth century created the foreign study collections that are the basis of today’s major natural history collections.

Their explosive growth created an entirely new image for collections. Informed by the taxonomic methods of Linnaeus and his followers and driven by the fascination with new species, explorers ventured to the New World and other distant lands. [After Darwin and Wallace] natural history collections provided a three dimensional map on which the course of evolution could be charted (5).

Robert Sullivan of the Smithsonian Institution has admirably summarised the history for us (6) (see box).

The collections of museums then are material evidence of the earth’s living creatures, past and present, of the life style practised by its human inhabitants and of the earth’s structure and evolution. They support scientific inquiries about the natural world and collections education (7).

Museums are not just display centres. Published and unpublished research results, study collections and staff expertise are the basis of services and products that reach a rich variety of audiences and a large number of people (8). And certainly there is a lot to do that is more worthwhile than searching for life in outer space (9).

Planning – Know our Strengths and grasp the Opportunities

Planning only becomes reality when a plan becomes the plan and then our plan. Nothing we say or do here will mean anything until that happens! That process is greatly assisted by leadership.

… collections were obtained and displayed to show to “civilised” peoples the curiosities from the ends of the earth.

In the last 100 years collections have become ends in themselves, the major rationale for museums. Vast collections are accumulated where the initial cost of acquiring them seems small. Terrible consequences have been predicted if maximum resources aren’t given to those who look after them. Holding collections may make museums unique but they must not define the business of museums.

Collections might be an asset but they are most certainly a liability also. The balance sheet never shows the liability to properly curate and make available the unsorted collections. The information associated with accessible collections is the strength. In this paper I treat collections under the heading of ‘weaknesses’.

The view has been maintained also, that the scientific community and its peer review system ensure that the quality of scientific endeavour is carried forward at a high level. A much more critical view should prevail. Peers can act as a constraint, and have done so (10). Like democracy, peer review is the worst system save all others.

… collections might be an asset but they are most certainly a liability also. The balance sheet never shows the liability to properly curate and make available the unsorted collections

That museum biologists have an obligation to apply their particular expertise and skills and the information contained in the research collections, towards better and more efficient nature conservation, is acknowledged. In some countries some scientists have played a significant role in the early history of nature conservation, not least through the development of data bases appropriate to nature conservation… (11).

People are only willing to pay costs when they understand and appreciate the value of the services they are receiving in exchange. Too often museums fail to publicise the value of what goes on behind the scenes (12). Or if they try to do so, they use highly technical language. Communication skills must be acquired and applied in the mass media to convey information and emphasise the needs.

Museum biologists have an obligation to apply their particular expertise and skills and the information contained in the research collections, towards better and more efficient nature conservation.

If we want to be appreciated then we need to be seen in public joining in the debate. Resources simply aren’t going to be given to us if we stand around, not in most countries, even if there is a predicted shortage of scientists in the tens of thousands by 2000. Our behaviour, as museum scientists, is much more within the political sphere than we like to acknowledge. We put on display those items together with verbal messages in a context that reinforces our view of the world and what we think is important. That is political!

Our behaviour, as museum scientists, is much more within the political sphere than we like to acknowledge

I have asked many people what unique contribution museums can make to the preservation of biodiversity. Almost universally they said, we have the information to document it. I think that is an inadequate answer. Information is not of much use unless it is communicated, unless it is used. The actions necessary to correct environmental decline uses information from the collections but they amount to much more than that.

And some people seem to be treating the present situation as no more that a cash cow. Highlighting the need for more money to computerise the information associated with the collections of everything will absorb the entire gross domestic product of several countries: in other words it will never be funded. Yet one recent conference focussed on just that demand.

“It may be more important now than ever before in history for scientists to keep the doors of their laboratories open to political, economic, social and ideological currents. The role of the scientist as an isolated explorer of the uncharted world of tomorrow must be reconciled with his role as a committed, responsible citizen of the unsettled world of the present.

“The interaction between politics and science has been decisive in the pursuance of international consensus on the problem of stratospheric ozone depletion. The protocol which was hammered out in Montreal in September 1987 …. could never have been achieved without a delicate balance between the most up-to-date scientific information, reliable industrial expertise and committed political leadership against a background of strong and informed public interest.

“… The scientist’s chair is now firmly drawn up to the negotiating table right next to that of the politician, the corporate manager, the lawyer, the economist, and the civic leader.”

Gro Harlem Brundtland [Prime Minister of Norway], Environment Vol.31 No.5, p 16-43 (June, 1989).

Here are some examples of opportunities, opportunities in infor- mation management and opportunities for significant research.

At least two comprehensive and relevant pieces of computer software are now available. The first is WORLDMAP, developed by the Natural History Museum, London (13). From information on the distribution and cladistic analysis of groups of taxa, the user, through a stepwise process, can identify on any scale from world-wide to local those areas which contain the greatest genetic and taxonomic diversity. Here is a unique opportunity for museum scientists, with the information from their collections, to make a major contribution.

The second is ERIN (Environmental Resources Information Network) developed in Australia (14). This is an extensive geographic information system, capable of being updated through satellite imagery. Information on distribution of animal or plant species – available from the already computerised collection information is added. Correlations can then be drawn and the principal environmental factors critical to the species’ distribution can be identified. ERIN is predictive: it shows where species ought to occur even if they haven’t been found there.

I would have thought that many people around the world would be trying to get their hands on this software and adapt it for their use. I am not sure that they are. They could be trying to write their own new software from scratch.

The cost of developing ERIN is in the order of millions of dollars. It is utterly pointless trying to duplicate this. Building on past achievements is mandatory. People must work together, not try to design and build what they need from the ground up every time.

If we want to make a substantial contribution to the resolution of the major environmental problems facing us we should be scientific. Science proceeds by framing testable hypotheses and testing them. Documenting and describing diversity are part, not the whole, of the scientific research effort.

Otto Solbrig of Harvard University (15) has framed some important hypotheses which museum scientists can indeed address.

International committees (IUBS-SCOPE-UNESCO) have jointly agreed to initiate a program of research on biodiversity. The general objectives are to

(1) identify scientific issues that require international cooperation;

(2) address general questions about how species and ecosystem diversity contributes to global ecology; and

(3) investigate how species diversity contributes to system functioning.

The formidable technical and material problems relating to estimating the number of species and their distribution is recognised. The dearth of trained taxonomists, especially in tropical countries where much of the world’s biodiversity is found, is recognised as critical. IUBS-SCOPE-UNESCO is to organise a network of systematists and institutions to address the inventorying demands.

If we are to make a substantial contribution to the resolution of the major environmental problems facing us we should be scientific. Science proceeds by the framing of testable hypotheses and the testing of them.

Hypotheses have been framed concerning the increase of diversity in relation to quantity and quality of other environmental resources, environmental heterogeneity, the effects of disturbance, structure of the biota, the effects of history, climate, soils and so on, on biodiversity levels and even niche ‘size’ of species in relation to diversity levels. All focus on fundamental questions. Testing them will enlighten and inform.

Such research will do two other fundamentally important things. It will provide exciting results which will illuminate the way museum science really does contribute to understanding. And secondly, it will forge closer alliances with ecologists and other biological scientists with whom collaboration is not always as active as it might be.

Let me suggest that for the major decisions we have to use the information we have available. But some claim otherwise. In the first issue of Biodiversity and Conservation (just published) co-editors Alan Bull and Ian Swingland say, “the knowledge necessary for action, plans and priorities to be defined for effective conservation is generally absent. The complexity of ecological systems and our ignorance continues to thwart attempts to predict, prevent, moderate or restore destruction of the global environment.”

We have a huge argument here. The precautionary principle – if we don’t know the consequences of the action we are about to take, then we shouldn’t act – can be misused. In practice, claiming lack of information can stall any decision or result in any scientific input being overthrown in the “interests of progress”. Or on the basis that because we don’t know a certain action is harmful it may be assumed that it isn’t. In fact scientific input is vital. And it is needed earlier in the process of development than is now the case. Only we can achieve that!

[In making] decisions we have to use the information we have available

So, we can bring to the massive questions that face us an analysis as useful as, even though it might be different from, anybody else’s. If instead we simply maintain that we do not have enough information, the world will pass us by. I am not advocating distortions of the truth. Nor am I advocating claiming certainty where it doesn’t exist. Always there is an ongoing need to educate others about uncertainty in science but the meaning of what we think we know will only emerge if we participate in the debate. We must identify what additional information we require for decisions to be made.

Unique opportunities for museums exist through expanding the educational role of museums. Informal learning centres like museums are much more influential than we admit. But we have to take on board the lessons of effective mass communication and of recent research on learning. Visitors need to be comfortable on their own basic level before we can communicate with them (16). Rows of objects don’t communicate what we thought they did! Communication is listening to, not talking at!

And static exhibitions are not the only form of communication: interactive opportunities, pamphlets, films, audiotapes, real involvement with the community, are valid.


* the information we have about the natural world

* the knowledge and understanding we can derive from the information

* our credibility.


* manage information so as to make it available using the latest computer software

* use our information to test critical hypotheses

* make ourselves indispensable parts of the evaluation of the effects of human activities

* contribute to education, to helping others make sense of the world

We do need to set priorities, increase operational efficiency and encourage division of labour and economies of scale (17). Administrators, curators, conservators and others should actively pursue mutually beneficial links with other institutions and keep abreast of advanced methods of handling and preserving specimens.

Our strengths really are the information we have about the natural world and the knowledge and understanding we can derive, our analytical ability. And we do have credibility.

There are opportunities to manage information and make it available using the latest computer software, to turn it into essential information and to use it to test critical hypotheses. We have opportunities to make ourselves indispensable. We have opportunities to educate and inform, to help others make sense of the world. If we grasp them!

Understand our Weaknesses and Counteract the Threats

There are three strong undercurrents which threaten to upset the seemingly mature museum tradition: continuing growth of collections, the impact of inflation and the trend in biological science away from use of collections (18).

A survey of museums in the United Kingdom in 1989 found that while collections growth rate was only 1.5% pa and the median operating cost about the same as in the USA – $30 p sq ft, most institutions had an acquisition policy although few had instituted corporate planning (19). Salaries and benefits (for all functions) accounted for over 75% of total operating costs. If direct and indirect costs of collections were taken into account then almost 70% of the annual museum budget was devoted to them. These levels of costs are really unsustainable operationally.

In the USA there are well over 500 million specimens in collections. A survey eight years ago (20) found that over 30% of the items in collections were uncatalogued (over 70% for fossils). Over half the collections required substantial additional storage and, on average, each collection was curated by half a person. I imagine the situation is now much worse.

In Australia (21) the number of specimens per collection manager has doubled in the last 15 years. Staff numbers have declined and time spent on field work has also.

In the United States the Steere report, the Belmont report, and the National Plan of the Association of Systematic Collections (ASC) outlined priorities (22). Richard Cowan of the Smithsonian, commenting on the ASC Report, believed collections could be historical standards, ecological standards and evolutionary records. But despite Earth Day few changes are evident in the way museums operate and the aspirations of ASC have not materialised.

There is an overwhelming identified need for technical support. Sorting centres would help. But they will be achieved really through reallocation of resources, not by waiting for more. If it is important we must do it now, at the same time as seeking more resources. We simply can’t go on accumulating collections and at the same time expect to make a contribution to their interpretation.

To many biologists, natural history museums have become insignificant islands in science, separated from the larger body of scientific endeavour (23). And some of our colleagues in other disciplines maintain that view in the hope that they can get their hands on our resources.

We have a poor understanding of how the world works. We tend to believe that logic and rationality drive decision making… we need to direct pressure to self interest, not logic to rationality

I think we have made a real mess of some situations. The arrival of computers in the early 1960’s seemed to provide wonderful opportunities to turn our collections from rows of objects to almost living data banks. (I remember the excitement at the Smithsonian Institution in late 1960’s as leading scientists learned to write computer programs.) Instead we got bogged down in arguments about how much information we could store instead of how much we needed and fruitless searches for compatible software.

Now pc’s on the desk can manipulate data which once required hours on a machine the size of several offices: such problems should have disappeared. The collection manager can manage their own information with their own software. From such data bases they can produce lists of taxa by geographic or other factors.

We are not progressing this as much as we should. We are arguing about how much of the data can be released to others. We are failing to grasp commercial opportunities. We are not valuing the information we have that others not just want, but must have, to do their job. And most systems are computer cataloguing systems, not collection management systems.

We have a poor understanding of how the world works. We tend to believe that logic and rationality drive decision making. They don’t. If we want results we need to address pressure to self interest, not logic to rationality (24).

Recent events concerning the Antarctic, and the Space Shuttle and other matters are instructive.

Action at government level flows from strong advocacy and the formation of coalitions, it flows from arguments which appeal to the beliefs and concerns of those with influence

Antarctica has become a symbol of human co-operation, where science can flourish and enlighten (25). Most of all it has become a place where concern for the environment has prevailed. A ten year campaign by conservation groups focussed pressure on governments, especially Australia and France. They in turn persuaded others. Instead of a Minerals Convention, supposedly prescribing strict standards, being adopted, a World Park was declared at a meeting of Antarctic Treaty States a little over a year ago in Madrid. The lessons are that action at government level flows from strong advocacy and the formation of coalitions, it flows from arguments which appeal to the beliefs and concerns of those with influence. It does not necessarily flow from the careful logical consideration of all the evidence (26).

The Challenger Shuttle disaster and the Hubble Telescope fiasco also have lessons for us (27). In both cases, a failure to manage risk, a focus on keeping costs down and other inappropriate behaviours led to the crash of the Shuttle and an imperfect mirror on what was one of the most critical elements of the Telescope. The lessons are that if those in charge are required to focus principally on the money and adopt a management style which does not seek out diverse views, then major problems threatening life and limb will probably emerge. The real problem is never the money!

The push for the manned space station in the USA is driven by the pork-barrelling politics of Congress and the wish to satisfy constituencies by creating jobs. In fact the proposal, according to one respected commentator, “is a technologically mediocre, scientifically useless, make-work venture in space” (28).

If those in charge are required to focus principally on the money and adopt a management style which does not seek out diverse views, then major problems threatening life and limb will probably emerge. The real problem is never the money!

Bruce Davis (29) talking of the debate on Antarctica, said, “If the scientific community is to continue to play a significant role in Antarctic affairs, it will have to become more political in two ways:

(a) persuading governments and communities alike that scientific research produces both basic long term benefits and immediate relevant knowledge of value to society

(b) taking a proactive and educational role in environmental conservation ….”

He went on,

“Many scientists are reluctant to engage in such pursuits, arguing either that it is outside their competence or involves engaging in lobbying of a disagreeable kind.. Moreover it diverts them from doing what they are best at – science. Their frustration is understandable but an inevitable corollary of divorce from political systems is that one has no control over outcomes. In the era of global environmentalism and thin budgets politics will drive science more than in the past. What scientists have to do, individually and collectively, is explain the value of Antarctic science and fight for funding.”


Among our greatest threats are ourselves and our persistence in the old ways, our wish to demonstrate our value by talking in highly technical language and our failure to really work to strengthen our image in the community. Authorities are increasingly distrusted even though society desperately seeks answers.

The next greatest threat is the power of the economic fundamentalists with their inadequate system for assessing the value of things. Whilst they put no price on what is really important we will be at a disadvantage (30). Few economists have helped work out how to overcome ‘the tragedy of the commons’ and perhaps they might even suggest that we don’t really need all those different kinds of species anyway! (Perhaps the market will determine how many species we need. The answer is it has: it is called evolution through natural selection!)


* our failure to manage ourselves

* our dusty, sometimes barely relevant image

* our tendency to believe in logic and talk in technical language

* our tendency to focus on small internal issues instead of the big picture, the real problems

* our failure to come to grips with the problems posed by the growth of the collections and the ever increasing resources needed to care for them.

* our poor understanding of politics and of the need to build coalitions, to form alliances


* marginalisation of us in decision-making

* declining resources for us to care for collections and the associated information

* general ignorance and apathy of society, especially those with influence

In summary, our weaknesses include our failure to manage ourselves, our dusty, sometimes barely relevant image, our tendency to concentrate on the margin or the minute, rather than the real problems. We look inwards instead of outwards. We focus on what we have always done well, on what our peers think we should do, instead of on what is needed.

This translates to threats: we are being marginalised, overlooked, disregarded – by economists and even by other scientists – in decision-making. Of course there are threats in terms of lack of resources. But we must make the best use of what we have whilst highlighting the need for more. And of course, as always, the general ignorance and apathy, as well as the greed, which might be a characteristic of the 1980’s but not, let us hope, the next decade or century.

Know our stakeholders and build alliances

Stakeholders are those who surround us, those who control us, those whom we serve, all those who have an impact on our daily lives. We have to acknowledge them and understand what they want, how they perceive us and how we want to be perceived. They include scientific colleagues (some of whom want to get their hands on our resources), administrators (some of whom are interested principally in controlling what we do), other museum pro- fessionals (who often think we are engaging in a personal luxury), the general public especially visitors (who are eager for answers but often can’t get them, sometimes because they can’t understand the notion of scientific debate), the legislators (who are busy serving their small constituencies of whom we have to be one).

Efficient and Effective Collection Management

  • Develop appropriate strategies to improve efficiency of work practices in museums so as to maximise the effectiveness of collection management and preservation and the conduct of research
  • Evaluate rates of collection growth to determine those areas of collecting essential to the provision of information to conserve the natural environment and cease general collecting

Critical and Relevant Research

  • Identify those plant and animal taxa on which we have sufficient information now to guide decisions on the reservation of land to protect biodiversity
  • Focus research on testing critical hypotheses which will contribute to further understanding of the measures necessary to conserve the world’s natural environment
  • Co-operate internationally to adapt available computer software to guide decision-making on the natural environment

Improved resources

  • Campaign for the provision of additional resources to maintain vitally important collections and associated information and to carry out research on the environment

Improved Public Relations

  • Promote the unique role of collection-based science throughout the scientific community, especially to those studying ecology and evolution and seek their co-operation in research programs

Effective Public Education

  • Develop entertaining public programs which effectively communicate to the general public information about the natural environment, the effect of human impact on it and strategies which are environmentally benign rather than destructive

We want the appreciation of those we serve, their understanding and support. We wish to appeal to those who control us. We have to work much harder to get those with whom we deal to understand us better and to recognise the value of our contribution and that they don’t need to exercise tight control and direction. To achieve that we will have to show that we are worthwhile, not just be worthwhile.

We need the courage to resist the temptation to join in pointless activities which only reinforce our prejudices and those of our peers and the wisdom to choose the right objectives to pursue and the right allies to join.

An Engaged and Active Public Role

  • Participate in public debates about the natural environment and inform decision-makers of the information we have and what it means for them
  • Seek to participate as early as possible in decision-making processes concerning proposals that deleteriously affect the natural environment
  • Form alliances with like-minded community groups to campaign for conservation of the natural environment
  • Campaign for the improvement of economic practice such that presently unpriced values of research, education, the environment and its enjoyment and other benefits to the community are properly recognised and brought to account in decision-making

Frame Clear and Assessible Objectives

People studying trends generally recognise some major features. There is an increasing tendency to be concerned with global issues, not only local ones; there is increasing concern about inter- relationships; there is much less certainty, much greater ambiguity, things seem more intangible and distinctions are becoming blurred; and there is increasing attention to “the glue of shared values” rather than the application of rules.

Museums …. now stand on the edge of nothing less than a cultural fault line… The urgency and vulnerability of both natural and cultural systems have transformed the nature of our interests in them. Multiple ways of knowing, explaining, being in the world are now the expected and accepted norm. … museums can no longer be passive scholarly institutions.. we must be active champions of cross-cultural respect, empathy, tolerance and equity. We must be engaged institutions committed to the necessity of global survival.

Robert Sullivan, ‘Trouble in Paradigms’, Museum News 41-44 (Jan-Feb 1992)

I think there is increasing frustration as governments seem unable to resolve major problems. There is a tension between the need to limit unnecessary government interference and the undeniable need for better government services.

Of course some writers deal with this as if we are not a part of it all. We can create our own future. Being recognised as worthwhile, as having a valuable role is paramount for most people, yet something denied by others every day. Robert Sullivan puts it all in perspective.

From our list of strengths and opportunities, weaknesses and threats, our understanding of our stakeholders, their attitudes and wants, and some perception of trends around us, we can develop our goals. The goals need to specify outcomes and who is intended to benefit. Intermediate goals should be framed which allow reviews of progress and modification of long term goals if needed.

We must develop appropriate strategies which are clear and precise, not vague wishlists. They must address targets which are achievable and a bit more. They must be the best we can put in place. They must address the objectives. And they must be strategies to which we commit ourselves.

It is extremely difficult to forecast the future as we all know. Sullivan has mentioned some pointers and those wanting more will certainly find it in the many excellent treatises from the Brundtland Report to the State of the World Reports (31).

We need the courage to resist the temptation to join in pointless activities which only reinforce our prejudices and those of our peers and the wisdom to choose the right objectives to pursue and the right allies to join.

Above all we must never take our eyes off the goal. That way certainly problems will arise.

Some Goals and Strategies

From what I have said I have developed a list of major goals and strategies. The strategies are shown in the adjacent pages.

The goals are:

1. Efficient and effective collection management

2. Critical and relevant research

3. Improved resources

4. Improved public relations

5. Effective public education

6. An engaged and active public role

In all of these, actual choices will be improved by unfettered debate and the involvement of intelligent people who are not necessarily experts in the field. Good decisions made by experts in isolation can be bad decisions for those who will be affected (32).

Concluding Remarks

Planning means the establishment of important goals. It means commitment. It has been done before. That we haven’t succeeded on all fronts is less important than that an effort was made. We need to recognise that the meaning of today’s decisions will only become apparent tomorrow. Plans are a guide to action, not themselves action. We need action.

During the week of this conference

* 1.77 million people were added to the world’s population

* 950 species of plants and animals became extinct

* 400,000 hectares of rainforest were destroyed

* another 400,000 hectares of land were added to the world’s deserts

* 1.2 million specimens were added to the collections of the world’s museums which thereby incurred an additional liability of more than $360,000 per annum *


* Global military expenditure totalled $19 billion

(enough to supply health care, primary education, family planning, safe drinking water and sufficient nutrition for every person on the planet for one year)

* Based on 2 billion specimens with a growth rate of 3% pa, 100 specimens occuping 1 sq ft of space costing $30 pa

In putting forward these proposals I am not intending that scientific endeavours be handed over to the managerialists, the content-free experts on everything except what is really going on. But unless we do some planning others will do it for us. Unless we try to know where we are going and have some ideas on how to get there and who is travelling with us, we are likely to end up somewhere else. It may be somewhere that other people have chosen for us. And it may be that we will be blamed for having ended up there.

Or it may be suggested that we weren’t there when we were needed and be blamed for it. Those in power are certainly not going to take the responsibility. We have to do that.

The best way to prepare for the next 500 years is to practice preparing, to practice planning, to try some goals and some strategies, to make a start. We should address what others want, build coalitions. And trumpet our achievements. Above all we must be there, be there where it counts.


This paper has benefited greatly from discussions with Dr Hal Cogger of the Australian Museum, from comments by Dr Alan Jones of the Australian Museum and the encouragement of Dr Alan Emery of the Canadian Museum of Nature. I want to thank the Research Library of the Australian Museum, especially Ms Mary Kumvaj, for substantial literature research.

Notes and References

(1) Martin, Calvin (ed) (1987), The American Indian and the Problem of History. New York: Oxford University Press; Gray, Andrew (1990), Indigenous Peoples and the Marketing of the Rainforest. The Ecologist 20(6), 223-227; Pearce, Fred (1992), First aid for the Amazon. New Scientist 133 (1814), 34-38; the difference in impact on the natural environment of indigenous peoples and western civilisation is enormous despite the former’s use of the land and probable extinction of megafauna in countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

(2) Weiskel, Timothy C. (1989), The ecological lessons of the past: an anthropology of environmental decline. The Ecologist, 19(3), 98-103; Manser, Bruno (1990), Alone in the Longhouse. BBC Wildlife, September 1990, 615-620.

(3) Griffin, D J G (1987), Managing in the Museum Organisation I. Leadership and communication. The International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship 6, 387-398; Griffin, D J G (1988), Managing in the Museum Organisation II. Conflict, Tasks, Responsibilities. International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship 7, 11-23; Griffin, D J G (1991), Management and leadership in museums. Australian Library Journal 40 (2), 125-151; Griffin, D J G (1991), Museums — Governance, Management and Government, or why are so many of the apples on the ground so far from the tree? Museum Management and Curatorship 10: 293-304.

(4) Porter, Charlotte (1991), Natural history in the 20th Century: an oxymoron. In Paisley S Cato and Clyde Jones (editors), Natural History Museums: Directions for Growth, 221-237. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press.

(5) Bryant, James M (1983), Biological Collections: Legacy or Liability? Curator 26#(3), 203-218.

(6) Sullivan, Robert (1992), Trouble in Paradigms. Museum News Jan/Feb 1992, 41-44.

(7) Danks, H V (1991), Museum Collections: Fundamental Values and modern problems. MS of paper delivered to meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections.

(8) McAllister, Don E (1991), Size and variety in natural science museum clienteles: the splendid diversity and outreach in survey-collection-research based museum products, services and audiences. MS

(9) Diamond, Jared (1990), The search for life on earth. Natural History 1990 (4), 28-31.

(10) A valuable study of peer review conducted by S J Ceci & D P Peters is summarised by Clyde Manwell & C M Ann Baker (1986), Evaluation of Performance in Academic and Scientific Institutions, p 264-300 in Brian Martin et al (editors), Intellectual Suppression.. Australian Case Histories, Analysis and Responses. North Ryde: Angus & Robertson see also Eugene Garfield (1986-7), Refereeing and Peer Review, Current Contents: Parts 1-4, Current Contents Life Sciences 29 (31, 32) & 30 (4) & Current Contents Agriculture … 18 (4).

(11) Rautenbach, I L and Herholdt, E M (1990), Curators and the research collections of natural history museums – their contribution to nature conservation in South Africa. Transvaal Museum Special Publication No 1, 145-151.

(12) Bellinger, Christina (1991), Pastures Green. Museums Journal, 91 (8), 22-23.

(13) Vane-Wright, R I; Humphries, C J; and Williams, P H (1991), What to protect? – Systematics and the Agony of Choice. Biological Conservation 55, 235-254.

(14) The ERIN programs are described in reports available from the Australian Biological Resources Study, GPO Box 1383, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia; see Slater, W R & Noble, S J (eds) (1991), ERIN Program Brief, June 1991. Canberra: ANPWS.

(15) Solbrig, Otto T (1991), Biodiversity: scientific issues and collaborative research proposals. MAB Digest, UNESCO May 1991, p 51-63; Solbrig, Otto T (editor) (1991), From genes to ecosystems: a research agenda for biodiversity. Report of a IUBS-SCOPE-UNESCO Workshop, Harvard Forest, Petersham, MA.

(16) Silverman, Lois (1991), Tearing down walls. Museum News Nov/Dec 1991, 62-64; Coxall, Helen (1991), How language means: an alternative view of museums text. In G Kavanagh (ed), Museum Languages. Leicester: Leicester University Press; McManus, Paulette M (1989), Oh, yes, they do: how museum visitors read labels and interact with exhibit texts. Curator 32(3), 174-189; McManus, Paulette M (1991), Making sense of exhibits. In G Kavanagh, loc. cit.; (1991), McManus, Paulette M (1991), Towards understanding the needs of museum visitors. In G D Lord and B Lord (eds), The Manual of Museum Planning. London: HMSO.

(17) Danks, H V, loc. cit.

(18) Bryant, James M. loc. cit.

(19) Lord, B; Lord, G D; and Nix, J (1989), The Cost of Collecting. Collection Management in UK Museums – A Report commissioned by the Office of Arts and Libraries. London: HMSO.

(20) Edwards, Stephen R; Davis, George M; and Nevling, Lorin I (compilers & editors) (1985), The Systematics Community Report to the National Science Foundation, Association of Systematics Collections, Museum of Natural History, Lawrence: University of Kansas.

(21) Richardson, B J and McKenzie, A M (1991), Australia’s biological collections and those who use them. MS

(22) Washburn, Wilcomb E (1984), Collecting information, not objects. Museum News 62 (3), 5-15; see also Brunton, Howard (1987), Collecting Policies: Conflict or Co-operation. Museums Journal 87(2), 84-85. The major reports are Conference of Directors of Systematic Collections (1971), The systematic biology collections of the United States: an essential resource. New York: New York Botanical Garden [the ‘Steere Report’.]; Irwin, Howard S; Payne, Willard W; Bates, David M; and Humphrey, Philip S (editors) (1973), America’s Systematics Collections: A National Plan. [The ‘Belmont Report’] ms; Ke Chung Kim and Knudsen, Lloyd (editors) (1986), Foundations for a national biological survey. Washington: Association of Systematic Zoology; Black, Craig C et al (1989), Loss of Biological Diversity: A global crisis requiring international solutions. Washington: National Science Board.

(23) McAlpine, Donald F (1986), Curators and natural history collections: Have we become islands in science? Pp 7-14 in Janet Waddington and David M Rudkin (editors), Proceedings of the 1985 Workshop on Care and Maintenance of Natural History Collections. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum.

(24) Borovoy, Alan (1989), Speech at the Canadian Museums Association (audiotape).

(25) Herr, R A; Hall, H R; and Haward, M G (editors) (1990), Antarctica’s Future: Continuity or Change. Hobart: Tasmanian Government Printing Office.

(26) March, James G (1982), ‘Theories of choice and the making of decisions’, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, annual meeting 1982, audio tape.

(27) An insight into the ‘Challenger’ Shuttle situation is given by Eliot Marshall (1986) in Science vol 232, p 1590; the Hubble Telescope fiasco is dealt with by Robert Bless (1988) in ‘Space Science: What’s wrong at NASA’, Issues in Science and Technology Winter 1988-89, p 67-73.

(28) Greenberg, Daniel (1991), How they salvaged the Space Station on Capitol Hill. Science & Government Report 21(11), 1-5.

(29) Bruce Davis in R A Herr, H R Hall and M G Haward, loc. cit.

(30) Daly, Herman E & Cobb, John B (1989), For the Common Good… Beacon Press, Boston; this is an outstanding essay on the problems with current economic approaches to the environment; Hardin, Garrett (1968), The Tragedy of the Commons. Science 162 (3859), 1243-1248.

(31) Brundtland, Gro Harlem (1987), Our Common Future. World Commission on environment and development. New York: Oxford University Press; Brundtland, Gro Harlem (1989), Global change and our common future. Environment 31 (5), 16-43; Western, David and Pearl, Mary (editors) (1989), Conservation for the Twenty-first Century. Oxford University Press, New York; Hammond, Allen L et al (1990), World Resources 1990-91. A report by the World Resources Institute. Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford; IUCN/UNEP/WWF (1991), Caring for the Earth. A strategy for sustainable living. Gland, Switzerland; Courrier, Kathleen (editor) (1992), Global biodiversity strategy. WWF/IUCN/UNEP; Brown, Lester R et al (1992), State of the World. A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress towards a Sustainable Society. Earthscan, London.

(32) Laura Nader (in ‘Energy and equity: Magic, science and religion revisited’, Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science Congress, Brisbane, 1981, MS) points out that scientists often fail to distinguish between situations of certain knowledge and uncertainty, unlike Trobriand Islanders who use ‘science’ when fishing in the lagoon where conditions are safe and magic when fishing in the ocean where conditions are far from certain; George Bernard Shaw said, “All professions are conspiracies against the laity”.