Natural history museums for a sustainable society


ICOM News Vol 67, Dec 2014


by Dr Eric Dorfman, Director of the Whanganui Regional Museum, New Zealand and Chair of ICOM NATHIST; and Prof. Dr Maria Isabel Landim, Professor at the Museum of Zoology of the University of São Paulo, Brazil and Vice-Chair of ICOM NATHIST


The announcement that International Museum Day 2 015 was to embrace the theme of sustainable societies was welcome news for the ICOM International Committee for Museums and Collections of Natural History (NATHIST). Ecosystem research and raising awareness of the need to use nature intelligently are part of the core activities of natural history museums, and the ICOM Code of Ethics for Natural History Museums, ratified in 2013, enhances the philosophical framework for doing so.


The history of building natural history collections stretches back as far as the beginning of humans’ extraction of resources from the environment, driven by the necessity to satisfy basic needs, and an insatiable curiosity about the vast variety of forms in nature. Since the beginning of human history, natural resources have been taken for granted, imagined to be unlimited and created for our benefit and usage. Today, we are all too aware of the fragility of nature, and of its limits.


One of the most valuable activities of natural history museums is to improve our understanding of the planet and its vulnerabilities. For instance, estimates of something as basic as the number of species on Earth range hugely, from 10 billion to 100 billion. That, coupled with the fact that only 1.5 billion of these have been described, underscores how little we know. Natural history collections hold records of species and entire natural habitats that no longer exist, as well as altered distributions of extant species. In mega diverse countries such as Brazil, natural history collections hold one of the keys to environmental protection. The fact that Brazil is currently working through new legislation on collections underlines their importance. Population growth and its challenges One of the greatest challenges for natural history museums is how to address the social issues that are the main obstacles to creating environmental sustainability. With a world population of more than seven billion, the saturation of natural resource consumption has left a questionmark over the legacy for future generations on this planet. In this context, NATHIST is working to raise awareness of illicit trafficking of wildlife among natural history museums and to incite their participation in combatting the problem. The first meeting of the ICOM NATHIST Illicit Trafficking Working Group held in Zagreb, Croatia in October 2014, attracted international experts from all over the world, specialising in genetics, wildlife ecology, documentation and international law. The discussions quickly revealed the key issues at stake: public awareness, equity, social welfare, museum security and education. For instance, extreme poverty forces many communities to condone poaching, a major source of illicit wildlife trade. Further down the supply chain, assisting customs officials to identify material has long been a key role for museums that have the capacity to do so. Even increasing biosecurity measures at border crossings is a complicated issue of politics and resourcing. The role of awareness raising on these topics is one for which natural history museums are ideally placed, because of their key roles in scholarship and public engagement. But is it ethical to intervene in cultural practice? International Museum Day 2015 is an excellent opportunity to communicate on these issues throughout the broader museum sector, reaching members of the public who might not frequently visit natural history museums, or engage specifically with their messages. Recycling, for instance, is a practice that can be equally promoted by art galleries, children’s museums, and museums of history. However we address it, the theme of International Museum Day 2015 is an opportunity to reflect on the way we, as a society, practise the stewardship of our surroundings. The environment is not an optional add-on or somewhere pleasant to go at the weekend. It is the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. As our global temperature rises, our coral reefs pass into memory and the Earth’s species continue to disappear, celebrating sustainability through International Museum Day is timelier than ever. The time has come for us to find collective solutions. To quote Benjamin Franklin, ‘We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately’.