Scientific Research versus Public Exhibits: a schizofrenic aspect of Natural History Museums

Giovanni Pinna

That which I am going to discuss is based above all on my knowledge of European museums, knowledge acquired in the years I served as Director of the Museum of Natural History in Milan, and following that, as President of the Italian Committee of the International Council of Museums.

A least in Europe, the natural history museums have for some time been concerned with an economic and productive crisis that has its roots in a crisis of identity and that - as far as concerns the major institutions - increasingly gives rise to a type of “schizophrenia”.

The first signs of this crisis appeared in the 1970's, when the policies of the Conservative English government compelled the Natural History Museum of London to review their economic strategies, and beyond that, their relationship with the public. This was done with the aim of augmenting their drastically reduced income. The strategy pursued by the London museum became one of transforming exhibits so as to attract the greatest possible number of paying visitors. A further strategy was to augment the space devoted to commercial activity, such as the bookshop, gift shop, cafeteria, and so on. This inevitably led to a reduction in the incisiveness of the museum's activities in education and cultural outreach, and at the same time to an increase in the entertainment aspect of natural sciences. The more spectacular results of this strategy have been:

  1. the destruction of certain exhibits of great scientific and educational interest, such as an exhibits dedicated to mammalian fossils, and replacing them with a “bazar” for children's toys,

  2. and the creation of exhibits such as one based on a “robot dinosaur”, in which the aspect of entertaining spectacle prevailed over cultural and scientific content.

All this did not take place without polemics: in 1989 and 1990, the English museological press attacked the management of the museum, which on the one hand had decided to diminish funding for research, while on the other hand had decided to send a delegation of exhibit staff to Disneyland, to study the means of communication in use in that amusement park.

What happened to the London museum shows that when faced with economic difficulties, natural history museums immediately debate their scientific role, and do not succeed in facing such difficulties without renouncing their identity as cultural institutions. This is due both to the fact that in the majority of the more advanced nations the cultural content of the natural sciences has been minimized, and to the schizophrenia from which most of the natural museums suffer, a schizophrenia evident in the separation between their scientific role and their role in cultural transmission.

Over the last twenty years, the major natural history museums all over the world have pursued a policy of separation between scientific activity and activity in cultural transmission. These museums, then, have entrusted each of these aspects to different staff within the bounds of the museums, staff who in many cases rarely speak amongst themselves. In extreme cases, it has come to a point where the creation of the museum permanent exhibits - which are the most powerful instrument of cultural transmission for the museum - has been entrusted to organizations outside the museum itself. By the creation I mean not only the architectonic or graphic design, but also the selection and the disposition of its contents. This happened, for example, at the American Museum of Natural History, which chose to entrust the creation of part of its own paleontology exhibits to the organization of Ralph Appelbaum (1997), which specializes in creations for every type of museum, and operates in many museums outside of Europe. The consequence of such a choice is that the real scientific culture of each museum rarely enters into the exhibitions and so rarely gets transmitted to the public: the exhibits lose, then, their originality and every museum becomes just like every other museum. I believe that the most striking example of this separation between the scientific product of the museum, and that which the museum dispenses to the public, is the Grande Galérie de l'Evolution of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris. There, the scientific culture accumulated by the museum in the field of evolution in the past hundred years that separate Buffon from Gaudry is relegated to small glass cases on the top floor of the gallery (Laissus 1995).

If the exhibits of a museum do not convey the culture of that museum, it is quite probable that they do not convey any culture at all. The Grande Galérie just cited provides some general information that concerns the theme of biodiversity. This is a theme that the museums of natural history adopted following the Rio Conference; they believed that this might be able to provide a strategy fit to escape from the “cul de sac” into which the separation between scientific production and cultural diffusion had inevitably taken them. They did so, however, in the belief that they could do so without being compelled to correct the underlying problem. The reuniting of the functions of scientific research and cultural diffusion (and, that is to say, of the intellectual organization and construction of the exhibits and the production in general of the explanatory material that accompanies these exhibits) is, in fact, strongly opposed. It is opposed both by the curators of the museum, who retain the function of cultural transmission belittling of their role as researchers, and by museum personnel involved in the exhibits, who fear losing their jobs and their power. Finally, it is also opposed by firms specializing in the creation of exhibits, since they fear losing interesting contracts.

The theme of biodiversity had the function of reintroducing both the role of the collections and the scientific aspects of the museums of natural history, areas that were both benefiting from the always minimal consideration of the public and the donors and funding agencies. There was always more consideration given the didactic aspect of the museums of natural history, and there was a question, therefore, as to what the reasons were for maintaining their costly organizations of conservation and scientific research. As the museum came to be identified with its exhibits and solely with its didactic functions, it was able to construct an excellent museum without a scientific research structure and lacking in collections; this was realized, for example, some years back in Munich.

For various reasons, the theme of biodiversity has not provided appreciable results, in the return of the scientific role of natural history museums (Pinna 1997). Above all, that is because this theme was treated as no more than a new name for an old function of the natural history museums, museums that were created and grew for almost three centuries on the basis of the necessity for documentation the biodiversity that was increasing side by side with a growth in geographic and scientific research. This failure has made it clear that the dichotomy between scientific research and cultural diffusion has become today more acute. It has also made it clear that there is an increasingly marked separation between what the museum produces culturally and scientifically, and what it displays to the public in its exhibits. Ahead of high-level scientific research, that which comes provided to the public in the exhibits is an image of nature and natural sciences that is quite general, and, if one makes an exception for material concerning the protection of the environment, an image that is not at all problematic. The scientific culture presented in the halls of the natural history museums is not an adult culture, and does not correspond to scientific thought. Therefore it should not surprise us if such institutions are considered more and more to be museums for children, the mission of which ends up being no more than to supplement the school.

The most recent example comes from the new Tech Museum in San Jose, opened to the public on 31 october, the puerile content of which has been criticized in the San Francisco Chronical of October 30.

Today the museums of natural history rarely ask themselves if their role ought to exceed the confines of pedagogical didacticism. They also rarely ask themselves if they should assume a higher role, that of disseminating scientific thought at the level of the “big questions” and not at the level of “notions”, thus becoming a tool for the meeting of the two aforementioned cultures. Not pondering these questions, the natural history museums do not even pay attention to the problem of how to disseminate the culture of science itself.

As regards the diffusion of scientific culture, one cannot deny that the majority of museums of natural history are the last refuge of “Positivism”. Many museums are positivist in the very placement of the natural objects in the exhibits, effected through successive systematic steps. The majority of the museums are positivist because they deny the importance of historical process in the learning of science, and have thus suppressed the history of the exhibits themselves. Once more, there is the example of the Grande Galérie de l'Evolution in the Paris museum, about which Michael Ruse in his volume Monad to Man (1996) says: “you are guided on a trail from life's earliest forms to our own species”. But there are also examples in all those museums which have adopted the cladistic as method for exhibiting of the phylogenesis of diverse organic groups.

I still agree to this day with the anonymous editorial in the journal Nature (Anonym 1981) published in response to the polemics stirred up by the cladistic exhibits created by the British Museum (Natural History) on the dinosaurs (1979) and on evolution of man (Halstead 1980). This editorial put in doubt the validity of the cladistic as a method for presenting evolution to the public. I mantain that in fact cladistics in its extreme form is able to reconstruct the phylogenesis of a group, but is not able to explain it. In other words, I mantain that it can not be used in museum exhibits to recount the history of life, insofar as it constitute only the first step of an historical reconstruction; it does not respond to the question of where, how, and why, a given fact has appened.

For the museums to become instruments for the diffusion of scientific thought, it is not enough to find the modalities of expression; it is indispensable that they also acquire the capacity to elaborate in a critical manner all that concerns science, and to display its results to the public. They should also abandon, for example, all the sensationalism typical of other types of media. To give one example, museums should no longer present any more the “cosmic catastrophe that destroyed the dinosaurs” to the public, nourishing the recourse to the catastrophic, the supernatural, and the miraculous in the explanation of natural phenonema. The museums should not present such concepts unless they themselves are scientifically convinced that such hypotheses might be worthy of being proposed.

A critical analysis that precedes the exhibits is possible only if the museums possess a scientific research structure, and if such a structure organizes directly, or collaborates fully, in the construction of the exhibits. If this is done, the schizophrenia of the natural history museums will be overcome, through the welding of their scientific role with their educational role. In addition, two important results will be achieved concerning the goals of the future development of these instituzions: the justification of the existence of costly research organizations within the museums, and a higher role in the diffusion of scientific thought.

If on the contrary the museums try to overcome their economic difficulties by reducing the scientific content in what they present to the public, and by making the attractions more spectacular, they will act exactly like commercial television, giving the public what the public wants, and not contributing to the cultural growth of society.


The controversy concerning the corporate plan of the Natural History Museum was carried out in many articles published in Museums Journal between December 1989 and Novembre 1990.

Anonym, 1981 - Cladistics and evolution on display. Nature, 292: 395-396.

Appelbaum R, 1997 - Progettare il museo del XXI secolo. American Museum of Natural History. In Basso Peressut L., Stanze della meraviglia: 236-242, Clueb, Bologna.

Halstead L.B., 1980 - Museums of errors. Nature, 288: 208.

Laissus Y., 1995 - Le Muséum national d'histoire naturelle. Gallimard, Paris.

Pinna G., 1997 - Fondamenti teorici per un museo di storia naturale. Jaca Book, Milano.

Ruse M., 1996 - Monad to Man. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass.

Michael T. Ghiselin and Alan E. Leviton (Eds,), Cultures and institutions of Natural History. California Academy of Sciences, memoir 25, San Francisco, 2000, pag. 329-332.