On Museums

Over the last few months I’ve had the opportunity to visit a number of other museums for various reasons. These institutions are highly diverse in terms of their goals, and the contrasts between them gives me the opportunity to reflect on the different applications of the term “museum”.

I spent last Friday afternoon in Richmond on a tour of the Science Museum of Virginia (SMV). SMV is located in a converted train station, and as a result has an available exhibit space several times larger than what we have at VMNH. The exhibits focus on an impressive array of interactives, but there are very few specimens (particularly natural history specimens).

Below: Interactive extinction exhibit at the Science Museum of Virginia.

SMV is an excellent example of a science center. Science centers tend to serve as public education and outreach institutions. They generally have relatively small collections holdings (if any), and those are oriented toward exhibits rather than research. They are staffed primarily by educators, with few if any active research scientists. The primary audiences of science centers are school-age children and their families and teachers.

I’ve also recently visited several museums located on college campuses, including the Joseph Moore Museum at Earlham College and the Museum of Earth Sciences at Radford University. It used to be relatively common for small colleges to maintain museums, but they have fallen out of favor in recent decades, and those that still exist often function only as small teaching collections. The museums at Earlham and Radford are exceptions, in that they still maintain exhibits and conduct a variety of student-led programs. Radford’s museum is remarkable among small college museums in that it was only founded five years ago; it may be the youngest college museum in the US by several decades.

Below: Mineral display at Radford’s Museum of Earth Sciences.

It’s a shame that campus museums have become so rare, because they fill an important niche for science and education students at small institutions (and I’m already on record concerning the value of a small college experience in training scientists). These museums serve as training grounds for students that aspire to work in museum-related fields, or that may end up working closely with museums, as well as exposing non-science majors to scientific ideas.

Finally, we have research museums such as VMNH. Many of these museums are operated by federal, state, or local governments. VMNH, for example, is a Virginia state agency. Some, such as the Florida Museum of Natural History, are departments within research universities, which are also often state-government supported. A few, such as the Carnegie Museum, are stand-alone institutions operated, in most cases, by private foundations.

Research museums may have a variety of origins and associations, but they all share a common feature: a permanent collection of research specimens. The primary function of these museums is to preserve the specimens and associated information that constitute the data that form the basis of natural science. Generally these institutions have a written collections policy that describes the scope of the collection, how specimens are acquired, and how they are made available for study. The collections supersede any particular staff member; the curators are primarily there to support and maintain the collections, not the other way around.

Below: A collections storage room at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

Specimens in a research collection are selected for their scientific value. Many of these specimens may be visually appealing, but that’s not the reason they’re acquired. In fact, the majority of a research museum’s collections are rarely if ever viewed by anyone except specialists who incorporate the data from those specimens into their research. In this respect, research museums stand apart from science centers and teaching museums.

Why, then, are all these disparate institutions called museums? There is one point that they all tend to share: exhibits. Even though the primary function of a research museum is maintaining collections, exhibits are a critical supporting part of that mission. To extend an analogy that a friend once suggested to me, why does a football stadium or a theatre have seats? Why do we even have art galleries? All the players, actors, or artists require is a field, stage, or easel. The seats in a stadium or theatre are for everyone else – those who aren’t athletes or actors. The theatre, art gallery, and playing field are venues for non-specialists to experience these activities. Likewise, museums are the stages that scientists use to present their work to others. The vast majority of scientific research is funded, in one way or another, by the public. We have an obligation to make the fruits of our scientific endeavors available to as many people as we can, and particularly those who pay for them.

With exhibits serving as one of the significant public faces of research, it’s easy for the public to become misled about the function of exhibits, particularly when the term “museum” is used for a variety of institutions. It can seem to a visitor that the only reason museums exist is to have exhibits. In the case of a science center such as SMV, this is actually the case; they are an institution that exists to provide science education, primarily through exhibits. But the knowledge that’s imparted in SMV’s exhibits came from somewhere; someone had to collect and interpret the raw data that led to those discoveries. That was done in university and government research facilities…including research museums. Institutions such as VMNH don’t just provide the scientific knowledge described in our own exhibits, but also for the exhibits of science centers that don’t perform research or maintain collections. For VMNH and similar museums, we don’t acquire collections in order to supply the exhibits; rather, the exhibits exist to teach the public about the significance of our collections. The different missions of SMV and VMNH are reflected in the state government’s organization; while SMV is located within the Department of Education, VMNH is in the Department of Natural Resources. All these different types of museums may share exhibits as a common point, but they perform different, yet complimentary, roles in the advancement of science.

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One Response to On Museums

  1. Nicely put! We here at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center are located right on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. We employ 100s of undergraduates each year; we interact with hundreds of scientists to assist in their outreach efforts; and we’re growing our statewide efforts to include library programming, off-site science camps and traveling lab experiences, and the nation’s only statewide science festival (www.ncsciencefestival.org). We certainly agree and echo your statements regarding the mission of these important and fascinating museums. Keep up the good work at VMNH and let us know if you’re ever passing through Chapel Hill. Jonathan

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