Museums and Biodiversity

Museums of natural history have recently come to the forefront in society's efforts to understand the nature of biodiversity, why biodiversity is valuable, how and why biodiversity is rapidly being lost in the natural world, and what can be done to stem the tide of the current Sixth Extinction—the rapid loss of biodiversity that some biologists think is occurring at the rate of 30,000 species a year, or three species every hour.

Although some small museums devoted to the display of biological, geological, and anthropological specimens were founded several centuries ago, the real beginnings of modern natural history museums took place in the mid-nineteenth century—the same time at which art museums, symphony orchestras, operas, public parks, zoos, and many other institutions came to be seen as vital to the cultural life of major cities. This was the era, for example, when the British Museum and its sister institution, the Natural History Museum, were established in London; in the United States, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History, as well as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., were founded. Today there are important natural history museums in every major city in Europe and the United States. In addition to the American Museum of Natural History (in New York City) and the Natural

History Museum of the Smithsonian complex on the Mall in Washington, D.C., the Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago), the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, as well as major natural history museums in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, and elsewhere in the United States are all world-class institutions.

Natural history museums are often the main source of information about the natural world available to city dwellers. Natural history museums serve as a source of both entertainment and education to people of all ages, and of the 3 million visitors annually to New York's American Museum of Natural History, some 2 million are children; most visit the museum on field trips from their schools in the city or surrounding suburbs.

Natural history museums have several different roles and functions—all devoted to the development and dissemination of knowledge about the natural world. Most obvious to the general public are the exhibitions, often utilized in conjunction with educational activities designed by professional educators on the museum's staff or in the school system. Behind the scenes, however, museums are repositories of natural history collections—rocks, fossils, archaeological and other cultural artifacts, and specimens of the entire spectrum of life's diversity. Finally, most major museums are also scientific research institutions, dedicated to finding, describing, and analyzing the natural world, chiefly through the study of specimens in its collections and those of its sister institutions. As members of research institutions, the scientific staff are often directly engaged in the task of training young scientists to ensure that the research effort continues.

This entry will discuss all three aspects of the work of natural history museums, with a special emphasis on the role museums have recently come to play in dealing with the challenging issues posed by the current biodiversity crisis.

Exhibitions. Originally, natural history exhibitions consisted of endless rows of specimens and artifacts; in some instances, nearly the entire collection of, for example, birds, Devonian brachiopods, or arrowheads would be lined up in cases, usually with little or no written material ("label copy") beyond simple identification of where and when the object was collected. Those days are now gone— superseded by advances in exhibition concepts and technology, and the desire to educate.

One major advance was the invention and perfection of the techniques of constructing dioramas. Museums rarely keep living animals, so they cannot compete with zoos in displaying the living world in terms of live specimens. But museums can go to the necessary time and expense to construct accurate reconstructions of habitats in the natural world—and beginning especially in the 1920s, expeditions to collect specimens and to photograph and paint places all over the globe led to the creation of many stunning diorama displays. Usually, dioramas have curved plywood back walls that are painted (often by well-known artists) to depict the background with meticulous accuracy, and to blend that background into the three-dimensional foreground, which is filled with soils and rocks, vegetation, and (quite often) the reptiles, mammals, and birds of that particular setting. If you want to know what it is like to visit a water hole on the savannas of Kenya, or to encounter a group of mountain gorillas in the rain forests of Rwanda, the dioramas of the Akeley Hall of African mammals at the American Museum of Natural History are the next best thing to being there (and sometimes better—it is extremely difficult to observe gorillas in the wild!). Zoos cannot capture the details of environment nearly so well (the animals tend to destroy it), and televised nature shows, while often entertaining and informative, do not convey the vivid sense of actually being there that a good diorama does.

Recently, natural history museums such as the American Museum have begun to take on serious modern issues, such as the biodiversity crisis (see Sixth Extinction). Dioramas historically have portrayed nature in a pristine, unspoiled state. When the Hall of Biodiversity was being constructed in the 1990s at the American Museum of Natural History, it was difficult to come up with a natural history scene suitable for a diorama that hadn't already been built somewhere in the museum. But it was also soon realized that virtually none of the scenes depicted in these older dioramas still exist in their native, wild state. For example, the mountain gorilla scene had been recently photographed by a museum staff member, whose photo revealed that the forests on the distant volcanoes had all been cut down and turned into terraced farmland.

Thus the scientists responsible for planning the contents of the Hall of Biodiversity realized that there was both an opportunity and even an obligation to depict the natural world, not in its largely gone pristine state, but as it now is: severely changed by the hand of humanity as population pressures and the exploitation of natural resources put relentless pressure on all environments.

The hall features a single 100-foot-long diorama, with many innovations made possible by modern technology. It portrays the rain forest in its present condition in Dzanga-Sangha National Park of the Central African Republic—portraying the forest in its wild, pristine state in the opening section—but showing how elephants, first, and then people have encroached upon the forest and damaged it. The museum mounted several expeditions to collect specimens and to photograph the environment in high-definition still and motion pictures. Instead of the traditional paintings, the background is photographic, including four motion picture segments. The sounds and smells of the forest are also included, to impart a sense of realism. Exhibition specialists made rubber casts of trees, which were then used to construct facsimiles of the trees for the diorama. More than sixty species of plants and over 600,000 leaves were cast in plastic, then painted. The overall effect is extremely realistic.

In the first scene—the rain forest at dawn— the visitor sees (and hears and smells) the rain forest in its primal state. Periodically, on the background film, a band of Ba-Aka people walk into view, conducting a search for medicinal plants; the middle scene, showing forest elephants in the background at the daily mud bath in the open "saline," also shows the effects that elephants have on the trunks of trees. In the final scene, the effects of slash-and-burn agriculture and logging are depicted: Even on the edges of this protected natural park, inroads are constantly being made into the integrity of the forest. Burned and cut tree stumps, adjacent to a field of grain, are all that is left of the forest in this scene.

The Hall of Biodiversity is neither a hall of ecology nor a hall of evolution, but rather an exhibition that says, at its core, that biodiversity consists of all the species of the world ("evolutionary biodiversity") in all the ecosystems of the world ("ecological biodiversity"). To understand biodiversity, one must understand both aspects simultaneously. The exhibit deals with the rest of the world's ecosystems— and the problems they face—through a sixty-foot-wide slide-and-film show, showing different environments in both pristine and degraded form.

Evolutionary biodiversity, on the other hand, is depicted in a 100-foot-long "wall of life," upon which hundreds of specimens from each of twenty-seven subdivisions of life depict the entire spectrum, from bacteria to horseshoe crabs. A "crisis center" deals in greater detail with habitat destruction, human population growth, and solutions that have been proposed for the biodiversity crisis. There is also an introductory film outlining the major themes of the hall, and a film presentation of three or four current issues in biodiversity loss and conservation that is changed every two months. Visitors can also use kiosks to get on the Internet and explore biodiversity issues in even greater depth.

The Grande Galerie d'Évolution of the Museum Nationale d'Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History) at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris is another spectacular example of an exhibition devoted to biodiversity. Originally opened in the nineteenth century and featuring the great collections arranged by the famed scientist Baron Georges Cuvier, this building had been closed for nearly a century. Architecturally renovated and newly reopened in the mid-1990s, the Grande Galerie features a dramatic parade of African mammals in the center of the main floor— with periodic dimming of the lights to simulate a storm crossing the savanna to the sound of thunder.

Three additional floors, constructed as balconies ringing the walls of the building, discuss topics as diverse as DNA and garbage disposal in present-day Paris. A set of three relief maps show the growth of Paris from a primordial settlement along the banks of the River Seine, graphically illustrating how the growth of cities is at the expense of the natural world. A particularly poignant part of the exhibition is a side room, very dark and quiet, lined with the mounted specimens of extinct, or highly endangered, species. It is like walking through a graveyard.

Other museums have mounted smaller exhibitions on environmental issues, and more programs are constantly in the works. Museums are beginning to respond to this very real crisis faced by life on earth, and through their exhibitions they are beginning to educate the public on biodiversity: what biodiversity is, why it is important, how it is being destroyed, and what can be done about its destruction.

Collections. Natural history museums are literally "libraries" of biodiversity. Because many museums had their origins in the early days of scientific and commercial exploration during the nineteenth century, collections were made in depth of every conceivable sort of paleontological, geological, archaeological, and cultural specimen or artifact—including, of course, specimens of the living world. Indeed, one way to tell how much we have lost is by consulting this enormous treasure-trove of specimens.

The specimens on exhibit in any museum at any one time are just the tip of the iceberg compared with the often vast collections that are stored away out of public view. The American Museum of Natural History, for example, has 32,000,000 specimens, ranging from Northwest coast Indian war canoes, elephants, whales, and dinosaurs to tiny hummingbirds, formaniniferans (microfossils), beads, and even DNA samples. Each type of specimen poses its own difficulties in terms of proper storage and preservation: DNA needs to be frozen; archaeological woven materials need to be stabilized; skeletons need to be cleaned (usually by dermestid beetles, which pick the bones clean); fossils need to be removed from their rocky tombs; worms, fishes, snakes, and clams need to be "fixed" in the chemical formalin (formaldehyde), then preserved in jars filled with alcohol, which need to be topped off periodically and changed at longer intervals.

These objects are all treasures. Some, like rare gemstones or archaeological artifacts, command enormous prices on the open market (forcing museums to keep under lock and key in vaults their most valuable items while not on display). But every item is a treasure in a deeper, intellectual sense. Most cannot be replaced. And each has something important to tell us about the natural world and how it is changing. And that brings us to the scientific study of these specimens.

Museum science. Most of the larger natural history museums have a tradition of maintaining a staff of research scientists. Usually called curators, these scientists hold a Ph.D. from a major university. Although the duties of curators are many and varied, their basic job is to perform and publish original scientific research (but they also add to and maintain the collections under their care; cooperate in the planning and building of exhibitions; teach and lecture; and sponsor Ph.D. candidates and postdoctoral researchers). And, because of their intimate association with collections of natural history objects, most of the scientific research at natural history museums is in those branches of science pertaining to natural history specimens and artifacts. Counting research associates, Ph.D. students, and visiting scientists, major museums often have a hundred or more scientists associated with them.

The major traditional areas of research in natural history museums include the following:

Anthropology. Anthropology, the science of mankind, includes ethnology (the study of modern cultures), archaeology (the study of ancient, buried cultures), physical anthropology (the study of the biology of humanity, including the human fossil record; also includes primate paleontology and studies of other living primates), and linguistics (the study of languages). Of these four fields, the first three are usually well represented at natural history museums. Human behavior, ecology, and evo lutionary history are absolutely central to understanding the current biodiversity crisis.

Geology. Geology is the study of the earth. Most geological research at natural history museums centers around the rocks and minerals that can be collected and housed at the institution. Geological processes (erosion, mountain building, volcanism, plate tectonics, and so forth) have combined to shape the earth the way we find it today. Together with climate, they constitute the physical forces that have provided the context—and a lot of the stimulus—for extinction events in the geological past, as well as the evolutionary events that have followed these extinction events. Biodiversity cannot be understood without reference to the physical world.

Paleontology. The outlines of the history of life on earth are preserved in the fossil record. Extinction has profoundly affected life in the deep geological past, and the patterns and processes of both extinction and evolution as learned from the fossil record have much to tell us about the very nature of the present-day Sixth Extinction.

Systematic Biology. Modern biology has many different subdisciplines. That branch of biology pertaining to the naming and classifying of species of plants, animals, fungi, and microbes, is known as systematics. Nowadays, most (though by no means all) of research in systematic biology is performed in natural history museums—because that's where the specimens are. Along with ecology, systematics is the central scientific area pertaining to biodiversity, for it is only through knowing what species are out there—and which have already succumbed to extinction—that we can estab lish the very existence of, and measure the severity of, the Sixth Extinction.

Biodiversity Studies. In addition to the traditional fields listed above, some natural history museums (and zoos and universities as well) have established programs especially focused on biodiversity issues. Programs such as the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History conceive and help fund field studies, help elaborate conservation policies, train students, and cooperate in exhibition and educational endeavors pertaining to biodiversity.

—Niles Eldredge

If possible, visit one of the natural history exhibitions mentioned in this article. The following Web sites contain information about three natural history museums, the exhibitions, collections, and research: American Museum of Natural History (New York City) Grande Galerie d'Évolution, Museum Nationale d'Histoire Naturelle (Paris) Evolution/GGE.NSF. Natural History Museum, Smithsonian Institution

See also: Anthropology; Ecology; Evolutionary Biodiversity; Geology, Geomorphology, and Geography; Paleontology; Sixth Extinction; Systematics

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