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Are Natural History Museums Ready to Become Superheroes?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Look at the tagline at the top of this page: “because museums can change the world.”

I can make a credible argument that natural history museums have the greatest potential, among their brethren in art, history, science, to play global superhero, if only because the need is greatest.

Want an example? The Mapping the Biosphere project aims to document 10 million new species in the next 50 years. The project’s vision is nothing less than saving the planet’s biodiversity (and therefore, perhaps, our own species). Key players include museums, of course, The Natural History Museum in London among them.

But to change the world for the better, natural history museums must first change themselves. In the next century, they will have to adapt to shifts in traditional funding sources, increased demands for online access to their resources and changing tastes among visitors and donors.

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To explore the selective pressures shaping the evolution of our natural history museums, I will be leading a day-long forecasting exercise on June 16, at the annual meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections in New Haven, Conn.

I’m trying to design the workshop to benefit the field as a whole, as well as being an immersive primer on forecasting for attendees. Participants will receive a lightning introduction to scanning & forecasting, and then flesh out scenarios (stories) illustrating potential futures that may face their institutions. These scenarios, and the reasoning behind them, will be disseminated by SPNHC and by CFM as a starting point for thinking, and planning in natural history collections around the world.

I’ve recruited a talented crew of natural history geeks (hints to their identities embedded in links) to sketch the beginnings of stories about alternate futures that participants will elaborate and explore, but I need your help to get our authors started.

Each proto-story will be built around a few specific drivers of change: existing trends or potential disruptive events that may shape the museum environment in coming decades. I would like your help in generating a list for authors to choose from.

I’ll prime your imagination by naming just a few of these drivers of change:

Trends Potential Disruptive Event
  • Rapidly decreasing cost of genetic sequencing
  • Increasing rate of mass extinctions
  • Increasing rate of digitization

Add your observations on important trends in comments, below.

  • Congress increases NSF research funding by 10x in 2015
  • Pandemic bird/swine flu virus sweeps the globe in 2020. Feared to reside in museum specimens as well as livestock
  • Massive “hack attack” in 2018 targets research databases of major US institutions, including colleges, universities and museums—erasing and changing data, inserting self-replicating viruses and worms.

Add your ideas for potential disruptive events in comments, below.

When thinking about trends, focus on things you see changing now, in a particular direction and at a particular speed: increasing or decreasing, slowly or quickly. For example, museums are ramping up digitization of records and specimens at an ever accelerating rate, which has enormous implications for accessibility and utility, and equally large implications on budget and infrastructure to support those databases over time.

When thinking about disruptive events, imagine newspaper headlines: you bring up the NYT on your tablet on April 24, 2015, and read “Congress votes to increase NSF research funding ten-fold.” Wow—gamechanger. How might this one stroke of a pen change our world? Imagine a specific event and give it a specific date (year).

When thinking about both trends and events, consider all the arenas in which important trends and events can occur: cultural, technological, environmental, economic and political.

Here is a short post illustrating how trends and events are combined to create the seed of a story of the future that can help us decide what actions we need to take now.

You can register to join us at the forecasting workshop.

And in any case, please use the comments section, below, to help me brainstorm trends and events that can jumpstart our thinking in June.

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  1. Potential Trend: Decreasing numbers of specimens being collected by natural history museums (as result of greater difficulty of procuring permits and reduced collecting effort) at the same time as potential uses of museum specimens increases. We will see increasing temporal gaps in relatively common species that might have been used to answer questions that we can't even imagine asking at present.

  2. Posted on behalf of Dr. Anita F. Cholewa, Curator of the UM Herbarium (MIN) and Acting Curator of Lichens
    J.F. Bell Museum of Natural History

    Existing Trend: Decreasing numbers of students are exposed to organismal biology leading to decreased appreciation for specimen collecting and specimen preservation.

    Potential Troubling Trend: Lightning fast improvements in technology are a two-edged sword: while necessary for more efficient access to specimen information, can also can lead to nature deficit, since the potential is there for a compelete removal from the specimen. Using a Star Trek analogy – identification and information will be accessed using a tricordor (or "smarty phone") and botanists need not apply

  3. I hope these are on the right track!

    Potential Trends: Increasing public acceptance of climate change; Increasing numbers of invasive species disrupting unstudied/uncatalogued ecosystems; Increasing pressure to repatriate cultural items in collections; Decreasing emphasis on curatorial authority and simultaneous increase in demand for visitor-centered science and cultural content; Decreasing success of Blockbuster Exhibits putting pressure on new funding sources for general operations.

    Potential Disruptive Events: Civil unrest (or outright war) leads to researchers being prohibited from entering (country) in 2015; Private industry clones a mammoth in 2018; Mars rover discovers indisputable signs of life on the Red Planet in 2020; New NAGPRA legislation in 2015 requires museums reach full compliance by 2025 or have all related collections impounded by the government.

  4. Existing trend: social networking technologies allow seamless access to collections and collections activities that were previously hidden, with minimal control by the institution. This provides the public with unique insights into our scientific programs.

    Disruptive event: a graduate student at a major museum posts a video diary of their fieldwork on YouTube that shows museum scientists collecting birds and mammals and which includes some light-hearted "horseplay" involving dead animals. The video goes viral and forms the basis of a PETA-style campaign against collecting by natural history museums, targeted at corporate and individual donors. Panicked at the loss of revenue, museums close down collecting programs in higher vertebrates. "Virtual vouchers" become the standard for bird and mammal studies.

  5. One more – then I have to stop thinking about the future and go and do it.

    Existing trend: increasing streamling and automation of molecular biology and advances in handheld technologies.

    Potentiall disruptive event: by 2025, the first hand-held PCR/DNA sequencer units allow researchers to sample directly from museum specimens and upload sequences to the cloud in real-time. Leads to a massive expansion in available sequence data, vastly increased use of collections, and the end of museum molecular biology labs.

  6. Posted on behalf of: James M. Bryant, Curator of Natural History
    Museum Department, City of Riverside

    Trend: Human migration has produced a huge population of "displaced persons", individuals and (especially) families with no sense of place. This challenges/limits their capacity to arrive at any sustainable solutions for the places where they now live. Natural history museums contain the records of environmental change that can help lead to informed decision making and thus achieve those sustainable ends. Without access to the record of the natural world, what are purported to be sustainable solutions will be weak at best, outright fatuous at worst.

    Disruptions: I'm afraid speculating about disruptive events doesn't interest me. Life itself is a disruptive event; disruption is an everyday fact of our work experience.

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