Monday, January 18, 2010

Darwin. Part 2.

Don't you just hate "International Years of..."? Barely have we got past the year-long orgy of evolutionary back-slappery that was Darwin's bicentenary when we plunge headlong into the International Year of Biodiversity. Be still my beating heart! I skipped over to the UN's Biodiversity webpage to take a look around, where lots of people seem to want to take the opportunity to welcome me to celebrate biodiversity and life on Earth. I thought about watching the message from Mr. Sakahito Ozawa, Japan's Minister of the Environment, to see whether he would explain how Japanese logging companies flattening rainforests across Asia and the Pacific was helping the cause of global biodiversity. Then I decided I couldn't be bothered. Biodiversity tends to affect me like that.

Anyway, I decided instead to combine museums, Darwin, and biodiversity in a post that was prompted by Rachel Souhami's thought-provoking review of the Natural History Museum's Darwin Centre (Phase 2) in the December issue of Museums Journal. Those of us with a collections bent tend to think of DC2 primarily as the new storage facility for NHM's massive entomology and botany collections, but it's important to remember that the Darwin Centre (phases 1 and 2) has a far greater significance than this. It is the first real attempt by a major museum to get to grips with the thorny issue of giving the general public at least some measure of access to the collections that we hold in trust for them. This is not a trivial exercise, as it involves balancing some fairly challenging and conflicting goals (prevervation, conservation, security, and research usage VS. access, information, exploration, and entertainment). No other big museum has dared take on these challenges in a substantial way. Indeed, in the USA, it's hard to believe that our entrenched academic curatorial staff would ever engage in anything quite so frivolous as public access.

Which is a pity, because we need taxpayer support more than ever, both directly and indirectly. For this reason, I tend to bridle a little when people criticize NHM. Not that it isn't fun, because they are a big target, but I do think they deserve some kudos for trying. For this reason, I approached Souhami's review with one metaphorical eyebrow raised. A quick look at her webpage suggested that I might be right, since there wasn't a lot of natural history in there. As it was, I needn't have worried. Souhami is a specialist in science communication, and her comments on the exhibit spaces of DC2 were thoughtful and illuminating.

The major issue seems to be that, for a building containing 20 million specimens, there's not a lot to see. Souhami felt the display spaces were empty; even when you had the opportunity to open a drawer it contained photos of specimens, rather than the objects themselves. The specimens, of course, are in a part of the building to which the public does not have access. Looking at the Darwin Centre website the problem seems to be that tours of the building are self-guided. This is in contrast to DC1, where the public can have tours of the fluid collections that are led by Museum staff. Without a guide, it's unlikely that any museum would let the public wander through the actual collections spaces. Nor would they get much benefit from doing so, since modern collection storage emphasizes enclosure and protection over access and visibility. This is why we often give the public tours of sub-optimal collection spaces, which have big things on open racks. The novelty of rank upon rank of stark white storage cabinets can pale after a while.

The other issue is that what the public gets out of collection tours tends to be proportionate to what the museum is prepared to invest. The most important element of this investment is time - no amount of glossy touch screen interfaces and edgy architecture can replace direct interaction with curatorial staff. This was one of the strengths of DC1, even if, the early days, it elicited a certain amount of grumbling from the staff involved. Apparently there are some virtual staff guides in DC2 and in one of the labs (visible behind glass) there is an intercom that lets you ask the scientists questions. I can just imagine....

Which brings us to Souhami's most insightful comment, which was that looking through the glass at scientists, sitting in front of a computer, just isn't very interesting. We spend an awful lot of time trying to sell science to the masses, usually through media-inspired bangs and crashes. Maybe it's a good thing, now and again, to remind people that it's not a glamorous occupation but actually a lot of hard work.

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