Sunday, April 5, 2015

Why Big Museums Aren't Going to Save Us

On April 3rd, the Chicago Tribune breathlessly reported the creation of a new group whose aim is improved management of natural history collections. In the words of the group's convener, Field Museum president Richard Lariviere, these six North American and six European museums are working to create"a unified global collection," with "a digital backbone, a digital record, and shared responsibility for filling gaps."

According to the Tribune, Lariviere - along with Kirk Johnson of the National Museum of Natural History - invited his peers to meet in Chicago after learning there was no such gathering of the institutions with major biological collections. Apparently the group even has a name,"Natural History Museum Leaders Group, chosen, [Lariviere] said, because that's what his assistant had been calling the group in setting up the first meeting."

After giving you a moment or two to mull over quite how perfect that last quote is, and to consider whether this institution has anything to teach the world about how to create better managed collections, let's take a step back and ask the wider question that this article (indirectly) raises - what are big museums good for?

The twelve that make up the Natural History Museum Leaders Group (I guess we'll have to call it the NHMLG for now) are, unarguably, some of the largest of their type in the world. Big museums like this do a lot of good. In addition to the wealth of their collections, they are also generously endowed, can attract high quality staff, and because of their high visitor numbers they offer matchless opportunities for public education and outreach. So when big museums talk, people listen.

And this, of course, is also the problem with big museums. They are attention and resource hogs. There are many great museums in the United Kingdom, but you'd be hard-pressed to realize this in the face of the remorseless flood of slick publicity that emerges from South Kensington. Not for nothing did people bridle when the British Museum (Natural History) changed its name to The Natural History Museum. A large, high profile institution of this sort can act like a financial black hole within its national museum community, sucking in funding from donors, foundations, and government agencies, and leaving smaller institutions fighting over the scraps.

The U.S., by and large, has avoided this problem. Yes, there are massive institutions like the Smithsonian, AMNH, and Field Museum. But there are also a whole raft of small, medium, and large collections below this. Their absence from the membership of the NHMLG may be justified on the basis of size, but it's still a glaring omission.

It's also unfortunate because - again, by and large - big stand-alone institutions tend not to be great innovators.  I mean this as no disrespect to my many talented friends and colleagues in these museums, but there are good reasons why this is the case. When I think about who is making the running in, for example, collections digitization, it's places like Florida, Kansas, Berkeley, Colorado, the Illinois Natural History Survey, Yale, and Tulane, to name just a few. They tend to be medium-sized museums, often associated with universities, and featuring a mix of tenured academics and professional staff.

These museums are rooted in a culture where risk-taking and innovation is valued; where there is easy on-site access to expertise in other disciplines (computing, imaging, material science, etc); where collections are not so large that the task of operations and maintenance eats 100% of staff time; and where the collection staff is not so big that they can afford to develop all-consuming disciplinary specializations.

We also tend to collaborate a lot. Of the last five grant proposals I submitted, four were multi-institutional projects. Participation in these projects, in the national digitization activities of iDigBio, and in professional societies like SPNHC and NSCA, weaves together collaborative networks that are, I would argue, a lot more effective and sustainable than a top-down initiative like NHMLG.

And there are many organizations in the natural history collections community, tackling biocollections digitization (iDigBio, B-CON/NIBA), improving collections care (NatSCA, SPNHC), fostering international cooperation (SCICOLL, ICOM-Nathist), setting standards for data and data delivery (TDWG, GBIF), addressing the needs of small collections (SCNET), and lobbying for increased collection funding (NSCA); most of these are linked by shared membership and both formal and informal collaborations. There are organizations for museum directors (ASMD), registrars (ARCS), and conservators (AIC) and there are informal communities devoted to natural history collections connected by social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook. It's true that there is no organization specifically for heads of very large natural history museums, but that might be because the museum community does't really need one.

If big museums choose to participate in existing efforts, they can have a truly empowering effect. If they develop their own, competing programs then they run the risk of distracting attention and diverting resources away from established efforts. Rather than reinventing the wheel, big museums should be encouraging their staff to participate in these programs (as many already are) and taking onboard the lessons learned.

Initially I thought I was going to finish there, but on reflection there is one last thing that needs saying. In this day and age, creating an organization of major museums whose membership is limited to institutions from North America and Europe sends the worst possible message. Where are the Chinese? Where are the Brazilians? Are there no major museums in Africa whose leaders are worth listening too? It's not much of a "unified global collection" and for all of its talk of digital backbones and digital records, NHMLG looks more nineteenth than twenty first century.