Sunday, March 12, 2017

Who We Are and What We Want to Be

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. It’s partly that the Peabody is engaged in a large-scale planning exercise that, when implemented, will change the face of the Museum as radically as at any time in it’s 150 years of existence. It is all about, as one colleagues said, reimagining the natural history museum for the 21st Century. At the same time as this, I’ve been working with Cliff Duke (Ecological Society of America) and Elizabeth Merritt (AAM) on a project looking at models for long-term sustainability of natural history collections. A lot of this involves diversifying the revenue streams that support collections and repurposing some of our activities, critical when you consider the current political climate in the US and worldwide.

So one way or another, change is in the air and on my mind. At one level, you might question why we need to change all. It’s been almost 500 years and natural history museums are still around, when many other apparently successful things (automats, video rental stores, and pay phones, to give just a few examples) are not. So we must be doing something right. In part, it’s that we have no real competition for what we do. There are many other organizations that provide entertainment, education, and research support, but none of these are backed by collections. As I like to tell our students, the only reason we know anything about the past of our planet is because of our collections. Until someone invents a TARDIS, they are the only way that we have to travel back in time. We do time travel. How awesome is that?

This should support the argument that our collections are critically important to us. Without them, we are vulnerable to competitors that do things faster, smarter, noisier, and – critically – cheaper. This makes me feel better when I bang on about increasing the exposure of collections – and I mean “collections,” the whole mass of them, not the cherry-picked greatest hits that make up the contents of most museum galleries – to the public. You have to understand not just why we have these things, but why we need so many of them and how having this mass of material affects everyone's lives. 

But... we are also in the business of information delivery. The processes by which people access and share information, and the systems and technology that underpin them, have changed faster and more radically in the last 20 years than at any time in our history. And we’ve embraced this. In one of the largest shifts of focus ever seen in our community, through funding initiatives, and training programs, workshops and conferences, we’ve reimagined ourselves as digital data providers.

 We’re not by any means there yet, but what’s going on in natural history collections is, in many ways, as exciting as some of the big mission pivots that you see in industries like IBM (hardware manufacture to tech consultancy and IT services), GE (finance and consumer products to “the internet of really big things”), and Netflix (DVD rental to streaming digital media and content production). Exciting, but also a bit frightening. We are, as a matter of philosophy, making our digital content freely available to whoever wants to use it, and there are many organizations that are more than capable of repackaging and providing it, potentially with added value. So we can’t simply be data providers. We need added value of our own.

Which brings us back to the power of real items. The information extracted from our specimens is use-dependent. The more you use them, especially utilizing new techniques to answer questions that you couldn’t previously address, the more information is yielded. Without this link to the specimens, the information packaged by anyone, whether it’s us or a third-party provider, would rapidly stagnate and lose value. 

That means that use, which was always important, now becomes critical, and has to be factored into our preservation practices. Put another way, preservation does not necessarily add to the value of the object. Modern methods of quantitative risk assessment assume that damage to a specimen usually involves some loss in value. But clearly there are some cases where that loss of value is offset by additional value generated by use. We already accept this by allowing consumptive or destructive sampling of specimens. When I was starting out with collections, I used to say, "I want these objects to be around for someone to use 500 years from now." Now I’m more inclined to the view that in 500 years’ time, I would like those objects to have generated enough additional value to justify the cost of preserving them for 500 years.

Value generated from the use of the collections also factors back into the sort of conversations that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Maybe if we’re “reimagining the natural history museum for the 21st century,” we need to put the use of the collections, which are our unique proposition, front-and-center. You could argue that in our desire to preserve our collections for certain, narrow categories of use, we’ve shied away from exposing them to wider audiences, building physical and operational barriers that keep people and collections apart. This is a myopic approach, which boxes us in and potentially closes the door on novel forms of usage.

To my way of thinking, a big planning project is an opportunity to redraw those boundaries, and bring people and collections into closer contact. It's also an opportunity to ask some fairly fundamental questions about who we are, and what we want to be. All too often, our answer to the latter is to be better at the former.

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