Don’t Close Minds to Science by Shuttering Natural History Museums

Short-sighted politicians are campaigning against institutions that educate the young and promote scientific discovery.
Visitors in the foyer of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. (Photo: Jon Hicks/Corbis Documentary)
May 20, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Recently I wrote a piece about the worldwide decline of natural history museums, partly at the hands of know-nothing politicians who don’t want to hear what science has to say. It stirred up a lot of strong emotions.

Readers protested what they called “the closing of the American mind” and the “denaturing of humanity.” A lot of them objected especially to the decision by first-term Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois to shut down the Illinois State Museum after 138 years. Rauner made his millions at a private equity firm specializing in leveraged buyouts and roll-ups—that is, spinning corporate numbers while producing nothing. But it somehow made sense in his dim little mind to save $4.8 million a year in state funding for the museum, even though it meant losing $33 million in tourism revenues—and that’s not counting the value of the scientific research such museums routinely produce. (You can speak up for the Illinois State Museum in a note to Gov. Rauner. On the subject line, I suggest you write, “Fat Wallet, Dim Mind.”)

But along with the anger, readers also remembered how natural history museums had helped open their own minds. One reader wrote that “my heart still beats faster each time I approach the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco,” and a former New York City resident recalled his childhood delight in discovering the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History: “I immersed myself in each tableau, completely captivated by the recreated reality, which connected me directly to the great natural world beyond my urban surroundings.” That seminal experience opened the doors “to science and to love of the natural world,” enriching his life forever after, as it has done for countless other city children. (If you want to enjoy that sort of experience, you can become a member of your local natural history museum and get free access to a nationwide network of sister museums.)

Other readers recalled dazzling moments at natural museums around the world. One was overwhelmed at seeing the first fish “to crawl out of the water nearly 400 million years ago” and a foot-long dragonfly wing, both at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Another reader celebrated the extensive Darwin Centre recently added to London’s Natural History Museum, adding, “It’s hard to imagine the building of a Darwin Center in the U.S.” other than as a form of protest. Indeed, the state of Kentucky decided this year to hand $18 million in tax subsidies to a religious group called Answers in Genesis for a Noah’s Ark theme park scheduled to open in the summer. No naturalists need apply.

But my article also knocked the natural history museums, or at least the ones that have resorted to entertainment, rather than science, to boost attendance. One of the most poignant notes came from Reed Noss, a University of Central Florida biologist who has devoted his life to conservation: “As a child, my favorite place, after the woods and streams, was the Dayton Museum of Natural History in Dayton, Ohio. This museum not only displayed, but actively practiced and taught natural history in those days.” He took summer classes there in birding, fossils, the ecology of streams, reptiles and amphibians, and other subjects. Then about a decade ago, he took his family back to show this inspirational scene from his childhood.

“We were horrified by what we found,” Noss recalled. “There was virtually no natural history on display. No truly educational exhibits. The place had been turned into a playground, with stupid games, slides, big plastic tubes to crawl through, and other nonsense.” It now calls itself the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery, maybe because the words natural history are just a little too edgy for tender Ohio minds. “Shame on you,” Noss concluded. “I shall never return.”

One thing readers neglected to mention: Natural history museums matter not just in shaping children’s minds but as centers for the kind of scientific research that shapes our understanding of the world. Most visitors don’t even realize that natural history museums, unlike most “science” museums, employ scientists behind-the-scenes to do important research with their collections.

So let me tell you about my favorite specimen, an early Cretaceous dinosaur named Deinonychus, which I came to know in the course of writing my new book, House of Lost Worlds, about the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Paleontologist John Ostrom discovered the five-inch-long claw of this creature sticking out of a Montana hillside in the summer of 1964. He spent the next few years gathering more fossils and studying them in painstaking detail. It led him to conclude that dinosaurs were not the plodding, stupid, swamp-bound evolutionary dead end they were then generally thought to be. They could be fast, agile predators, with metabolisms akin to those of modern mammals. The idea caused shrieks of horror among other paleontologists, but Ostrom prevailed, launching the modern dinosaur renaissance.

Then he began to notice similarities between the wrist bones of Deinonychus and Archaeopteryx, the “original bird” from 160 million years ago. That led Ostrom to argue that birds are living dinosaurs—the only dinosaurs to have survived the great extinction event of 66 million years ago. That idea is now accepted by almost all natural scientists, and it makes the creatures fluttering around yards infinitely more interesting.

But OK, if that’s not enough to make you see the value of natural history museums, let me also resort to entertainment: Ostrom’s Deinonychus in time became the model for the terrifying velociraptors in the Jurassic Park franchise. In real life, velociraptors were about the size of chickens, not genuinely big and scary like Deinonychus. But after doing his research with Ostrom, author Michael Crichton just decided velociraptor sounded sexier.

So, yes, natural history museums matter, in all kinds of ways—and yes, they are vanishing. I should end on another reader, who responded to my article with the words of novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder: “Every good thing stands moment by moment on the edge of danger, and must be fought for.” He concluded, “We must fight to protect these great institutions against the forces of ignorance and greed.”