Dinosaurio expuesto en el Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales de Madrid

To mark the 250th anniversary of the Spanish natural sciences museum

The Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales and the BBVA Foundation host the first International Forum of Natural History Museum Directors

This week Madrid has been the venue for the first international gathering in one city of the directors of the world’s foremost natural history museums. The forum – organized by Spain’s Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (MNCN-CSIC) on the occasion of its 250th anniversary, in collaboration with the BBVA Foundation – has addressed the main challenges facing these centers amid the unfolding global environmental crisis. On 24-25 October, the heads of leading natural history museums in both Europe (London, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Frankfurt, Leiden, Vienna, Stockholm and Copenhagen) and the United States (Washington DC, New York and Harvard) have met over two days in the MNCN and the Marqués de Salamanca Palace, Madrid headquarters of the BBVA Foundation.

20 October, 2022

“Natural history museums are unique institutions, where scientific research, natural science collections amassed over the centuries, and science communication to the general public come together under the same roof. At the same time, the fact of being unique and sharing the same goals means we have become reasonably well interconnected,” explains the MNCN’s Director Rafael Zardoya. “Yet this is the first ever forum organized with the directors of the main museums, giving us an unmatched opportunity to discuss the challenges arising from the twin crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss, two issues directly related to our work as research centers.”

The celebration of the MNCN’s first 250 years has provided the perfect occasion to organize this historic meeting in Madrid, which has explored the vital role of natural history museums in addressing today’s key environmental challenges over a series of round tables and plenary sessions.

“The three lines of work common to all museums – research, collections and communication – make us a privileged instrument for information gathering and dissemination,” Zardoya continues. “On the one hand, we have scientists engaged in collecting and analyzing data linked to the environmental crisis; for instance, sample material from species possibly facing extinction, which we conserve in our collections. On the other, we have the means to quickly relay this knowledge to the public through our exhibitions and digital channels.”

Shared challenges in the face of the global environmental crisis

The events held in the MNCN and the BBVA Foundation have included lectures by the heads of two renowned museums in the U.S. and Europe: Kirk Johnson of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, the world’s largest and best funded; and Edwin Van Huis, of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden (Netherlands), a model of renovation and modernization in the European context.

The dominant concerns affecting all natural history museums have been debated at four round tables held over the two days the forum lasts. One has tackled the question of how best to contribute to the global effort against the growing environmental crisis, with discussions led by four directors who are also research specialists in the areas of climate change and biodiversity decline: Gonzalo Giribet, Director of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, Johannes Vogel, Director General at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Peter C. Kjaergaard, of the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, and Lisa Mansson, of the Swedish Natural History Museum in Stockholm.

The other three topics up for round-table discussion have been: how to strengthen international collaboration between museum research teams; how to improve their management and finance; and, finally, how they can boost their capacity to transmit the best scientific knowledge on environmental issues.

Unifying museums’ digitized collections in a single online knowledge base

The planet’s environmental degradation, Zardoya points out, has no respect for borders. Its solution, accordingly, will rely on building robust international networks that implement multidisciplinary and collaborative research, with natural history museums playing a vital role: “Museums work on a network basis not just so we can join forces to capture funds, but because so much of today’s science is about the analysis of Big Data,” explains the MNCN Director. “This would mean unifying the data held by each museum, in order, for instance, to model future changes in species distribution and identify which are due to climate change, or sharing the genomic data of the species housed in our collections, to determine how they have withstood the human pressure of the last hundred years or predict likely future adaptations.”

In fact a group of leading museums have set themselves the goal of creating a single Internet access point for data on any specimen even in the remotest corner of their scientific collections. Speakers at the round table on the international dimension of natural history museums will include Harris Lewin, head of the Earth Biogenome Project, which seeks to sequence the genome of all known species, with the aid of museums’ science teams; and Edwin Van Huis, who combines his director post at the Leiden museum with the chairmanship of DiSSCo (Distributed System of Scientific Collections), whose aim is to unify the digitized collections of all the world’s museums in a single online knowledge base.

Another round table has debated the best model of museum management, given the wide disparity in this terrain between centers wholly reliant on public funding, those that draw their funds from private patrons and others that operate on a mixed model. Discussion on this core topic were led by Bruno David, Executive President of France’s Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, a wholly state-funded institution like Spain’s MNCN. Joining him on the panel was Doug Gurr of the Natural History Museum in London, Lisa Guggenheim of the American Museum of National History in New York, and Koen Martens of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. Zardoya describes these last three as taking “a more entrepreneurial approach” to center management, “which sees museums as autonomous, profit-making entities, able to operate independently of the political agenda of the day.”

The Paris and New York museums also stand out for the large portion of their budget assigned to the organization of research expeditions, “something most of us have had to give up on,” admits the director of the MNCN.

Participants have had chance to exchange ideas about these different models, learn from each other’s best practices and examine the main problems that cut across the museum sector.

Scientific culture vs. fake news and denialism

Finally, in the age of fake news and denialist arguments questioning the reality of evolution and the human-induced environmental crisis, the other issue addressed by the forum has been what part museums can play in enlarging the public’s scientific culture as regards environmental degradation. As the MNCN Director reminds us, one of the main targets for museums’ outreach activities is the school-age population: “We are making a direct contribution to the education of the coming generations, so they understand that what we are experiencing is a self-inflicted environmental crisis, that nature as we knew it is fast disappearing, that the planet cannot continue along this path, and that our only solution is to move to a global agenda of sustainable development supported by science.”

Panel members at this round table have been Brigitte Franzen of the Senckenberg Naturmuseum in Frankfurt and Katrin Vohland, Director General of the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, a pioneering center in citizen science projects where members of the public are encouraged to participate in scientific research, for example by sending photographs of insects and plants that are later analyzed by museum experts to assess the impact of global warming on species distribution.

“Our hope,” says Zardoya, “is that this first international forum in Madrid will pave the way for similar encounters going forward, where natural history museum directors can continue to learn from each other, strengthening our international cooperation and, by this means, amplifying our role in combating the environmental crisis that affects us all.”

About the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales

The Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (MNCN-CSIC) is one of Spain’s foremost scientific research institutions in the natural history domain. With a staff of over seventy researchers in areas ranging from paleobiology and geology to evolutionary biology, comparative genomics, ecology and climate change, it is one of the flagship centers of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). The Museum houses 15 natural history collections containing more than 10 million specimens. In addition to its work in the natural sciences field, it organizes exhibitions and educational activities that help make science more accessible to the upwards of 350,000 visitors it receives every year.

About the BBVA Foundation

The BBVA Foundation expresses the BBVA Group’s commitment to the promotion of knowledge, technology and innovation, which it sees as among the most effective means to expand our individual and collective choices and preserve life on Earth. Its activity is focused on supporting scientific research through research projects, grants, partnerships with scientific institutions, the recognition of talent through different families of proprietary awards and others undertaken in collaboration with scientific societies, as well as the dissemination of knowledge and culture to society at large.