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International directors’ forum organized by the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales and the BBVA Foundation

Natural history museums aim to digitally unify their collections into a vast global knowledge base about the environmental crisis

Natural history museums can and should play a fundamental role in confronting the environmental crisis. But to do so they must join forces to construct a vast global knowledge network on biodiversity and climate change, a single database that digitally unifies all the information held in their collections, opening it to the entire scientific community. This is the main conclusion of the first forum bringing together the directors of leading natural history museums in Europe and the United States. The event – organized by Spain’s Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (MNCN-CSIC) on the occasion of its 250th anniversary, in collaboration with the BBVA Foundation – was the chance to address the key challenges facing these centers over two days of lectures and round tables.


26 October, 2022

“Museums are a very useful tool to confront the twin threat of global warming and the sixth mass extinction through their three essential missions, which are conducting research, preserving their collections, and communicating science to society,” explained Kirk Johnson, Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, during his talk in the BBVA Foundation’s Madrid headquarters. “In the past we tended to work separately, but what we need now is a global effort to digitize our collections, which represent everything humanity has been able to gather together over hundreds of years in order to understand the natural world.”

Johnson insisted in his talk on the “challenge and opportunity” of Big Data science for natural history museum collections: a strategy that will enable them to unify their data in order to analyze, for instance, the distribution of species and how they are responding to human-induced stress across all ecosystems. “Global cooperation is vital,” he continued, “and we have to start thinking in terms of belonging to the planet rather than to our individual countries.”

A “digital twin” for each specimen of fauna and flora

In a similar vein, the head of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, Edwin Van Huis, presented the objectives of the DiSSCo project (Distributed System of Scientific Collections), which, under his leadership, is working to develop a single Internet access point for any specimen held in museums’ natural science collections.  “Our idea is to generate a ‘digital twin’ of each specimen, so the information on it can be shared by the whole scientific community,” explained Van Huis during his talk in the BBVA Foundation.

Gonzalo Giribet, Director of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, described the collections housed in these museums, some dating back as far as 250 years, as “an incomparable biological resource” to study and understand “what has been happening to different populations of animals or plants over all this time.” But they not only serve to understand the past, he added, but also “to predict what may happen in future and find solutions for the loss of species or the impact of global warming.”

For historical reasons, linked to past imperial expansions, national natural history museums have specialized in collecting specimens from different parts of the world. Thus the London museum’s collections are especially rich in the fauna and flora of Asia, North America, Australia and New Zealand, while the Paris museum holds a wealth of material from Africa, and the Madrid museum has built up a vast collection from the whole Mediterranean region, North Africa and South America. However the unique wealth of each collection “is perfectly complemented by that of centers in other countries,” according to Rafael Zardoya, Director of Spain’s Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, “which means that, together, we can obtain a complete picture of the changes that are occurring globally, enabling us to statistically determine how the sixth mass extinction is proceeding and devise strategies to stop it.”

Zardoya too is clear about move towards “the dream of creating a vast networked museum,” as “the only effective means to respond to the global challenge of the environmental crisis.”

From citizens to “guardians of the planet”

Besides the undoubted scientific value of their historical collections for researchers around the world, the directors’ forum also devoted time to the other great mission of today’s museums: that of communicating the best scientific knowledge in order to mobilize social awareness around the degradation of the natural environment.

To illustrate how much museums can do to anticipate events and forewarn the public, Kirk Johnson recalled that in May 2018, a year and a half before the onset of COVID-19, the Smithsonian inaugurated an exhibition entitled Epidemics in a Connected World. “We didn’t know when the pandemic would arrive, but we knew it would happen sooner or later. This shows how science can predict the future and get people thinking about the world we live in.” Similarly, by disseminating scientific reports on the likely impact of climate change, Johnson continued, museums can raise society’s awareness of environmental risks that we still have time to prevent.

“We are some of the only institutions in the world that can inspire people to care enough so they take action,” said Doug Gurr, Director of the Natural History Museum in London. “Right now we are changing our entire strategy scientifically and educationally to make this the top priority, to create activists, so citizens become advocates for the planet, with a better understanding of the risks and challenges of the climate and biodiversity crises.”

Gurr has a background in business, and the museum he heads is funded largely through private patrons and sponsors, unlike the Paris and Madrid centers that rely almost exclusively on the public purse. For him, a large part of his work is to get the business world on board with the “global movement” of environmentalism: “There are lots of different funding models. In the United States it’s primarily private, while in Europe it’s mainly pubic. The UK is sort of in-between, half private and half public, and one huge advantage of being in dialogue with corporations is that you can begin to have a conversation about what they can do to help. Because to solve these crises of climate and biodiversity, we need people, companies and governments.”

Connecting people with nature

Other directors emphasized the trust in which museums are held as authoritative sources of information, meaning the exhibitions they stage can powerfully influence citizens’ attitudes and behavior in regard to the environment. “In Sweden, a public opinion survey showed museums to be among the most trusted institutions, far ahead of politicians,” remarked Lisa Mansson, director of the Stockholm museum.

“We have the great responsibility of harnessing the trust the public place in their museums,” agreed Peter Kjaegaard, director of the Danish museum in Copenhagen. “Our mission is to communicate knowledge so people can make informed decisions, including the politicians called on to develop science-based policies. And to be successful we have to tell attractive stories about iconic species, like the polar bear, that connect people emotionally with nature.”