I consider the American Museum of Natural History to be my “home” museum. It’s the one I visited as a kid. As it is for many kids, my favorite parts were the dinosaurs, but I also had a soft spot for the astronomical exhibits, and the hall of minerals.
This is how most people reflect upon museums. A museum is a place to visit to see some really cool stuff (…ok fine…I sometimes find certain parts of museums boring too).
What you may not know is, exhibits are actually only one part of the reason why museums exist. A definition for what a museum is might be:
“A museum is a permanent institution, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits for purposes of study, education and recreation, …collections of historical, artistic, scientific and technical or cultural value.”ª
A group of school kids looking at an Allosaurus skeleton are experiencing the “communication”, “exhibition”, “education” and “recreation” parts of a museum. These only account for ~50% of what that museum really does.
What are the other things museums do?
Museums acquire collections: The life of both fictional and factual museum curators is quite exciting. Fictional curators fight Nazis for valuable artifacts, while factual curators fight government agencies for permits. In all seriousness, biologists love telling stories about 2 things: the injustices and inefficiencies of bureaucracies, and crazy things happening on collection trips. I can speak to this personally. If you ever meet me in public be sure to ask my about almost accidentally killing my field assistant with a motor boat, and being stalked by a jaguar. I can also tell you even CRAZIER (but less thrilling) stories about submitting travel reimbursement forms.
Museums study/research collections: My favorite part of Jurassic Park is the tour of the research facility given by Mr. Hammond.
Watching this as an adult, I can say that the science is pretty solid*. However, the scientists doing this kind of work in real life would be working at museums, not amusement parks. Museum researchers reconstruct the genomes of organisms, infer evolutionary histories, and make unimaginable discoveries about the lives of the things on our planet. Some are even trying to resurrect extinct animals (really!).
Museums conserve collections: This is arguably the most important job museums have. I say this because this is the only job that museums are designed to do, almost exclusively. Lots of researchers, not just the ones in museums, acquire specimens. All researchers study things, obviously. But museums are the only permanent depositories of collections and the researchers working there are responsible for taking care of them. Good science needs to be able to be replicated, which means someone needs to keep our specimens so that other people can redo our work. Good science is the foundation for other good science, so someone needs to use our specimens for new work to be done. These are all crucial reasons why we need museums.
As you can see, people working at museums are not necessarily exhibitionists. Perhaps you would call them “nature voyeurs”. I would just call them scientists, but I don’t judge.
As a member of the public you can interact with your museum more intimately than just visiting the public exhibits. Inquire about personal guided tours where you may be able to see the hidden treasures behind the scenes. Some museums have after hours’ events, including sleepovers!
ª This is how museums are legally defined in Spain. I picked this definition because it is particularly informative for how museums operate in practice. Other countries have similar legal definitions for museums but this one was the most efficient one I came across.
*Any good science fiction is a world of solid science based on one piece of science fantasy. The science of Jurassic Park hinges on the single lie that we can read genetic material from 65-million-year old tissue. People have tried and it’s just not happening. But, this is fantasy isn’t that far-fetched.
Dominic Evangelista received his PhD in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers University and is currently an NSF postdoctoral fellow at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, France. Visit his website, or tweet him @roach_brain and ask him why cockroaches are his favorite insects.