Carsten Rahbek: The Role of a Natural History Museum

Image Credit: Sam Perrin, CC BY-SA 2.0

My number one go-to when visiting a new city is their Museum of Natural History. And whilst it may have stemmed from a love of massive dinosaur skeletons, it eventually developed into a appreciation of the concepts that drive the natural world. I now work at NTNU’s Natural History Museum, and getting a glimpse at what happens behind the scenes has deepened that appreciation further.

With that in mind, I sat down with Professor Carsten Rahbek of the Natural History Museum of Denmark to talk about the role of a Natural History Museum in today’s world. Carsten and I previously spoke about the relationship of ecology with the media (which you can read about here) but in this interview I wanted to talk about whether Natural history Museums needed to evolve, and the connection between a Museum’s research and its exhibitions.

Sam Perrin (SP): What do you see as the role of a Natural History Museum in a broader society?

Professor Carsten Rahbek, Natural History Museum of Denmark (CR): I think a Natural History Museum is perfectly placed for a lot of the global ecological challenges we face today. It deals with biodiversity, it deals with understanding how nature works, natural history data and documentation. But museums need to get out of their shells and communicate. We have a fundamental obligation to document and describe, but museum experts know so much about the species that they are immensely suitable to contribute to larger ecological theory, because they understand the organisms involved.

If a museum fails to relate their knowledge and data to global challenges, then they can’t complain that they’re not being funded. One of the biggest mistakes by museums is to think that their only obligation is to collect data and to make it available. If they’re missing the point of also doing synthetic work themselves they shouldn’t complain about not getting research funding. I’m fortunate enough to come from a museum that has been enormously good at it.

The challenge for museums is to find the right balance between the more classic museum work; curation, collecting insects, taxonomy, and then the more synthetic analysis on biodiversity crisis, climate change. That’s a very difficult balance to strike.

SP: You’ve said that there’s sometimes poor communication outside of the museum. Considering that museums often have much more contact with the outside world, is that a problem?

CR: If we went more than 10 years back, I would say that museums were terribly poor at communicating with the public, beyond presenting an exhibition. But nowadays I think a lot of museums are grasping the concept of communicating knowledge and what science is. And because it’s a difficult task, that’s where we will see some museums thrive, and we’ll see others collapse, because they’re incapable of doing it. But they’re enormously well placed to do it.

If I travel in Dennmark and say I come from the Department of Biology, nobody cares. If I say I’m from a Natural History Museum, everybody cares. That’s a really good starting point for me to have a platform to communicate. But with that comes an obligation to be more than a Guinness Book of Records full of fun facts. When I look around in the US and Europe, there’s a new wave of museums that are incredibly good at doing this. I think we will have a golden age of museums, at least those museums that understand this.

SP: Do you think there should always be a strong connection between the research and the collections of a museum?

CR: If we’re talking about a Natural History Museum in a classical sense, there needs to be a strong connection between collections and research. Because it’s the research that drives the collections, if you’re a good museum, and not the collection that drives the research. For example, we are involved in the genomic sequences of all the world birds, but that comes out of the research we have been doing at the cutting edge and subsequent identification of what we need in new material. So our collection is developing all the time, so that we can do that cutting edge research on it.

If you’re not doing research you end up being custodians of how museums looked decades ago. It’s very important to understand that research drives the collections. A modern museum will of course have research that is not directly on the collections, because if you’re going to tackle some of the larger scale challenges, yes you need to do other things as well to do the holistic research. So there needs to be a balance. Museums that are throwing away everything that’s not an insect on a needle will fade, because they’re not capable of answering big questions. So it needs to be a good balance. Likewise I think the exhibition has to be a reflection of the research being done. If not, it risks becoming merely an amusement park.

We had this debate in Denmark recently. There were plans for an exhibition which did not reflect our research, and the then chairman of the Danish National Research Foundation simply said “we already have one Tivoli in Copenhagen”.


“If you’re not doing research you end up being custodians of how museums looked decades ago. It’s very important to understand that research drives the collections.” (Image Credit: Sam Perrin, CC BY-SA 2.0)

SP: Do you think the perception of museums as amusement parks should shift towards a perception of the value of their research? Is it our responsibility to make that change?

CR: Yes, I think it’s up to the museum to have that philosophy and have the leadership and understand the strategic development of what they want to be in the future. Because if we just lay low and have no opinion ourselves, we will be turned into the Sunday afternoon visit for fun. And there’s lots of good institutions that have that as their main purpose. But if you want to be a research-based facility, research should be the main foundation, also for exhibitions.

We live in a world where science is increasingly being challenged. And I think that a museum’s public platform makes it the perfect place to also start communicating what research and science is. Is that more difficult than showing plastic dinosaurs? Yes it is, but I think that’s the foundation of why museums are important, that we’re not just amusement parks, we can take the experience to another level. That’s an obligation. But it requires very strong and able leadership. There are lots of museums in Europe that are moving in that direction, and I’m pretty optimistic on their behalf. But I also see quite a few museums that are not grasping these concepts and I think we will see them turn into standalone museums, like art museums where you go and look at objects. Those will end up without research and active collection programs, because there’s no justification for a public or private foundation to fund them. Those that go in a more ambitious direction are the ones that are going to thrive in the future.

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