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London Natural History Museum. "Bringing museum collections to life" by Reed Gochberg on the OUPblog

Bringing museum collections to life

“Would you have a dried specimen of a world, or a pickled one?”

On 24 September 1843, the writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau recorded a fairly long critique of natural history museums in his journal. Best known for Walden (1854) and other environmental writings, it is not entirely surprising that Thoreau would have mixed feelings about museums, where plants, animals, and other objects were being rapidly accumulated to serve the study of science. “I hate museums,” he wrote. “They are the catacombs of nature…They are dead nature collected by dead men.” Describing a visit to the Boston Society of Natural History (the predecessor of the Museum of Science in Boston), he noted only a sense of detachment: “I walk amid those jars of bloated creatures which they label frogs, a total stranger, without the least froggy thought being suggested.”

Thoreau’s reflections are especially noteworthy as we mark International Museum Day this month. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has declared a focus for 2023 on sustainability, well-being, and community. Noting the significant position of museums “as trusted institutions and important threads in our shared social fabric,” ICOM emphasizes their “transformative potential” for shaping larger conversations about climate change, global health, and other pressing issues. This year’s International Museum Day marks an opportunity, in ICOM’s words, to imagine the possibilities that museums can play “in shaping and creating sustainable futures.”

We can better understand what it might take for museums to create such futures by looking more closely at their past. The earliest museums were the cabinets of curiosities owned by early modern collectors. Often the product of an individual’s distinct interests, they included “natural and artificial curiosities” such as natural history specimens, works of art and other printed materials, and anthropological objects. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many early museums continued this vision, bringing together numerous kinds and categories of objects with the goal of promoting “useful knowledge” through the study and close examination of collections. The cases and cabinets filled with objects increasingly represented knowledge itself, seen in visual and tangible form. Their founders emphasized the value of studying material objects as a way to learn about numerous subjects. They imagined the “spark” that might result from studying objects, the new ideas that could emerge, and the exciting possibilities of placing different objects—and the minds of observers—in conversation.

“Thoreau’s dilemma highlights the ongoing question about how to use museum collections to explore and better understand our surrounding world.”

Around the time that Thoreau was professing his hatred of natural history museums, these institutions were undergoing major shifts in their purpose and scope. Some museums were moving in the direction of emphasizing education and expanding public access. Nonetheless, this was a fairly slow and somewhat mixed process. Many objects in museum collections were the direct result of colonial ventures and systems of exploitation, theft, and violence around the world. Labeled as “curiosities” by white collectors, they were used to promote inaccurate information and racist misconceptions. Even when museum galleries opened to a wider public, the authority to interpret objects still rested with elite white men. It was during this period that the term “scientist” was first coined, reflecting growing disciplinary specialization and professionalization within the scientific community. Nonetheless, many collections continued to combine numerous fields, bringing together works of art, natural history, anthropology, and more. Museums were undergoing a process of transformation, but it remained incomplete and reflected an uncertain future for these institutions.

Wandering amid the “jars of bloated creatures” in a museum gallery, Thoreau was not as distant from these collections as he claimed in writing. He donated numerous specimens to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and the Boston Society of Natural History, including fish, turtles, and birds’ eggs. He struggled with the ethics of his own scientific practices, seeking to balance between the close observation and “useful knowledge” afforded by stilled specimens and his preference for observing a living creature. In his journals, he often recorded lengthy descriptions of the turtles living near Walden Pond, marveling at their appearance and making detailed notes about their behavior. In addition to these writings, however, a turtle that he donated to the Museum of Comparative Zoology still remains suspended in alcohol in a glass jar, much like those he observed during his own visits to museums. Taken together, his writings and specimens show how he wrestled with different modes of studying his surrounding environment, recording his observations, and participating in broader scientific practices throughout his career.

As museums today look to expand their commitments to sustainability, well-being, and community, we can look to their history to understand both the challenges and possibilities of the work that lies ahead. Thoreau’s dilemma highlights the ongoing question about how to use museum collections to explore and better understand our surrounding world. At the same time, his criticisms perhaps unexpectedly reflect the kind of “spark” that museum founders once hoped to see resulting from the accumulated knowledge in their collections. Then and now, visitors to museums continue to play an important role in advocating for ethical practices and drawing connections to contemporary issues. As museums today imagine transformative change, they might continue to look to their own communities to participate in these broader conversations. In this way, “a dried specimen of a world” can continue to take on new life.

Feature image: London Natural History Museum by Kafai Liu. Public domain via Unsplash.

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