41.5 Jan. 6 The future of university-based natural history museums: lessons from history HANKEN, J.; Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA email@example.com
Contemporary natural history museums confront a future ripe with promise and uncertainty. This is especially so for university-based museums, which must compete both financially and intellectually with other deserving academic programs and suffer the frequent perception that they are irrelevant to “modern” biology. This predicament can be traced in part to an incorrect understanding of the unique and valuable contributions that natural history museums can make to research and teaching, and of the critical importance of scientific collections to these and broader societal activities. It also, however, reflects a significant narrowing of the intellectual breadth and academic scope of programs at many university-based museums, compared with those that prevailed when these same institutions were founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To insure they have a place at the table in biology of the 21st century, university-based natural history museums need to expand their vision of acceptable core activities and subject areas, thereby integrating themselves more effectively with molecular biology, genetics and genomics, ecology, physiology and other compelling fields. Far from representing a heretical shift from the appropriate identity of a natural history museum, such actions will allow these institutions to hew more closely to the ambitious and central role of natural history museums that was envisioned when they were founded more than a hundred years ago.