Scripta Varia

History in Action: the Role of Natural History Museums in Conservation

Richard W. Lariviere[*]

Leading our audiences to action is a crucial part of natural history museums’ obligation. We may have been created in previous centuries with very different roles, but we are no longer cabinets of curiosities. It is true that the world’s great natural history museums are repositories of the history of life on earth, and that the evidence held in our collections is unique and irreplaceable. It is also true that we have an obligation to provide guidance and leadership in turning knowledge into action. Our collections contain the answers to scientific questions as yet unasked and even unimagined. The technology of scientific inquiry will continue to change at an astonishing rate. As it does, the value of our collections will correspondingly increase. Thus, the moral obligation to preserve and curate our collections expands daily. However, our moral obligation does not stop there.

In a recent conversation with a top scientist at the Field Museum, he objected to a statement that was proposed for one of our documents that said, “The Field Museum offers science as a force for good.” His position was that science is neither “good” nor “bad.” It simply is. Science describes what is. It may be accurate or inaccurate in its description, but it is not good or bad. He is right. Yet, what one does with the discoveries of science can indeed be good or bad. To be sure, the good and the bad consequences may be just as complicated and nuanced as the science that underlies the consequences. One need only look at the use of antibiotics and fungicides in the agricultural industry to see both good and bad in the use of science. Museums are uniquely positioned to help the public navigate this complicated arena.

The scientific academy places a very high premium on “pure” science. Museums – more than any other institutions – have an obligation to translate “pure” science into the lives of the public through interpretation and action. One of the surprising discoveries that I experienced when I moved from the university world to the museum world, was the remarkable public trust that museums enjoy. In a university context, it has always been frustrating to me that a statement by a professor on a scientific matter of consequence to the public – on global warming, on habitat loss, on environmental degradation, and the like – would be met with skepticism and doubt because of the certainty that another professor at a different (or sometimes even the same) university could assert a differing and opposing view. This inevitably diminishes the value and impact of academic interpretation of science for the public.

This is not so for museums. To a remarkable extent – at least in the American context, when a museum scientist speaks, that interpretation is accepted as authoritative and nearly conclusive. The voice is the institution’s, not the individual scientist’s. This is dismaying to me as a long-term member of the academic world (authority should come from the track record of the scientist, not from the institution that employs her). Nevertheless, this is a reality that museums must recognize and deploy in fulfilling our responsibilities. It is both an advantage and a burden to be endowed with such trust.

Translating the public’s trust into understanding and action requires creative, focused care. In the current political environment so divided and so antagonistic to ideas outside of particular worldviews, great care is necessary in walking the narrow path that maintains trust and makes clear the right action to be taken. However, it is precisely because we are not Government, we are not Academia, and we are not Non-Governmental Organizations with specific agendas that we are so trusted. Much of the world longs for trustworthy commentary on scientific matters that are subject to political obfuscation and they turn to museums for that commentary. We owe it to those audiences to deliver.

Twenty-five years ago, the Field Museum began an effort to translate the collection-based science of the museum into meaningful action that would significantly preserve biodiversity on this living planet. In 1993, the centenary of the Field Museum’s founding, the visionary president of the Field Museum at the time, William “Sandy” Boyd, saw the museum’s highest relevance in focusing on how it could best use the information contained in its collections to mitigate the impact of human beings on the environment. This unit has morphed into the Keller Science Action Center at the Field Museum.[2]

Around that time, Sir Peter Crane became the vice president for Academic Affairs. The museum had re-organized its scientific staff into two units. One combined the staffs of Botany, Geology, and Zoology into the Center for Evolutionary and Environmental Biology (CEEB). The second, the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change, was comprised of anthropologists and intended to extend beyond the realm of academic anthropology to focus on cross-cultural understanding. I share these organizational details to convey another important reality of museum effectiveness – the need to constantly adapt the institutions organizational structure to its changing role. The intent of this re-organization was to enhance the relevance of museum collections and research. At this moment in the history of the Field Museum, the focus of this concern for relevance was the immediate Chicago region.

Very quickly, the staff who were focused on translating the research of the museum into environmental action saw that a traditional academic approach to the urgencies of conservation would be inadequate. Under the leadership of Debra Moskovits the Office of Environmental and Conservation Programs (ECP) was created. This separate unit had a total of 2.5 full-time equivalent staff. This small staff began to support and energize local and international partnerships. It created a coalition of local organizations dedicated to enhancing the natural environment of the Chicago region. From this initial work, two entities were created, Chicago Wilderness and The Chicago Cultural Alliance. Chicago Wilderness was begun in the Field Museum with a gathering of some 30 groups concerned to preserve the natural assets of the Chicago region. Chicago Wilderness continues to flourish and has grown to an organization that now includes more than 200 organizations in the Chicago region ranging from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to corporations to small local garden clubs. Their work is to advocate for the enhancement of environmental conservation in the Chicago region. It is a powerful voice in the region. The Chicago Cultural Alliance consists of nearly 100 core members and partners who represent the cultural and ethnic organizations of Chicago working to connect, promote, and support centers of cultural heritage for a more inclusive Chicago.

At its beginning, the ECP also collaborated with Conservation International on its rapid assessment program for conservation and environmental assessments of various regions. The Field Museum dramatically changed the model developed by CI. The Field recognized that the crucial, indeed, the culpable element that lies at the very heart of every single conservation effort is – human beings. The Field Museum deployed a conservation approach in all of its work that has proven extremely effective in the twenty years of its use. The term we use is “quality of life” conservation.

Quality of life conservation involves listening to the inhabitants of the target region with great care to let them inform us of those aspects of their lives that are the most valuable, most prized, and therefore the most likely to be preserved with enduring commitment. In the neo-tropics this approach has meant that indigenous people’s voices are given a volume and level of privilege that is rare if not unprecedented. In every one of the 30 Rapid Inventories (23 in the Western Amazon)[3] conducted by the Field Museum in the past 20 years, there have been scientists who rappelled from helicopters into the target area to conduct these inventories. On these teams of some 30-40 scientists are the expected botanists, herpetologists, geologists, ornithologists, mammalogists, ichthyologists, and entomologists, but also social scientists specially trained to elicit from indigenous populations those elements most essential and prized for their highest quality of life.

It may seem surprising at first blush to know that in every instance over the past 30 Rapid Inventories quality of life concerns have been exactly coincident with conservation concerns. Indigenous populations want their lives in the rain forest to be protected. They do not aspire to western, urbanized values. They do not wish for money and technology. They want to preserve what they understand to be the quality of their lives.

The scientific teams of our Rapid Inventories (which always include expertise from regional institutions) then synthesize their findings after four weeks in the field. They assess the threats, opportunities and assets that have been discovered. This assessment is then displayed in the form of a conservation roadmap that is presented to local, regional, and national authorities. In many instances, the roadmap has been imparted to representatives of extractive industries as well. These presentations are not the end of the Field Museum’s involvement. Members of the team continue to work with policy makers, political authorities, local leaders, and others to encourage the implementation of the conservation roadmap.

The Field Museum’s approach has been successful. In the past 20 years, we have provided the governments of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador with the results of Rapid Inventories. This work has resulted in the creation of 18 protected areas covering some 9.6 million hectares of precious Amazonian rainforest. We continue to work in this region and are focusing on new work in Guyana and Columbia. When all regions in which we have worked are included (We have worked in China, Cuba and the United States as well), the Field Museum is responsible for contributing to the protection of more than 12.5 million hectares of land.

There are three fundamental elements to the Field Museum’s approach. Each is essential.

1)  A broad spectrum of stakeholders and scientists must be involved in building a consensus of conservation action.

2)  The locally affected population must be given a prominent voice in the building of that consensus.

3)  The process must result in products that can actually be used by decision-makers to turn the conservation roadmap into policy and action.

Five years ago, a group from the University of Maryland with the awkward name the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center offered the scientific community a definition of a “new” term: “translational ecology.” Their definition is long and academic, but it calls for “boundary-spanning, environmental science that leads to actionable research”.[4] Colleagues at the Field Museum have been pursuing this wise path for 20 years. They have been spanning boundaries of regions, disciplines, and politics, and they have done so to encourage action. It works. It works because of the trust that museums have built over the past centuries. It works because of the perceived scientific and political neutrality of museums. And it works because it results in outcomes that lead to action. It is my view that this sort of action is the future of natural history museums. Our collections are the repositories of the history of life on earth. That history must be the basis for the preservation of life on earth in addition to its history.


[*] Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Illinois, USA.




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