GSA Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, USA - 2016

Paper No. 11-1
Presentation Time: 8:05 AM


CONNIFF, Richard M., New York Times, 7 Dennis St., Old Lyme, CT 06371,

Natural history museums, which represent our only material record of the planet that sustains us, are rapidly deteriorating. Their collections are burning up in New Delhi, on the verge of collapse in Italy, converted to a glorified playground in Dayton, Ohio, and chronically underfunded everywhere. The journal Nature has called them “the endangered dead.” Partly that’s because of hard economic times and assault by anti-science politicians. And partly it’s the fault of the museums themselves, for failing to tell their stories well, and sometimes for pandering to entertainment industry values, or to corporate donors with anti-science agendas.

 This talk will detail, from an outsider’s point of view, some of the ways museums matter. I’ll draw from my last book, about species discovery, to show how mammoth and mastodon specimens made extinction a reality, and thus made Darwin’s evolutionary thinking possible. And from my current book about the Yale Peabody Museum, I’ll describe how O.C. Marsh’s toothed birds and his horse fossils gave Huxley and Darwin their best evidence in the decades after On The Origin. To suggest how collecting and preserving specimens in the absence of any specific purpose can pay dividends, I’ll recount the modern story of how one obscure insect specimen in another natural history museum helped avert a $600-billion ecological disaster. Finally, I’ll talk about potential ways to do better at getting across their mission more persuasively, for instance, by incorporating more human stories from the history of discovery in their displays, with the aim of reviving the lost sense of wonder in the public, political leaders, and potential donors.