I’m a huge fan of natural history museums, especially zoological museums (see this post on their origin). Every time I go to a new city, the first thing I visit is its NHM. On a recent fieldtrip (token postcard picture up there), my partner suggested that I should open a natural history museum for Cyprus with all the samples that I’ve collected. This is, of course, pure fantasy – such an endeavour would never get funded locally, and a finished museum would never be visited by Cypriots anyway (a cynical view, but one that will be corroborated by any Cypriot you speak to). But hey, if any reader happens to be acquainted with a millionaire with money to spare for science education for a country sorely lacking in science knowledge, feel free to hook us up (alternatively, link them to my Petridish project!). And make no mistake, the only reason I’m not opening such a museum is because it costs too much money in just sample preparation costs, just to buy the materials and chemicals necessary (I haven’t even considered things like electricity or building space or poster printing costs).
Anyway, it is an interesting thought experiment, and as someone who’s worked in museum-related activities (museum guide, small-time curatorial work, a lot of sample preparation), I’ll admit I’ve often thought about what the “perfect” NHM would be like (note that I’m referring only to the public side of the museum in this post; the research side that makes up the bulk of any NHM but that the public barely sees functions like any academic institution).
Perfection is subjective of course, so before starting off, I’ll define what, to me, the goal of an NHM is, because my opinion might differ from others’. To me, the goal of an NHM is primarily to inspire, with education being a secondary goal. Of course, up to a certain age, any exhibit will necessarily be educational, but a museum that dedicates itself to a purely educational cause is bound to restrict its audience to schoolchildren.
Allow me to give you an example. The most awesome museum exhibit I’ve been to is the Darwin exhibit of the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen. If you haven’t been there, definitely pay it a visit. The exhibit had two rough parts: one on Darwin, with a recreation of Darwin’s workplace on the Beagle and at home. But the majority of the floor was devoted to exhibiting the diversity of animal life. Vertebrates dominated due to their sheer size, but at the far end of the room, the entire wall was dedicated to displaying a tree of animal life, with specimens instead of names. So you had a giant wall with all sorts of animals pinned on it. Of course, I learned nothing new while looking at this. But I was so inspired that when I got back home, I thumbed through some of the lesser explored parts of my invertebrate zoology textbook (a plump 980-page hardback) just because the exhibit awakened this desire in me to learn more. This, to me, is the goal of an NHM: to stimulate people of all types, from experts to laymen to children, to learn more. Go to an exhibit, come back home with a sense of wonder, and hop on Wikipedia or buy a science book.
Also, an NHM shouldn’t be a place you visit once. The exhibits have to be engrossing enough to really take people in so that they don’t have time to visit the other exhibits. This isn’t a money-making ploy (I would sell tickets that are valid multiple times to make up for this effect). It’s to ensure that the visitors really get a sense of how treasurable what they’re seeing is. If they just breeze through a museum, nothing will stay in.
With all that in mind, I will describe what my NHM would be like, if I were given an infinite budget and no restrictions. To me, “natural history” encompasses three areas: geology, biology, and palaeontology. And the NHM has to have two aspects: the general aspect with the basics of a subject, as well as a focus on the local natural history, because the latter will allow visitors to really connect with the stuff on display, and encourage them to do some exploring on their own (or with organised field trips with the museum experts).
“Biology” is an enormous discipline. In the general section, I would include exhibits on evolution, ecology, and biodiversity.
The evolution exhibit is probably the toughest to do, since evolutionary biology is such a broad subject consisting of many disparate fields. For a basic display, what must be included are:
- History: poster going from Darwin to Modern Synthesis to evolution nowadays;
- Genetics: poster about DNA and mutations;
- Natural selection: poster, and an exhibited example that changes every month;
- Speciation: poster, and an exhibited example that changes every month;
- Evolution and society: examples of evolution in action from medicine and agriculture; I’m torn about including creationism and countering accomodationist dreck since it would count as intellectual pollution, but at least in Cyprus, a thorough smackdown is necessary (also, it carries a security risk around these parts).
The ecology exhibit is a tough one. What I would include is idealised models of local ecosystems – a pine forest, an arid grassland contrasted with a rainy-season grassland, typical Mediterranean garrigue and chaparral, a salt lake, a dry vs. wet vernal pond, and various marine depths. Animals will be included as prepared specimens on a painted background, and (holographic!) panels explain the major life cycle points (e.g. the life cycle of anostracans in the vernal ponds). As for other ecosystems (Arctic tundra, alpine, tropical rainforest, etc.), these can be featured one by one, on rotation every couple of months.
All the exhibits, even from the opther sections, will pale in comparison with the biodiversity exhibit. I imagine this taking up the space of an entire warehouse (including a bathroom and some benches for people to rest). My concept is taking the Goldfuß Museum from my old university and hyping it up on steroids. It’s the old-skool style of NHM, with rows of systematised cabinets showing off individual specimens, highlighted only with a taxonomic name plate. I love this style, but you won’t find it in many NHMs anymore because it’s not flashy. So I will modify it to include another old-skool favourite of mine, cabinets of curiosities, those frames and cabinets with random animals pinned together for purely aesthetic value. They look amazing and I have no idea how they went out of fashion. So the following paragraph describes how my perfect biodiversity exhibit would be like.
One side of the warehouse is devoted to animals, with 25 cabinets laid out in rows along the length of the warehouse. Each cabinet contains several things. Specimens of constituent animals placed together in a cabinet-of-curiosities-style display will make up the center of the display case, with individual specimens representing each major grouping making up the rest of the case. Each cabinet will have two drawers. One will contain texts explaining the phylogeny and anatomy of the animals. The second will be the true pièce de resistance, containing specimens for individual study. Whole organisms and dissected one, studiable under a magnifying glass, stereoscope, microscope, whatever is most appropriate, with a guide to help of course. This is the true tour de force that my museum will have. Few experiences are cooler and more awe-inspiring than the first glimpse of an insect at very high magnification, and seeing all the tiny hairs and details. My museum would provide this exclusively taxonomical experience to everyone. The cabinets are as follows: Porifera, Cnidaria, Ctenophora, Plathelminthes, Gnathifera, Nemertini, Kamptozoa, Mollusca (x3), Sipuncula, Annelida (x2), Arthropoda (x4), Nemathelminthes, Tentaculata, Hemichordata, Echinodermata (x2), Chordata (x2), Misc. (Placozoa, Myxozoa, Chaetognatha, Xenoturbellida, Mesozoa).
The other side of the warehouse is similarly devoted to plants, and is laid out similar to the animal one (done after consultation with a botanist to ensure similarly complete taxonomic coverage). The style will be similar to a herbarium with pressed plants, but if a gardening team can be hired, I see no reason why this section can’t be covered as a greenhouse and turned into a mini-botanical garden in order to properly cover trees.
Two major sections of biodiversity are left: unicellular eukaryotes and fungi, and bacteria. In an allusion to history, a cabinet devoted to fungi can be placed between the plant and animal rows, next to the entrance to the geological section of the museum (with a panel describing why they’re placed like this). As for the micro-stuff, I know of no way to observe the majority of them at any time, so leaving microscopes with pond scum samples isn’t too useful. My idea would be to have the walls plastered with a wallpaper depicting each baterial and unicellular eukaryote lineage (each “tile” is a different lineage, with a giant labelled drawing of the creature). Algae, cyanobacteria, and other photosynthetics can be used to cover the walls on the plant side; the rest on the other walls, making sure that the opisthokonts are concentrated on the animal side.
Viruses can be crammed in somewhere too, it is a warehouse after all.
Every month, a taxon will be chosen by visitor polling, and will be highlighted with its own prominent cabinet. Taxon can be anything between family and order level (only exceptional species, genera, or subfamilies deserve such special treatment).
As I said, each museum section also has to have exhibits about the local natural history, so what I am writing here applies only for Cyprus. The exhibits are: biogeography; endemics; island ecology.
The biogeography exhibit places Cyprus in its context in the Eastern Mediterranean. Besides posters with distances, bird migration routes (Cyprus is a major stopover point for all kinds of worldwide migrations), and ocean currents (important for marine biogeography), there will also be exhibits showcasing the similarities and differences between Cypriot ecosystems and those of North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, and Greece (the closest neighbours).
The endemics exhibit is obvious: specimens of endemics presented as in the biodiversity cabinets (complete with examinable portions), with very generalised ecological information. The lack of precision is purposeful, to prevent people from needlessly collecting from these often-endangered populations. Endemic plants and animals only; sorry, microbiologists.
The island ecology exhibit is one that’s shared with the palaeontological section. It describes the peculiarities of evolution on islands, with examples from Cyprus. For example, dwarf hippo and elephant fossils can be showcased to show island dwarfism.
This would have three exhibits (including another mammoth one, pun not intended): fossilisation, history of life on Earth, and the fossil record.
The fossilisation exhibit is a simple outline of the processes underlying fossilisation and taphonomy, from initial death and burial to diagenesis and actual fossilisation. The first parts can have practical demonstrations showing how fossils can get buried in different positions, how trace fossils are formed, etc.
I envision the history of life on Earth exhibit as taking up one room, with visitors walking through a snaking trail going from the origin of life all the way to the Quaternary. Each 50 Ma can be one regular step (number can be changed), Important fossil localities and first appearance of taxa can be highlighted at the appropriate times with specimens, and key events can have a panel dedicated to them (the mass extinctions, Cambrian Radiation, terrestrialisation, etc.).
Finally, the fossil record exhibit uses the same principles as the biodiversity exhibit, with some key differences due to the nature of the fossil record. The room is split into three longitudinal sections: one for palaeobotany, one for invertebrates, one for vertebrates. The major taxa are gone through, with a focus on extinct biodiversity. The texts describe the evolutionary history of the taxa, and fossil specimens can be examined as far as possible (you can’t stuff a T-Rex skull in a drawer). The two walls of the room are devoted to micropalaeontology. One for the taxonomic scope, and one for applied micropalaeontology (oil, stratigraphy).
Cyprus has quite a rich fossil record, practically uninterrupted for 70 Ma. Unfortunately, most of the older stuff is microfossil material, exhibitable only with magnifying glasses and stereoscopes. Witht hat in mind, I would have three exhibits: the fossil record of Cyprus, the Messinian Salinity Crisis, and the mammals of Cyprus.
The fossil record of Cyprus exhibit is just that: sedimentary rocks placed side by side in their temporal sequence, with explanations of what they tell us about the palaeoenvironment – painting a picture of hydrothermal vents (yes, there are hydrothermal vent fossils from Cyprus), followed by deep marine microfossils, and very gradual shallowing until we get to typical shallow marine stuff from the post-Messinian, eventually tocomplete terrestrialisation. The latter two are the focus of their own exhibits.
The Messinian Salinity Crisis (MSC) occurred 6-5 Ma when the Mediterranean dried out completely due to its connection to the Atlantic getting cut off. Cyprus preserves the state of the East Mediterranean before, during, and after the MSC (one of the things I would be researching if I had funding and weren’t an umemployed bum). The deposits from the post-Messinian Nicosia Formation are especially spectacular, with large, unbroken oysters, snails, barnacles, even crabs being common (the latter not so much). They not only make very nice show pieces, but combined with the information they tell us about the recovery and recolonisation process after the MSC, this exhibit would be quite informative.
The mammals of Cyprus exhibit refers to the dwarf elephants, hippos, and the first human colonisers of Cyprus (who also were pretty damn small). This exhibit is combined with the island ecology exhibit. The animals can be compared in size to regular African elephants and hippos, with the evolutionary, ecological, and physiological reasons behind their dwarfism explained.
There are two parts to this. The first is a lot of typical basic exhibits crammed together logically, not worth describing in detail: the composition of the Earth (shown with a typical dissected globe and labels); the rock cycle (poster); plate tectonics (poster with world map and evidence); volcanism (poster, with demonstration using Coke and Mentos, vinegar and bicarbonate of soda, whatever); earthquakes; sedimentology (with practical demonstration using an aquarium simulating a beach, visitors can create waves with a paddle and observe how ripples form as an example of sedimentological structures).
The second part is the mineralogical and petrological part, with exhibits showing the major minerals and rock types, complete with thin sections observeable with stereoscopes (with polarised light too, since there’s no budgetary limit in this fantasy land). This will also have a strong interactive element, with mineral and rock identification tests. One potential pitfall is the difficulty of getting proper lighting fixtures that highlight the minerals properly in the display cases, especially when it comes to rocks, but that can be surpassed (rotating platforms?).
Cyprus played a pivotal role in the correct interpretation of what ophiolites are – pieces of uplifted oceanic crust. The Troodos mountains preserve the prototypical ophiloitic sequence impeccably and completely. So this makes it an ideal special exhibit.
A stratigraphical column made up of actual rock types can be prepared from Troodos rocks, demonstrating the composition of the oceanic crust from its bottom, through the Moho, to the top of the mantle, to the volcanic sequences from when uplift began, to the deep-water sediments. The column can have a map next to it showing the provenance of the rocks, highlighting how the entire sequence is inverted, with the peak of Troodos being the deepest part of the crust and the beginnings of the mountain being the umbers.
This can be supplemented by panels about each individual rock type and its formation, and what that tells about the the conditions under which it formed in Troodos.
A poster showing Cyprus’s role in the unlocking of the ophiolite mystery may help in getting people to wake up to the wonders of geology on this island – it’s amazing how this place is a must-visit for any geologist worth their salt, but Cypriots don’t know a thing about geology, which is openly spectacular (it’s no Grand Canyon admittedly, but some locations are truly jaw-dropping from a geological perspective).
So yeah, this would be my ideal NHM. Some parts are usual, others are unrealistic and way too idealistic, and the overall thing is unthinkable – it takes up way too much space. As a pragmatic person, I realise this would be impossible to achieve on this island of apathy; heck, it would be difficult enough anywhere else, unless I somehow end up running the Smithsonian or the Senckenberg or one of the other major museums. But hey, it’s nice to dream about it ^^