A Modern Role for Museums

            On November 3 and 5, the Marion Natural History Museum hosted two presentations. Although the two themes were vastly different, they exemplified the significant role natural history museums can play in the 21st century.

            But first a brief look back: American interest in all things natural, collected specimens and wonders of the natural world housed in buildings, can be dated back roughly to the mid-1800s. People, primarily those interested in the natural sciences and those with deep pockets that allowed global travel, were returning from their adventures far from the comforts of their universities and homes, ladened with objects.

            Fossils, crystals, furs, shells and even whole (albeit deceased) animals of every stripe and color began to be displayed for the masses to see. Many collections were subsequently gifted to universities or museums. Today, many natural history exhibits can be tied back to the philanthropy of their wealthy collector and patrons.

            Yet as interesting and educational as these collections may be, in the modern world is their usefulness as teaching tools or merely entertainment still relevant? Has the internet and other modern technologies replaced the need to travel to a museum to look at the wonders of the world past and present? These questions and many others were touched on when Eric Dorfman, director and CEO of North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, took the virtual stage hosted by the MNHM. The Future of Natural History Museums, also the title of Dorfman’s book published in October 2017, looked at what natural history museums can do to remain vital to the communities they serve as well as to virtual audiences.

            Dorfman offered practical ideas for engaging the public and building on existing interest and local support in its many forms. He talked about the need to keep collections safe, such as in locked cases, and visually appealing. Dorfman suggested that finding “what you have to celebrate” is an important first step in planning a revitalization of a collection. “Think big,” he says, even if the museum is small. And what about reaching the masses virtually? Dorfman said collections should be placed online. “Even if you have a small museum, you can think like a big museum,” he encouraged.

            For the day-to-day needs of a museum regardless of its size, Dorfman gave such suggestions as developing strategic plans with timelines that tie back to annual planning. “Take a top-down look” and “get bottom-up feedback,” he said, advising listeners to start with a three-year strategic plan and a one-year annual plan.

            Dorfman was also able to give the participants, several of whom are members of the MNHM board of directors, ideas of designing a visually rich annual report. The annual report, he believes, is a useful tool for membership retention and new membership development.

            “The human story is always engaging,” Dorfman said, adding that when encouraging membership the museum administration needs to tap into two types of members, those who want to support the museum and those who want to get something from the museum. By identifying the needs of potential members and existing members, programs can be developed to address their differing needs, Dorfman said.

            On November 5, the MNHM once again showed its intent to keep engagement both local and virtual high with meaningful, timely presentations related to the natural world when Dr. Michael Moore, Vet M.B. and director of the Marine Mammal Center at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (and a Marion resident), spoke.

            Moore’s book “We Are All Whalers: The Plight of Whales and Our Responsibility” (University of Chicago Press, 2021) delves into the relationship between humans and whales both as hunters versus prey and as saviors versus hunters. As he wove the story of whale and human interaction, the author and professor read moving passages from his book.

            Acknowledging the importance of the fishing industry, Moore had a chair at the table when attempting to develop regulations that could help the dwindling right whale populations. He said that for thousands of years people have hunted the whale first for food and later for fuel but that industrialized fishing practices have nearly caused the complete collapse of the norther right whales. Moore said that, while whaling as a global practice is either not allowed or heavily regulated, other fishing practices impact whales.

            Moore spoke to the lines and ropes used to secure crab and lobster traps to the seafloor as a primary factor for whale entanglement and deaths, along with ship strikes in shipping travel lanes. He said that oftentimes the whales suffered long months of a slow, torturous death. And while government regulations throughout the globe are in place, he said, “They are not being uniformly enforced.”

            Regarding the number of right whales in the north, Moore said that the existing regulations should be ensuring a 7-percent population growth, but the figure is closer to 2 percent.

            What to do? Moore said that right whale populations have reached a tipping point. He said that trials are taking place on different types of traps that would eliminate the need for long ropes, a major threat to whales, and that people should understand and work to change shipping and fishing regulations.

            “It’s a political question in my mind,” he said. “We don’t know what losing these animals means … we do need a balanced ecosystem.”

            Moore suggests that people could learn more and become involved by visiting whales.org and/or the International Fund for Animal Welfare website, ifaw.org. To learn more about the Marion Natural History Museum, visit marionmuseum.org.

Marion Natural History Museum

By Marilou Newell

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