Museum Myopia

The Museums Australasia conference, MA 16, is happening right now in Auckland, and I’m not there, although three of my colleagues are. It’s a typical large museum/gallery conference, with inspiring keynote speakers and parallel streams, and participants from museums large and small in both Australia and New Zealand.

IMG_1908What’s odd is that a major part of the museum sector in both countries has been excluded. In today’s session I counted 54 speakers. Every single talk was on cultural history, art, indigenous culture: the humanities. There were no presentations at all by scientists or about natural history.

That’s surprising, because natural history collections and research are a major part of museums in New Zealand and Australia. These institutions hold millions of specimens and dozens of curators, collection managers, and researchers. Many of them were founded as natural history or geology collections, by directors who were scientists and believed that understanding the natural world was part of a museum’s core mission. Today, with climate change and an ongoing biodiversity crisis, the research they do and the collections they hold are more important than ever.

Why were there no scientists presenting at MA 16 today? Anyone would think museums didn’t do natural history.

No doubt there are plenty of reasons the organisers could offer. Scientists don’t go to these sorts of conferences. Humanities people like to hear from other humanities people. Scientists only want to talk about science. Scientists don’t put themselves forward to speak or run plenaries (perhaps they’re shy). Scientists aren’t interdisciplinary enough; they should act more like humanities people. If these sound familiar, they’re the same excuses rolled out to explain why there aren’t women speaking at a conference.

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Some of this is obliviousness and insularity. Some of it, though, is the asymmetry identified by C. P. Snow in The Two Cultures. It’s the idea that a grounding in the humanities is sufficient to be a well-rounded “cultured” person, but that understanding science is an esoteric unnecessary specialisation. This manifests in the museum sector as someone curating an exhibit on, say, insects (almost always characterised as “bugs” [sic]) despite having no background in entomology or even science. But hey, how hard could it be? Natural history exhibits are for children, aren’t they?

Slide03Slide04Imagine if someone with a geology degree, perhaps an MSc in the stratigraphy of Devonian trilobites from Canada, was hired to curate a show on Victorian wedding ceremonies or Aboriginal artworks. There’d be an uproar; and rightly so. Not having any background in such a nuanced and complex field means the exhibition could end up wildly oversimplified, or even full of awful mistakes. But the reverse happens all the time: museum professionals with Arts degrees are curating galleries (or managing collections) of snails, birds, and butterflies. This seems to be perfectly acceptable.

It looks like one of the five concurrent sessions on Wednesday has a couple of science speakers, but that’s about it. It’s really not good enough. The conversations at MA 16 today were about the battle between colonial and indigenous presentations of stories, about which group of people should have their worldview acknowledged. And yet this scope is so shortsighted, and so humanocentric, encompassing just a few thousand years. The story of the universe is physics, geology, life; people are such a very small part of that, yet we seem to think the conversation is all about us.

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