What are museums even for?

I’ve been working in and for natural history museums for nearly 30 years. Most people I meet don’t understand what a museum is for. Worryingly, some of the people who run them don’t seem to either. The telling phrase, always uttered with an air of incredulity, is this: “Only 5% (or a similar tiny fraction) of the collection is on display!” The implication is the museum is somehow failing, and should display More Stuff.

Well, they used to display More Stuff; a century ago a typical museum had thousands of objects packed into cases with cryptic labels and no context, and people complained: they were dull and stuffy and never changed. Museums now spend quite a bit of their budget and staff time developing new exhibits, with well-written signage and videos and interactive games. But it’s hard to satisfy everyone, because of a basic fact most people don’t know. Museums are not for exhibitions.

Te Papa has 150,000 pickled fish. How many would you like on display? Definitely not 5% of the collection; most are pretty unattractive, and of interest only to a fish researcher. Which is fine, because that’s who they’re for. A museum’s collections are for research, not display. It’s nice that some of the collection is interesting and educational, but that’s not why it’s there. The best analogy of a museum is an archive or research library. In the National Library in Wellington, you can see the Treaty of Waitangi, the 1893 suffrage petition, and He Whakaputanga, the 1835 Declaration of Independence, but the National Library’s business is not putting on blockbuster exhibitions. Its librarians concern themselves with public enquiries, academics and researchers, and most importantly preserving the publications of New Zealand for posterity.

Libraries are charged with making the treasures they hold as accessible as possible to the public, but if they tried to put every book and pamphlet, or even 5% of them, into a little perspex case with an informative label, they wouldn’t be able to do anything else. So why do we expect this of museums? Like a document archive, a museum’s first job is to act as a storehouse and protect its collections. A feather cloak will moulder and decay if you keep it under the bed. A moa bone on the mantelpiece will be cracked and broken within a generation. A museum with climate-controlled storage and acid-free packaging can at least make sure this stuff is available to future generations. Delicate insect specimens collected by Joseph Banks on Cook’s voyage in 1769 are still carefully preserved and intact in London and Copenhagen, and curators strive to make sure things acquired today will last for 200 years.

A museum has to collect; if it relied on donations, it will end up with nothing but the old, the unwanted, and the durable, dropped off on the way to the dump. Museums end up with lots of ironmongery, typewriters, and childhood shell collections—but a good museum curator will be out there after the Women’s March on Washington, collecting discarded placards and pink pussyhats. Museum collecting has been (wrongly) blamed for driving species extinct, but much of what we know about huia comes from the small proportion of specimens that ended up in museums, not shot for their tail feathers and dumped.

And finally, a museum has to do research. Museum collections are invaluable for learning about human history, evolution, biodiversity decline, and climate change. New species are constantly being discovered in museum collections, and this sort of taxonomic research can only be done with the massive comparative collections museums have built up over centuries. All museums have, or should have, a permanent staff of researchers, historians, and scientists. They’re called curators, and their numbers are, sadly, declining. When a moa skull came up for auction on Trade Me, I suggested the best place for it was a museum. Commenters were livid: museums already have plenty of moa bones, and they never put them on display. But museums aren’t for displays; moa bones are irreplaceable, and need to be somewhere they can be looked after for centuries, not flogged off online for a quick buck.

Museums look after our natural and cultural heritage. They’re archives of objects, libraries of shells and shoes, research institutes devoted to the study of things. Millions of things. We sometimes forget what they do, because our experience is what we see on a rainy Sunday afternoon. But museums are much more than that.

(A version of this appeared in New Zealand Geographic 158, July–August 2019)