To maximize their long-term value to the challenges and opportunities facing societies and environments, more than ever, museums need to develop and adhere to a profoundly considered compass. Rarely visible to the museum-going public is a body of literature that has chronicled the century-old quest of these institutions to become more relevant.

Here is a sample. In 1909, a visionary museologist in New Jersey advocated “Learn what the community needs and fit the museum to those needs.” Recalling the American Museum of Natural History of the 1940s–50s, its director published this statement in 1959: “It seems evident that the natural history museum has reached a stage in the evolution of its relationship to society where the generally prevailing opportunistic vagueness of intentions is becoming a liability which must be replaced by a well-considered, well-integrated, and well-defined philosophy concerning the museum’s place in the general research and educational system of the nation.” Writing in 1992 from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History about “trouble in paradigms,” its deputy director opined that natural history museums needed a new and bold approach with a shift in visitor mindset from passive curiosity to active engagement. In 1996, the former director of the Henry Ford Museum observed that the mission statement of most museums, which often states “Our mission is to collect, preserve and interpret fill-in-the-blank, will no longer do … such statements do not answer the vital question of ‘so what?’” This October, in a new book by Routledge titled “The Future of Natural History Museums,” my invited chapter states: “The Anthropocene is the best available frame of reference for engaging society in Planet Earth’s future … it prompts us to illuminate the past, present and future of the human journey in an ecological framework with natural systems.” Meaning “the human epoch,” the Anthropocene was introduced in 2000 as a potential new term for the top of the Geological Time Scale. Almost two decades later, it appears to be nearing formalization by the global geoscientific community as an epoch with unique indicators such as nuclear fallout, discarded plastic and industrial ash.

During 2017, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences redoubled efforts to surround its propelling questions of “What do we know?,” “How do we know?,” “What is happening now?” and “How can the public participate?” with stronger mission language. We see it as imperative that our compass be equally clear about internal focus and external value; that as the American Alliance of Museums has advocated, it is regarded as the institution’s “beating heart”; and that it stand the test of being authentic, innovative and distinctive. Spurred by feedback from audiences at our town halls about UN Sustainable Development Goals and by the consensus of our remarkably dedicated staff, this Museum is shifting gears towards being explicit about both illuminating the natural world and inspiring its conservation.

In a feature article about this Museum three years ago, Liza Roberts, editor and general manager of WALTER magazine, remarked: “It seemed the best way to tell the story of a place so big, dynamic and complex would be to become a fly on its walls … we learned that the museum is far more than the sum of its parts, and that the many, varied people who work there share a larger common purpose … inspiring the public to know about — and care about — the natural world.” This journey continues apace.

Thank you for engaging with the purpose-driven and widely impactful North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, a resource for all ages and stages of learning — onsite, offsite, outdoors and online.

Emlyn Koster, PhD
Director, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Past Columns in the Naturalist