Back Salvador Carranza takes part in the International Forum of Natural History Museum Directors
Salvador Carranza takes part in the International Forum of Natural History Museum Directors
Organized by the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (MNCN-CSIC) and the BBVA Foundation, the event has brought together the directors of the main natural sciences museums on the planet.
Throughout the two days, the representatives have defended their commitment to digitally unifying their collections to build a large global network of knowledge in the face of global challenges, such as the loss of biodiversity and climate change.
The IBE director, Salvador Carranza, has moderated a round table on the environmental crisis during the meeting.
“Natural history museums are unique institutions, where scientific research, natural science collections amassed over the centuries, and science communication to the general public come together under the same roof. At the same time, the fact of being unique and sharing the same goals means we have become reasonably well interconnected,” explains the MNCN’s Director Rafael Zardoya. “Yet this is the first ever forum organized with the directors of the main museums, giving us an unmatched opportunity to discuss the challenges arising from the twin crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss, two issues directly related to our work as research centers.”
The celebration of the MNCN’s first 250 years has provided the perfect occasion to organize this historic meeting in Madrid, which has explored the vital role of natural history museums in addressing today’s key environmental challenges over a series of round tables and plenary sessions.
"Museums are a very useful tool to face the double threat of global warming and the sixth mass extinction, through their three fundamental missions: research, preservation of their collections and communication of scientific knowledge to society," he explained. Kirk Johnson , director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, in Washington DC, during the conference he gave at the Madrid headquarters of the BBVA Foundation.
"Before we worked in isolation, but today we need a global effort to digitize our collections, which represent everything that humanity has collected over hundreds of years to understand the natural world."
In his speech, Johnson highlighted the “challenge and opportunity ” that Big Data science represents for the collections of natural science museums: a strategy that will allow unifying their data to analyse, for example, the distributions of species and the impact of human pressure on them in all ecosystems. “Global cooperation is crucial”, he stressed, “and it is essential that we think in terms of our belonging to the planet, instead of our individual countries”.
A "digital twin" for each sample of fauna and flora
Along these same lines, the director of the Leiden Museum (Netherlands), Edwin Van Huis, presented the objectives of DiSSCo (Distributed System of Scientific Collections), a project that, under his leadership, is already working to develop a single Internet portal where data on any specimen in the scientific collections of museums could be consulted. “Our idea is to generate a 'digital twin' of each specimen in museum collections, so that the information on any specimen is available to the international scientific community”, explained Van Huis during his speech at the BBVA Foundation.
For his part, Gonzalo Giribet, director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, stressed that the collections stored for up to 250 years in these centres represent "an incomparable biological resource" to study and understand "what has happened with the different populations of animals or plants during all this time”. It is a fundamental tool "not only to understand what has happened, but also to predict what could happen and therefore seek a remedy for the disappearance of species and the impact of global warming."
For historical reasons, natural science museums in different countries have been compiling collections of samples from various regions of the planet, linked to their ancient empires. But the unique richness of each collection "perfectly complements that of other countries" in the words of Rafael Zardoya, "and that means that, united, we can encompass all that changes taking place at a global level, to statistically determine how the sixth mass extinction is taking place and devise strategies to stop it.”
For all these reasons, Zardoya also insisted on the need to move towards "the dream of creating a great global networked museum", as "the only effective way to respond to the great challenge of the environmental crisis".
Turn citizens into “defenders of the planet”
Beyond the undoubted scientific value that the historical collections of museums represent for researchers from all over the world, the forum of directors has also focused on its other great mission: the dissemination of the best knowledge to raise awareness and sensitize society on the degradation of nature.
To exemplify the great potential that museums can have when it comes to anticipating the future and communicating it to the public, Kirk Johnson recounted how in May 2018, a year and a half before the arrival of Covid-19, the Smithsonian inaugurated an exhibition entitled Epidemics in a connected world: “We did not know when the pandemic would arrive, but we knew that sooner or later it would happen. This shows how science can predict the future and help people think about the world they live in." In the same way, by disseminating scientific reports on the foreseeable impact of climate change, the director of the museum in the USA capital stressed that museums can make society aware of the environmental risks that we still have time to prevent.
Envision the future and connect people with nature
Salvador Carranza, director of the IBE, was in charge of moderating the round table focused on the role of museums in the face of the environmental crisis. During the session, the participating directors highlighted how society relies on the authority of museums as accredited sources of information, and therefore through their exhibitions they can have a very positive influence on the attitudes and behaviour of citizens in the face of challenges like the climate change and the collapse of biodiversity.
“In Sweden, a public opinion survey revealed that museums were institutions trusted by society, well above the political class,” said Lisa Mansson, director of the Stockholm museum.
"We have a great responsibility to take advantage of the public trust that citizens place in museums to address the environmental crisis," said Peter Kjaegaard, director of the Copenhagen museum. “Our mission is to spread knowledge so that people make informed decisions, including of course politicians who must make decisions based on science. To achieve this, it is essential to resort to attractive narratives about iconic species, such as the polar bear, that emotionally connect people to nature and encourage them to want to preserve it.”