The future of museums should consist of smaller collections with cultural context, not the grand sprawling institutions occupying city blocks of our past. As our country grows and major cities populations swell it seems shortsighted, perhaps even selfish, to concentrate art, science and culture in a handful of major museums. It seems far more intuitive that the future of museums be smaller scale. This is particularly the case for natural history and paleontology museums. I believe the reasons for this are as numerus as the fossil specimens being housed in them. The main reasons, which I will present are first and foremost, the context for these priceless relics of ancient life on our planet is of paramount importance. How much is lost when specimens are collected in faraway lands and then proudly displayed in our foreign galleries? Secondly, what is the greatest threat to any museum or collection? I believe it is the dwindling quantities of precious space to store and display specimens for future generations of scientists and enthusiasts. Lastly, who are museums really for? Is it the scholars who curate and study the objects? Perhaps it is those who can afford a membership and never miss a new exhibit? Maybe it is the socio-economically challenged family raising a future scientist?
Let's look at an example of what context is with regards to fossil specimens. Context is exact measurements, stratigraphic data, taphonomy, location and photographs in the field. Often, we hear how something has lost its scientific value by being improperly collected, but how often is consideration given to the loss of cultural value for local populations and regions? When a new paleontological discovery is made the procedure is usually the same. A large institution is engaged and it collects all the meaningful specimens. They are then whisked away for immediate preparation to be displayed for the public and their patrons. Alternatively, the specimens are stored for decades waiting for renewed interest to bring them to light again. The latter case is certainly the most unfortunate outcome as sometimes that rediscovery never happens. In a few extremely rare and unfortunate cases, their context is lost and they are disposed of or destroyed because they have become "worthless" to science and are viewed as having no other value. A prime example of local and cultural loss occurred in the Cycad National Monument. It was removed from the Park Service in 1957 because there were no fossil cycads remaining. They had been wholesale collected and carried away by curiosity seekers and paleontologists alike. The intention and purpose of the collecting made no difference to the end result. The entire story is of course much more complex and has been expertly told in our modern times. While we go back in time to fix our mistakes, we can avoid repeating them both in the present and in the future. This can be done by selecting local partners to be caretakers, curators, and keepers of these specimens. In some recent cases, smaller more adaptable monuments and museums have been created. When we keep these discoveries local, we add a cultural context that is so often lost across regions or continents. The telling of local stories through the exhibit of fossils and artifacts reinforces the cultural connection. Exhibit s can become more meaningful when filled with items from places people remember visiting as children or that they drive by on their commutes. They make a connection with science that cannot be replicated at another location, perhaps far away. I feel that the context of, where these discoveries are made is the greatest catalyst for inspiration that we have in museums today. For many, smaller local or regional museums have a greater impact than large institutions because the context is complete.
What, if anything could threaten the oldest and greatest institutions and collections of our nation? Wars, depressions, and natural disasters seem to be the obvious choices. However, we are wrong to assume it's an external force that poses such a threat. The answer is physical space. Space is the most precious resource that any museum holds. Space for exhibits, curation, and storage. Space needed to prepare and restore, study and understand. Space to expand with changing needs and demands. This is an enormous burden for the giants of the land. The real estate needed to expand in some crowed metropolitan areas of the US costs as much as $10,000 per sqft. I visited one of the largest museums in our country last year and saw their recent expansion of collections. It was enormous, a gleaming monument of posterity. It was truly beautiful with all the latest shelving, cabinets and climate control. But it was painfully obvious that it was not enough, more space was needed. I understand the desire to build a collection with millions of objects but at a certain size comes diminishing returns. This is an unforgiving consequence of such a centralized approach. The tens of millions of dollars spent to buy precious space are justified but we need to ask "is there a better way?" Is there a way to get better value, value gained by a new approach? One that offers significant public benefit? I say yes there is; it's implementing smaller local or regional museums. Satellite branches of the giants of our system could offer refuge for the ever-growing collections. In a smaller facility and, smaller community closer to the source of discovery. More often than not this is a rural or rugged place with a real estate market that is much more affordable and available. This allows for the acquisition of property to operate and maintain a collection and museum for the foreseeable future. If cost of space is the problem, I say going to where the space is available and the cost is less is the solution.
Finally, to address the question of who are museums for? I feel that if asked, there would be a significant number of answers from the masses. However, one unavoidable problem with the current museum model is that it does not serve the rural communities or those who struggle most. For me it is personal, and my answer is that museums are for everyone. As the founding director of a small museum in an underserved and socioeconomically disadvantaged community, I have observed firsthand how important it is that the museum exists to serve its community. I have seen how one intimate experience with science can change a life forever. In my community our museum is the only natural history or paleontology museum that some visitors have ever stepped foot in. There are many reasons for this. For some it's as simple as interest in the subject matter or convenience of access. For others however it's the emotionally painful or embarrassing situation of not having the financial resources and opportunity. The choice a family has to make between new school supplies and groceries or a family outing to a zoo or museum is not an easy one. Every parent wants to give their kids the best experiences and opportunities they can. Our greatest natural treasures are concentrated and displayed in places like New York, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. How can we adequately serve all of our citizens and eager young scientists, especially those that don't have the luxury of traveling to these places? It's true even the open doors and free admission of the Smithsonian are out of reach for most Americans because of the high cost to travel to and stay in D.C. Yet within each of their own communities and states, there can be found many amazing things. I see a solution that serves both big and small communities, one that creates untold new opportunities for anyone interested in participating in science and discovery. The small local museum representing a town, region or state can be the frontlines and a new foundation of museums in this country. Small towns will not be small towns forever nor will the humble museums that are planted there. However, we should continue to think small and local so that those with the greatest need and fewest resources have the same opportunities as those who are more fortunate. This model works, I invite you to come and see for yourself. It is not merely an aspiration, but a reality already changing the lives of many in my own community.
In closing, I would like to reiterate the importance of cultural context and how making connections local, and thus more personal can make all the difference. Space is only an issue where there is not any. Museums should be for everyone, everywhere, not just those fortunate enough to live in the big cities or those that have the financial resources to travel to and visit them. Many of the ideas shared here are in practice at Texas Through Time. They may not be perfect or the ultimate solution to the problems facing our museums today, but it is a start and it is making a difference. You can make a difference as well, find, visit and support a local museum like ours. Fight to protect your local heritage and ensure its survival for the next generation. Volunteer your time and contribute your discoveries to their exhibits and collections. Donate what you can to keep small museums accessible and even free for everyone like Texas Through Time. It does not matter what you do, but do something meaningful.
Andre Lujan is the owner of Paleotex, LLC, Museum Director of the Texas Through Time Museum and a member of AAPS.