Creating a Better Future for the Arctic: The Role of Natural-History Museums

May 8 to 10: Meeting of the Arctic Natural History Museums Alliance

A few years ago, during Sweden’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the director of its national natural-history museum and I met in South Korea during the IUCN World Conservation Congress. We decided that the national natural-history museums need to step up and actively share our knowledge of the Arctic regions and to be more ambitious in our sharing of that knowledge with scientific colleagues, public-policy decision-makers and the general public.

We did a call out to the directors of the national natural-history museums of the eight Arctic Council states to get things started. We met in April 2013 and again in May 2014. Our focus was determined to be collections access, research collaboration and public outreach.

Three people pose together, one holding a narwhal tusk.

Left to right: Kirk Johnson, Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Natural History Museum; Meg Beckel, CEO of the Canadian Museum of Nature, holding the Narwhal Mace; Jan Olov Westerberg, Director General of the Swedish Museum of Natural History. Image: Kirk Johnson © Kirk Johnson

For the May 2015 meeting, our plan was to meet with all eight national natural-history museums from the Arctic Council states. And then the reality of changing leaders and conflicting schedules kicked in. The willing and available carried on with reports from our colleagues and spent three days in Washington with other national natural-history museums of the Arctic Council states. Our focus during this meeting was on collections digitization, research contribution and collaboration, and impactful public programming and outreach.

The first day began with a tour of the Smithsonian natural-history museum’s off-site collection facility. Mark Graham, Ph.D., our VP of Research and Collections, was available for this part of our gathering. I was mid-air at the time, making my way from Ottawa to Washington. Following an informal lunch that included a front-row view of the World War airplane fly-by, our meeting opened with a panel discussion about the need for a human perspective when speaking about the Arctic.

The panellists and moderator during the presentation.

The meeting began with an expert-panel presentation on the need for a human perspective in discussions about the Arctic. Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

The panel presentation included speakers from science, public policy, indigenous governance, the Arctic Council and natural-history museums (yours truly). The panel was followed by a magical dinner for major donors (and museum colleagues) in the atrium of the Smithsonian’s natural-history museum.

Tables set up in the atrium.

The atrium of the Smithsonian’s natural-history museum set up for the donor evening. Image: Meg Beckel © Canadian Museum of Nature

Saturday morning we were back to business. The morning’s focus was collections access. Like other museums around the world, we are challenged to prioritize which collections to digitize with our scarce resources so that we make the data that are most needed available in a form that is useful.

Also, we need to determine which data management sites are most used, and are thus a place for our data. From Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) to Scientific Collections International (Scicoll), we have many existing tools that we can continue to post our data to, and some new ones are being discussed.

We are suggesting an Arctic portal be created for both EOL and GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility) so that visitors to those sites know that Arctic data are available and that new data are welcome. With the challenges to the environment in the Arctic, we must step up and play our part in creating and sharing knowledge about the Arctic so that better and more-informed decisions are made in the future.

Collage: Visitors in an activity room.

Q?rious at the Smithsonian’s natural-history museum, where organizations presented their perspectives on the Arctic during the meeting. Image: Meg Beckel © Canadian Museum of Nature

During our discussions, we took a break to visit Q?rious, the Smithsonian’s discovery centre. Arctic organizations were stationed throughout to share their perspectives with visitors, while the education team tested an Arctic board game on visitors.

Arctic research is another area of focus for our group. The questions we asked were “Which research forums are the most relevant to our work? And where can our research add the most value?”

At this stage, we have decided to focus on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW) and the Arctic Council working groups. Most of the Arctic natural-history museums are already involved in one or all of these, so it makes sense to build on what we are already doing and where we already have some presence.

People looking at the floor map.

Our first project for engaging the public will be the creation of a giant floor map that shows the circumpolar region. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

Outreach, public programming and visitor engagement are areas where we can support each other, share content, share learnings and collaborate to contain costs.

Our first project will be the collaborative production of a giant round floor map of the circumpolar region.

Second will be some form of web-based outreach from each other’s scientists to our school visitors, building on what we are each already doing within our own museums.

Third is a collaborative photo-based exhibition that we hope to inspire the Arctic Council to invest in, given the US chairmanship’s focus on public outreach and awareness of the challenges, opportunities and shared responsibilities in the Arctic.

All in all, it was a productive and inspiring gathering of fellow museum leaders committed to creating a better natural future for the Arctic. Kirk Johnson said, “Natural history museum can save the world.” I agree, so let’s get at it.

Lots ahead and more news to come.

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