Museums must play a bigger role in conservation

December 06, 2001

Museums, zoos, botanic gardens must play a bigger role in conservation, says Science essay

Field Museum experts call for more activist role

CHICAGO - When it comes to conservation, museums must stop being wallflowers, say Field Museum experts in a groundbreaking essay to be published in Science Dec. 7. They must step into the limelight and lead.

Natural history museums, zoos and botanic gardens are critical forces not only for understanding the world's biological and cultural diversity, but also for conserving it, says lead author John McCarter, president of The Field Museum, citing major environmental achievements of several museums around the world. "When science informs conservation, the results can be dramatic."

Traditionally, natural history museums have been viewed as lumbering warehouses filled with "stones and bones." Today, they must chart a dynamic, activist course on behalf of the Earth's fragile biodiversity and endangered environments. "Through careful science-based advocacy and partnerships, natural history museums can and should directly advance conservation goals - all the while preserving their scientific objectivity," McCarter asserts.

They can accomplish this in many ways. Museums, zoos and botanic gardens must focus more on conservation; make collections and data more accessible to others; collect and disseminate information faster; draw new audiences into the conservation camp; and engage local communities (in the United States and anywhere around the world) to take immediate action.

The essay was coauthored by Georgie Boge, The Field Museum's special assistant to the president for environmental initiatives, and Gillian Darlow, manager of business development and operations for the Environmental and Conservation Programs at The Field Museum.

Because of their strong scientific base and objectivity, natural history museums are well positioned to help governments identify environmental problems and solutions; help local communities establish priorities; and help conservation groups allocate resources and construct models for restoration.

For example, museums, zoos and botanic gardens were central to the creation of Chicago Wilderness, an unprecedented partnership of some 130 public and private organizations dedicated to restoring prairies and woodlands, marshes and meadows in the Chicago region. And by working with international and local partners, The Field Museum recently played a key role in creating a national park in Peru the size of Connecticut.

"Museums must do more to promote our understanding of the origin and distribution of life on Earth and of the forces that drive extinction, which are the key ingredients for shaping conservation strategies and priorities," McCarter concludes. "Time is running out."
Editor's note: Digital images available of museum bird specimens; new national park in Peru; scientist in the field; and indigenous Peruvian children using botanical field guides (the same picture that was used in Science).

Field Museum

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