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Type: Article
Published: 2022-07-11
Page range: 86–112
Abstract views: 12631
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The tragedy of the Natural History Museum, London

Department of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum, London, SW7 5BD, UK
specimen collections taxonomy systematics biodiversity crisis human overpopulation government culpability DCMS international collaboration species conservation biobanking

Abstract

The remit of the Natural History Museum, London, encompasses the whole of the natural world and places it at the forefront of global concerns about human impact on the biosphere. The Museum’s stature as a world leading institution for storing and recording living diversity brings responsibilities, obligations and new prospects. In addition to revealing the genetic evolution of life in considerable detail, advances in molecular biology and cryogenics offer exciting new opportunities to extend beyond the Museum’s traditional role as a storehouse for recording living diversity and to take a lead in biodiversity conservation.

In its strategy for the coming decade, the Museum has declared a planetary emergency for which we need an unprecedented response, asserting that we must act now, that we must act on scientific evidence and that we must act together. However, the Museum is no longer led by scientists; its relevant expertise and the prioritisation of its collection-based world-leading role is being rapidly dismantled. It has been taken over by an administrative structure and placed under a government Department that have no notion of the importance of this role. Much of the Museum’s activity is no longer led by science intimately connected to its role as a collections-based institution and its public profile is dominated by journalistic presentations from sources that are widely available to a broad range of the media. Inappropriate leadership and recruitment have diverted its science base in directions that place much of its research within the activities of numerous other academic agencies, undermining the reason and justification for the Museum’s existence. The move of about half of the collections and associated scientific staff to a location outside of London is a self-imposed act of institutional vandalism. It will mutilate a national treasure, not only inflicting a massive and permanent financial burden but also irrevocably damaging the Museum’s, cultural identity and function as an integrated collections and research institution. Rather than responding to a planetary emergency, the Museum is tragically descending into irrelevance.

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