Museums: the new Tomb Raider?

In these days of computer games and action-packed movies, it's hard to convince children that a trip to a big building 'full of information' is fun. But having spent £50m, the Science Museum reckons it has the answer

Science and natural history museums are having to reinvent themselves in today's "infotainment" age of video, Disney and the internet. Steeped in traditional Victorian values of dusty glass cabinets and jars of pickled specimens, museums are being forced to come up with new and exciting ways of attracting today's bored youngsters. The latest example went on show this week with the opening of the new £50m Wellcome Wing of the Science Museum, an extravagant, thought-provoking display of futuristic exhibits set within a visually stunning four-storey building.

Science and natural history museums are having to reinvent themselves in today's "infotainment" age of video, Disney and the internet. Steeped in traditional Victorian values of dusty glass cabinets and jars of pickled specimens, museums are being forced to come up with new and exciting ways of attracting today's bored youngsters. The latest example went on show this week with the opening of the new £50m Wellcome Wing of the Science Museum, an extravagant, thought-provoking display of futuristic exhibits set within a visually stunning four-storey building.

Museums have something of a poor reputation among many of today's children, who see them (usually on school tours) as dull and dusty places, out-moded and out-of-date. Harking back as they do to the time of the 19th century collections, museums can seem to be out of place in the fast-paced age of cyber space, where some children seem to live. The question scientists and museum curators wanted to ask at a recent conference on the problem, organised by the Natural History Museum and the British Ornithologist's Union, was quite simply, will museums continue to have a role to play in the 21st century?

Organiser Dr Michael Brooke, from the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge said that they, "were initially anxious whether the number of attendees would fit in a telephone box". Fortunately 130 delgates turned up from 25 countries. Although the attendees were from the world of natural history, the reasons why they think museums are important could apply equally well to other kinds of museums.

One of the main reasons why museums matter is that they are vast storehouses of information. "Every stuffed bird is a genetic database which should inspire others to find new uses for this kind of information," says Kelvin Boot, writer, broadcaster and head of Education at the National Aquarium, Plymouth. Boot is one of those rare birds who actually yearned to work in a museum from an early age. "Before I was 11 I wanted to be David Attenborough, but even at that age I knew the job was filled and there were no vacancies," he says. "So I decided I wanted to work in museums." Boot spent 17 years as a curator at Exeter Museum. Few people achieve the goals they set themselves at age 11, even fewer today actively want to work in a museum; after all it's hard enough even trying to persuade an 11- year-old to visit one.

Yet museums are more than just a place to take the kids on a rainy holiday. "We have a huge amount of information about what occurs, when, where and how its changed," says Dr Paul Henderson, Head of Science at the Natural History Museum in London. "We have specimens collected by captain Cook that were brought back from New Zealand 250 years ago. We know the distribution of many animals and which species have gone extinct."

Henderson cites topical examples of how museums can help to solve real problems in today's world. There are 3,200 species of mosquito, but only 80 carry malaria, which kills about two million people each year. The museum and its specialists could help to identify which ones are the dangerous carriers.

Another example is recent research conducted by Dr Rhys Green of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Cambridge University. He has shown that the egg shells of thrushes collected over the decades have grown steadily thinner for reasons he cannot explain. Yet we may never have been aware of this without museum collections.

This type of research addresses another point raised by Henderson who says that collections are worth maintaining and preserving precisely because this is a heritage we do not always fully understand - yet. In the future new demands will be made upon it and new questions asked which we cannot begin to guess at now.

"Museums are repositories, which I like to think of as being like coral reefs or the rainforest - containing undiscovered information," says Boot. Just as the cure for cancer might reside in an undiscovered rainforest plant, museum collections could hold the key to breakthroughs for a range of diseases. Collections are increasingly important in this respect because of the rate with which we are losing our wild species through man-made extinctions.

"We're going through a biodiversity crisis. It's going on imperceptibly and we don't take much notice. We only know 15 per cent of the species. Intellectually we need to know the rest to help unravel the evolutionary tree, but they could have uses, and we need to know how they interact with the habitat and how they interact with other species," says Henderson.

At present we may be losing up to 50,000 species per year, many of which have not even been formally described by scientists. "They are of the non-friendly, non-cuddly variety," says Henderson. "The role of the Natural History Museum is to make people aware of all the animals and plants that are disappearing and their potential impact on gene pools, their biomedical impact, how their loss will affect the life cycle of other animals. We have to decide whether we want this to happen and what we will do to stop it."

Museums also have a significant role to play in education. "If we send one person out thinking, 'God, seashells are amazing, or butterflies are so diverse and I've only seen a tiny amount', that's an achievement," Boot says. He now has people coming back to him whom, as he says, "were irritating little kids on a Wednesday afternoon, and now they're world authorities. That's success, not the amount of people coming through the door."

Museums are gradually catching up with the 21st century - dramatically illustrated by the innovative new displays in the Wellcome Wing - not just in terms of new interactive exhibits, but by making their research globally available. A new programme called The Species Analyst created by Dr Towsend Peterson, of the University of Kansas Natural History Museum in America, links the databases in different museums even if they are using incompatible software. So far researchers can combine data on the location of species with information on climate and habitat from 12 institutions in America covering 2.2 million items of data. Another 14 institutions and 15 million more bits of data are soon to be included.

However, at the end of the day, it all boils down to money. The £50m for the Wellcome Wing came mostly from the Wellcome Trust, the world's biggest medical charity, industrial sponsors and national lottery money. As the Government's science adviser, Sir Robert May from Oxford University, points out, the annual turnover of auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's exceeds the global expenditure on the scientific classification of animals carried out by, among others, museum taxonomists.

"People think museums are out of date," says Boot, "but they have a huge and valuable role to play and there's some very innovative brains working in them - sadly they're stifled by lack of finance." If the Wellcome Wing is the success everyone expects it to be, it might mark a turning point in solving the eternal problem of how to finance the expensive upkeep of an important part of our scientific heritage, as well as making sure that new generations of children still want to see it.

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