The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History is a treasure. It is the world’s largest natural history museum , it draws 5.8 million visits a year, and it is a staple of any tourist’s itinerary in the District.
And it is dying.
It is dying slowly but not painlessly. The hordes of tourists who pass through it each day may not notice it, but those who work there do. The old natural history library is now a half-empty interactive space. Where once there were exhibits packed with specimens, now there are videos, photographs and the odd lonely actual object in a glass case. Signs that used to announce “Mammal Hall” or “Paleontology Hall” now advertise donors begged for the money to pay for the displays.
These are merely cosmetic changes. Far more insidious are the changes occurring behind the scenes.
The heart of a natural history museum ought to be research. Yet, over the decades, the number of staff doing research has dwindled. Consider the Department of Invertebrate Zoology: It is the largest department within the museum, with more than 30 million specimens. Thirty years ago, it had more than 20 curators; today it has eight. That’s the same number that “crustacea,” a sub-department of invertebrate zoology, had 30 years ago.
The decline in the number of curators has a very simple cause: money, or, rather, the lack of it. For a generation, funding for the Smithsonian as a whole has remained stagnant (after accounting for inflation); it was $840 million in fiscal 2016. But the Smithsonian has five more museums than it did 30 years ago.
The effects of this have been as crippling to the Smithsonian as they were predictable. Wages froze, curators who retired were not replaced and those who remained spent more time fundraising than researching.
A philistine might look at this and say, who cares? Who cares if there is only one person studying starfish in the whole museum or if there is no shrimp expert in the building?
We are living on the brink of what is expected to be the largest mass extinction since the loss of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. It is only the sixth major mass extinction in Earth’s 4.5 billion-year history. To fully understand the scope of the disaster that mankind is unleashing and to understand its effects on ecosystems and on ourselves, we need qualified naturalists.
Historically, these scientists have been found in natural history museums such as the National Museum of Natural History. They are men and women who spend lifetimes studying groups of organisms, understanding their evolutionary and life stories, their anatomy and how they affect us. Without naturalists, biologists cannot do their work. Ecologists, anatomists and geneticists require naturalists for their work to make sense. Policymakers require naturalists if they want their environmental policy to have any sound basis. Yet by refusing to fund natural history museums, the government is foolishly depriving itself and mankind of naturalists upon whom all this knowledge is based.
A century ago, the District was the scientific capital of the United States, and at the center of that was the National Museum of Natural History. Though today new centers of scientific innovation are found in Silicon Valley, Boston and Chicago, the District could again be a global center for science and especially for natural history. But this can occur only if Congress authorizes significantly more funding for the Smithsonian. The money is available, as are the people with the skills. All that is required is for the budget specialists on Capitol Hill to unite the two to allow a new natural history renaissance to unfold, to the benefit of the curators, the public, the policymakers and the scientific community as a whole.
The writer recently completed an internship at the National Museum of Natural History.