Museum Manifesto. What the future without nature?
On the role of, and the need for, natural history in contemporary societies. Fake news, conspiracy theories and suspicion: in the face of obscurantism, natural history offers a rational world view. It is based on observation, and prompts us to think of human beings as members of a huge natural ecosystem that we must learn to live with. This manifesto charts a way towards building a desirable future.
Natural history is 'natural' in the widest sense of the word, as it observes, characterises and names the mineral, plant and animal world, including the biological and social aspects of humanity. However, it is also 'history', both in the original sense of listing what actually exists, and in the modern sense whereby it retraces changes over time since the origins of the Earth.
As such, natural history is a complex science, which describes things and the way in which they interact at every level (molecular, astronomical, social, etc.) in order to understand how they are organised. To do so, it draws on other scientific disciplines, from mathematics to physics, via social sciences, agronomy and philosophy, and distils knowledge acquired throughout society: its observations are a source of technological inspiration; Velcro, for example; or medicines such as antibiotics, but also lay the foundations for ethical and political thought.
The nature dictionary
Natural history requires the establishment of collections in botanical gardens, zoos, museums and protected natural areas. With each new technological advance, such as DNA sequencing, these archives need to be revised. Collections form a repository that serves as a basis for scientific knowledge and rational thinking about the evolution of species, population dynamics and the role played by humans.
The museums that have grown around these collections raise public awareness of our origin and place in the natural world, nurture our ability to reason and understand, foster an appreciation for our impact on, and responsibility for, the planet’s evolution. Thus, museums are a response to the need to "root humans in nature".
We should therefore "work to ensure that in France, science, and particularly natural history, are part of the culture" and enhance teaching in its key disciplines of zoology, botany, microbiology, palaeontology, geology, anthropology and ethnology.
Reconciling humans and nature
The practice of natural history warrants investment in the facilities on which it relies (collections, laboratories, analysis equipment, observatories and museums), as it plays an essential role in providing expert appraisal of our ever more complex and interconnected societies. "Because it is also a way of looking at complexity, it is one way of rationally looking at the short- or medium-term consequences [of ever faster innovations] on society and on biodiversity".
Thus, Natural history sheds light on the much-needed debates around synthetic biology, intensive farming and forestry practices, the future of nuclear waste and the conservation of species. For these political choices are the key to a desirable future based on "a new kind of sustainable interaction in which humans [...] will have learned how to reengage with nature in a way that is less all-conquering".