In a world with abundant needs, every organization – if committed to continuous improvement – can take steps to increase its external value. As examples, schools help to prepare children with life and work skills and hospitals help patients to overcome or cope with health setbacks: clearly, building size and student/patient totals would be inadequate performance measures.

It is only recently that museums began to reflect on their strongest success definition. Traditionally, answers dwelled on the size of collections and annual visitation. But what if collections are seldom used or only occasionally yield new insights in contemporary terms. And what if audiences only represent narrow slices of surrounding communities attracted by experiences not strongly aligned with the museum’s purpose?

Stephen Weil, who wrote the landmark book titled Making Museums Matter in 2002, remarked in 2006 that the awkward matter remains that, for a variety of reasons, the museum field has never agreed―and until recently, has scarcely even sought to agree―on some standard by which the relative worthiness of its constituent member institutions might be measured.

In 2007, leaders of natural history museums from around the world met in Paris and declared:

Given that science is critical for sustainable management of biodiversity and ecosystems and, through it, survival of human populations on this planet, the vital contributions of these institutions are fourfold: a) They are the primary repositories of the scientific samples on which understanding of the variety of life is ultimately based; b) Through leading-edge research they extend knowledge of the structure and dynamics of biodiversity in the present and in the past; c) Through partnerships, and through programs of training and capacity-building, they strengthen the global capability to address current and future environmental challenge; and d) They are a forum for direct engagement with civil society, which is indispensable for helping bring about the changes of behavior on which our common future and the future of nature depend.

In 2012, leaders of US natural history museums met in Washington, DC, and declared:

Humanity is embedded within nature and we are at a critical moment in the continuity of time; Our collections are the direct scientific evidence for evolution and the ecological interdependence of all living things; The human species is actively altering the Earth’s natural processes and reducing its biodiversity. As the sentient cause of these impacts, we have the urgent responsibility to give voice to the Earth’s immense story and to secure its sustainable future.

There are some 35,000 museums across the United States. Only 3% have undergone the rigorous protocol of accreditation or re-accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums. In 2016, re-accreditation of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences concluded:

This institution does so many things so well; overall, it is in amazing shape for any museum, much less a state museum … The museum has forthrightly evolved its interpretative philosophy and strategy to address bigger stories about humans as an inseparable element in the ecosystem of all life, and therefore to be concerned about matters of conservation and sustainability.

Approaching 2017, we recognized that our 2000 and 2012 expansions had not spawned a holistic reflection of the total onsite visitor experience. During this period, our institution’s ethos, mission, profile and evaluation culture had evolved considerably, making us a progressive benchmark among nature-focused museums globally and, increasingly so, in Big History and Anthropocene contexts. During the second half of this year, teams of staff are examining our mission impact and engagement with primary audiences to inform feasible enhancements. The onsite focus of this project is anticipated to stimulate enhancements in, and increased integration with, the offsite, outdoor and online realms of the Museum’s service.

Emlyn Koster, PhD
Director, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Past Columns in the Naturalist