Dinosaur vs Whale: What Can We Learn from the Natural History Museum?

"Dippy" the Diplodocus

“Dippy” on display at the Natural History Museum (Image by CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The Natural History Museum caused a media storm last week when they announced that “Dippy” the diplodocus would be leaving his current spot in the entrance gallery and be replaced by the skeleton of a blue whale.

While some people are upset that Dippy is leaving, the truth is that the diplodocus had only been in that spot for 35 years, not all that long in the museum’s 134 year history. George the Elephant stood there from 1907 to 1979 – a far more impressive run! It should also be noted that Dippy’s not a “real fossil”, but a plaster cast. Changing the display is part of NHM drive to highlight issues of environmental conservation, which is a significant part of their vision, and the museum will continue to have dinosaurs on display.

The story has given the museum a lot of publicity. It’s been featured by all of the major news outlets and the public have taken to the internet, the radio and television debates to express their allegiance to either #TeamDippy or #TeamWhale. I confidently predict that their visitor figures will go up over the next few months, not just because people want to “say goodbye” to Dippy but because all of this media coverage has reminded them that the museum is there and it’s free. Then, when the whale takes up residence in 2017, the new display and second round of publicity will bring visitors back again.

So what can smaller museums learn from this example?

Small museums are unlikely to get the scale of press coverage that NHM had, but refreshing displays does encourage people to make return visits. It also means that items that would otherwise be sitting in store are seen. Fragile items that can’t be on permanent display due to lighting levels can be made available to the public for short periods of time. The scale of this “refreshing” can range from simply changing the contents of a case in your permanent display, to a temporary exhibition telling a particular story or even a full redisplay of your museum.

If you are making a significant change this can cause controversy amongst local audiences. However, with clear communication (or even better, consultation) we can bring people over to our side (or at least explain why we’re making a change).

Augmented reality at Colchester Castle

A visitor exploring the new displays at Colchester Castle

Tom Hodgson, Colchester Museum Manager, oversaw the recent HLF-funded redisplay of Colchester Caste:

“The redevelopment of Colchester Castle has had a huge and immediate impact and our visitors are clearly delighted by the mix of object rich displays, lively interactives and audio visuals. They are also pleased by the balance we have struck between displaying the collections and showcasing the Castle itself. A few of our visitors are not yet sold on the more modern innovations, but the vast majority have appreciated the use of new technologies such as virtual reality and digital tablets to add further layers and depth to our interpretation. In the nine months since we re-opened on 2 May last year we have received over 88,000 visitors to the Castle – the same figure that we achieved in 2011/12 our last full year of opening. We are expecting to welcome over 100,000 visitors by the end of March”.

If you anticipate that the public are going to complain about changes, particularly on social media, it’s important to maintain a level head in your responses. This “Storify” by the NHM of responses to the news about Dippy is a master-class in good social media management: https://storify.com/NHM_London/blue-whale-to-take-centre-stage

~Amy Cotterill, Museum Development Officer

Who Decides What’s Ethical?

Debating modern ethics

Discussing the Ethics Review at the Museums Association Conference, 2014

There’s been a lot of debate in the press about museums selling objects from their collection and if it is okay for them to do so. You’ll have heard quotes from the museum sector saying that the sale of a certain Egyptian statue was “unethical”, but what does that mean? Who decides what is ethical and what do they know about the reality of running a museum? And surely any “Code of Ethics” is aimed at the big national or local authority museums and doesn’t apply to small, volunteer-run museums?

Actually, the Code of Ethics applies to everyone working or volunteering in a UK museum. This is particularly true if your museum is Accredited or might like to be in the future. The current Code was produced by the Museums Association in 2002 after consultation to represent what the sector believed an ethical way of running a museum.

The Code of Ethics is now 13 years old and while it reflected the needs of museums at the start of this millennium, the world has moved on. We’re using digital technology more than ever, including collecting digital artefacts like photographs and sharing our collections and data via the internet. Objects aren’t just acquired through donations and traditional auctions but through sites like eBay. Museums are increasingly working collaboratively with volunteers, artists, vulnerable communities and children, raising issues of copyright, recognition and expectation management. Debates rage in the media about the living wage and zero-hours contracts. Corporations are sponsoring exhibitions, projects and entire museums. With cuts to their basic funding, many museums are under increasing pressure to sell their collection in order to plug budget gaps – their own and those of their parent organisation.

Museums in 2015 are very different to those of 2002, and the Museums Association recognises this. That’s why they’re asking for your opinions. They’ve held regional meetings (some of you will have attended the meeting at Colchester Castle last year), hosted debates at their annual conference and are currently running an online consultation. If you have an opinion on any of these issues, or others that I haven’t touched on, please do take part. It doesn’t matter if you think the current rules are too strict or not strict enough – share your view! This is your opportunity to be heard. If you don’t take the time to answer these 24 questions, you can’t complain that only the voices of “big” museums are heard.

The Museums Association Ethics Consultation is open until Friday 13th February.