Naturalis is, first and foremost, a biodiversity research facility, a natural history collection, and nature museum. The collection, however, is more – much more – than a biodiversity research tool: it is an archive of the history of collecting and studying nature. It goes back more than four centuries and expands into the future. The history of the Netherlands, European colonialism, slavery, economic competition, the pursuit of scientific status, ethical and moral principles, all are reflected in the collection. Current debates and new trends can also be spotted and understood when looking at the collection in its entirety. Reading it, telling its story from a non-Western but world-perspective has been my main concern for the past three years at Naturalis. With research, with respect, with new museum and collection policies – a new, challenging task.
200 stories – to begin with
Looking at the museum collections from a new point of view requires both enthusiasm and patience. To keep going, to swim against the current, and to learn. There are countless new stories to tell, including those already in the curator’s minds and memory. And is there better moment to start than on Naturalis’ birthday?
On August 9, 1820, the forerunner of Naturalis, the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie, was born by royal decree. That’s 200 years of history of science and cultural heritage. The museum will celebrate its anniversary with 200 days of special exhibitions, events, and a spectacular book.
My colleague Tiny Monquil and I have worked for over two years (hence my absence from Museum Chronicles) on an exceptional book with 200 stories, based on 200 museum objects. Each collection item, when put into context, reveals one or several aspects of Dutch history and European science – past, present and future. From colonial ambitions to the role of women in science, from fakes to geniuses: this is what scientific collections can reveal when looked at from a social perspective. More than 80 people have worked with us for this book, together with talented photographers, copy editors and designers – a wonderful team. I am, indeed, a very proud mum. The book, published by Naturalis and Walburg Pers, will be launched at the beginning of October 2020.
Right before the launch of the book, however, the museum will open an exhibition with the same title as the book, “Van onschatbare waarde”. It features 25 unique objects, either too important or too fragile to be in a permanent exhibition. The exhibition can be visited from September 30, 2020, to April 17, 2021.
Behind the scenes
Incorporating expertise on scientific history and cultural heritage into an existing organization requires a conscious effort. We review and expand museum policies for the acquisition of new items, for project prioritization, digitalization efforts, and communication to include cultural heritage. From new criteria for collection growth to revising the language used in exhibits and publications: all departments are on board. The first step was to advise decision-makers concerning the development of both new expertise (by means of opening new research lines) and new tools (collection plans and sets of criteria for curation). From here, in the coming years Naturalis will keep on growing and maturing, opening up to new public, engaging in new discussions, and – as always – being a touchstone for education and engagement.