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13 A museum pandemic

What happened to the ROM has been happening to museums around the world. Soon after discovering the truth about my old museum, I learned from a colleague in the UK about the situation at London’s Natural History Museum (NHM), in South Kensington. Remarkably, the new director was the former head of Amazon UK. Needless to say, he had no experience or understanding of museums.

I was shocked to learn that plans were underway to pack up over one third of the 80 million museum specimens, and relocate them to a new location, some 50 miles away, along with the associated staff. How could such a lunatic scheme come about? I found the answer in a paper published by Fred Naggs, a retired NHM curator who studied molluscs—a large group of invertebrates (animals without backbones) ranging from snails and scallops to octopus and squid.

That such a disaster could happen was because the museum was under the control of the government department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), so named in 1997. Naggs goes on to say that, “Science formerly had a powerful voice at the NHM. The Director and Deputy Director were scientists experienced in collection--based research…” However, “In the space of a few decades, a succession of scientists who had managed the NHM as an integrated organisation since its origins at South Kensington, were replaced by a clique of career managers.” (my italics)

Another of his observations that will resonate with ROM staff is the steep decline in curatorial numbers. He illustrated this by reference to those who worked on the fish collection, noting that fishes account for about half of all living vertebrates (animals with backbones). The NHM’s fish department was a world leader in fish research and when he joined the museum, in 1974, there were ten fish researchers. Today there are “just two overwhelmed curators who are responsible for the collections.”

In discussing the senseless plan to move millions of specimens from the museum, Naggs wrote that, “The chain of ignorance and incompetence driving the move…has been an unashamedly top-down campaign to remove science from the South Kensington site.”

One of his other comments about the move included a revelation that made me wonder about the subject of the previous post:

“The origin and early development of the plan was carried out largely in secret. Early deliberations were excluded from the published records of minutes of the Trustees’ meetings…”

Link to Naggs publication:


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