Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Tribute to William T. Golden: A Man for All Seasons, A Museum for All People and All Time1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Tribute to William T. Golden: A Man for All Seasons, A Museum for All People and All Time1

Article excerpt

LET ME BEGIN by saying how honored I am to be part of this event, which celebrates Bill Golden, who was such an important J mentor to me and a longtime leader of the American Museum of Natural History, and explores topics about which he was passionate.

I have been asked today to discuss the role of science museums like the American Museum of Natural History, of which Bill Golden was a trustee and chairman. I think this is extremely timely. For all the illustrious history and contributions made by natural history museums and other similar science institutions throughout the world, over many years, I would submit that, owing to the nature of the issues the world currently faces, the nature of science itself - including the high-tech way that science is practiced today - as well as the very nature of these institutions, the role of natural history museums has never been more important.

This is so, because many of the major challenges that we confront are rooted in science, because science offers a remarkably useful template for problem-solving and global engagement, and, not least, because natural history museums are uniquely positioned as a lynchpin between science and society.

To understand why science museums are emerging with dramatically increasing centrality, it is worth looking back briefly. Natural history museums began in Renaissance Europe as "cabinets of curiosities" - somewhat haphazard private collections of specimens, artifacts, and art typically gathered by wealthy individuals. They included items strange, beautiful, and precious - sometimes fake - and usually were enjoyed only by the collector and his guests. Nevertheless, they represented humanity's first attempts to organize the full spectrum of the natural world and the fruits of human cultures.

In the nineteenth century, the concept of a museum accessible to the public and, even more, one created expressly for the public good, emerged and flourished. There followed a burst of "museum making," if you will, which included the founding of the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1869.

Following the upheaval of two world wars, to respond to a bettereducated populace and, later, to help address the educational demands of the post-Sputnik era, museums became increasingly important educational facilities in their communities and resources for schools, as well as key centers of leisure activity and purveyors of information. In fact, it is estimated that fully 75 percent of American museums operating today were established after 1950.

Over time, the American Museum of Natural History would grow into one of the world's most prominent institutions of scientific research and science education, embracing a breadth of study from the biological sciences and anthropology to astrophysics.

Like the cabinets of curiosities of old, the museum was built upon and continues to be grounded in its collections. In our case, that happens to include such unusual denizens as:2

* A gray parrot that once belonged to Houdini

* A grasshopper found on the observation deck of the Empire State Building

* A 4,500-year-old piece of Peruvian cloth replete with mummified lice

* The largest meteorite ever retrieved, all 34 tons of it

* A small but notable early collection consisting of one bat, two mice, a turtle, the skull of a red squirrel, and four bird eggs - from one Theodore Roosevelt, age thirteen

* The magnificent Star of India sapphire

* As well as 16.7 million insects, 2.2 million fish, 300,000 amphibians and reptiles, and 600,000 cultural artifacts

* And to think I haven't even mentioned dinosaurs!

Today these collections total approximately 32 million specimens and artifacts, complemented by a world-renowned research library, plus important new forms of collecting such as a frozen tissue collection and vast databases supporting research in genomics and astrophysics. Taken together, these constitute a priceless and irreplaceable record of life on Earth. …

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