• Read about the museums shortlisted for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2023 here
Dinosaurs are the “number one draw” at the Natural History Museum (NHM), says its director, Doug Gurr. For nearly four decades, the London museum’s soaring main space, Hintze Hall, was dominated by Dippy, a full-size plaster cast of a diplodocus skeleton (succeeded, in 2017, by a blue whale’s skeleton named Hope). But despite our collective fascination with Dippy and his ilk, “if somebody describes you as a dinosaur, it doesn’t feel very good, does it?” Gurr points out.
The term also implies a “failed species” that went extinct. And yet, dinosaurs ruled the Earth for more than 170 million years before a fatal asteroid strike wiped them out. By contrast, Homo sapiens evolved a mere 300,000 years ago—a blip in the planet’s 4.5 billion years of existence—and we are “potentially heading for a sixth mass extinction” of our own making, Gurr says. That is: a catastrophe akin to the five mass extinctions of the past 500 million years, when at least 75% of Earth’s species disappeared.
Before humanity goes the way of the dinosaurs, the NHM is on a mission to shift us off collision course. In January 2020, the museum declared a “planetary emergency” and launched an 11-year strategy to “create advocates for the planet”. That galvanising idea is what Gurr says inspired him to apply as director later that year from the unusual background of head of Amazon UK. And it is what he hopes will now inspire the Art Fund judges to crown the NHM Museum of the Year 2023.
“Maybe we should be a bit more careful with this planet; it’s not quite as stable as we think it is”
It was a “radical”, even a “brave” move, he says, for a museum that had functioned as a “passive cataloguer” of the natural world since its Victorian origins to reinvent itself as “an active catalyst of change”. Though Gurr insists the NHM is “not a campaigning organisation”, it can play an important public role as a trusted scientific authority on the climate crisis and the less well-known, but arguably just as serious, biodiversity crisis.
“We have science which is genuinely producing the solutions,” he says. “Quite unusually for a research institute, we’ve also got this extraordinary public communications channel: the physical visitors, digital outreach. We know that trust in institutions globally has been declining very fast, but museums on the whole have held up.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a former executive of one of the world’s biggest retailers, Gurr wants the NHM’s advocacy to reach far beyond the museum’s physical footprint in South Kensington and capture a global audience. “The challenges are global,” he says. “It’s not going to be very effective if we convince ten people passionately to love the planet: it’s got to be at the scale of hundreds of millions.”
As such, digital content and events, a lifeline for many museums during the lockdowns, remain a key way for the NHM to maintain “a continuous dialogue with audiences”, even as its physical visitor numbers crept back up to 4.6 million in 2022. (That’s more than any other indoor UK museum last year, according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions.)
The museum has also reshaped all of its multifarious programmes under three “always-on” environmental themes. The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, still going strong in its 58th year, moves hearts and minds with “frontline reportage from the climate and biodiversity crisis”, says Gurr.
In 2021, the NHM put on Our Broken Planet: How We Got Here and Ways to Fix It, a series of free displays and digital initiatives that ran for 15 months, which, Gurr says, “offered people choices” in ways to live sustainably without being “preachy”. For the exhibition, scientists picked specimens from the museum’s 80 million-strong collection as discussion points around the food we eat, the products we buy and the energy we use. More than 75% of the 1.2 million visitors said the show had made them more likely to take environmental action in the future.
The five-acre grounds, meanwhile, will be home to the Urban Nature Project. A garden redevelopment, costing in excess of £20 million, sponsored by Amazon Web Services, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and others, it should be open next spring. To the west, the expanded wildlife garden will be a hub for hands-on learning and citizen science, with activities ranging from pond-dipping to acoustic monitoring. To the east, a “walk through deep time” will lead visitors past rocks, mosses, ferns, trees and even a weatherproof Dippy en route to the museum entrance.
“Deep time: it’s a humbling thing when you start thinking about it,” says Gurr. “We tend to see [the world] as it is today. But it’s very fragile and we’re trying to help people understand... Maybe we should be a little bit more careful with this planet, because it’s not quite as stable as we think it is.”
But Gurr sees the NHM’s message as hopeful, rather than “doom and gloom”. “Our job is to try and nudge people, companies, ultimately governments” toward the “narrow path” between economic growth and the protection of Earth’s resources. “Then we can have a world where people and planet can thrive.”
How do you bring your local community into the museum?
Doug Gurr, director of the Natural History Museum: We are in quite an affluent area of London. But very local to us are some of the most deprived boroughs in the whole country. Historically, a lot of those communities have not considered the museum [as being] for them. We’re focusing a team around those hyperlocal communities and making them understand that it is a place for them, particularly through the Urban Nature Project in the five acres of gardens here. It’s an amazing opportunity to invite people in. This will be a beautiful green space in which you can do amazing, interesting science. We want to make sure that it’s open to absolutely everybody.