Natural History Museums for a World in Harmony with Nature: Now’s the Time!

Written by Henry McGhie, Curating Tomorrow,

Bio: Henry McGhie has a background as an ecologist, museum curator and manager. He set up Curating Tomorrow in 2019 to help empower museums and their partners to contribute to sustainable development agendas, including the Sustainable Developmet Goals (SDGs), climate action, biodiversity conservation, Disaster Risk Reduction and human rights. He is a member of the ICOM Sustainability Working Group, and a Churchill Fellow working on these topics.

This blog post takes in some of the developments over the last couple of years, and sets out some current opportunities for museums with natural history collections to strengthen their contributions to environmental sustainability.

Let’s cast our minds back to 1992, over thirty years ago now, when representatives of all countries agreed to take action in three areas. This was the Rio Earth Summit, which adopted the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (the grandparent of the Paris Agreement) and the Convention to Combat Desertification. It’s entirely possible you may not even have heard of all of these, but don’t worry you’re far from alone. While governments signed onto these agreements, they were broad, framework agreements. It is true that governments were supposed to take the lead in these, and other agreements, but surely sectors – including museums – don’t need to wait to be asked? However, the agreements have just not been turned into action, and that is a fault of governments, but also of the sectors, that could have gained a lot by saying ‘we have something to contribute here’. What I’m proposing isn’t just that museums take up these agreements to look good, sound good, show off, or compete with one another or with other sectors, but to use them as practical tools.

Why? Because connecting with the big picture and international agreements helps museums to:

  • Shape their programmes and activities, to provide people interested in these topics with educational and participatory activities.
  • Put their unique resources to good use in pursuit of positive social and environmental outcomes.
  • Play a significant and distinctive part in an ambitious programme for a better world.
  • Build partnerships and collaborations, with one another and with other sectors, working to shared goals.
  • Create and demonstrate impact, showing that museums and collections are not a nice-to-have, but essential players in securing a future in harmony with nature.

Museums can benefit greatly by making use of the existing tools, resources, approaches and platforms, not just for their own benefit, but for broader benefit. The agreements mentioned above – the UNFCCC and Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – even include specific sections that are relevant to the work of museums, relating to research, sharing of knowledge resources, co-operation, education, participation and access to information, and more. It is a pity that the museum sector has not seen or made the connection, but it is not too late. The CBD in particular can help museums to consider environmental sustainability in a more holistic manner than is often the case. The CBD has one overarching goal: to live in harmony with nature. It has three goals: the conservation and restoration of biodiversity is an obvious one. The two other goals are not always how environmental sustainability is conceived of in museums: the sustainable use of natural resources, and the fair sharing of benefits arising from use of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. All three goals are important. Natural history museums can obviously promote the first two, and they should also support the last one by making sure any new collecting or use by researchers complies with fair sharing (this comes from the Nagoya Protocol).

There is widespread recognition of a need to make a radical shift to how society and the environment interact. Antonio Guterres (UN Secretary General) has stated that “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere.” The Stockholm+50 Conference, in 2022, highlighted 50 years of action and inaction for sustainable development, and UNEP’s Making Peace With Nature is also an important read.

There are some fantastic new guidelines and programmes that you can connect with, to strengthen your contribution to the conservation of biodiversity:

  • The recommendations from Stockholm+50 and UNEP’s Making Peace With Nature report.
  • Glasgow Work Programme on Action for Climate Empowerment, already adopted at COP26, and running from 2021-31. It even specifically mentions museums as potential key actors, and gives a great framework to strengthen climate action.
  • New framework for the Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed in December at CBD COP15, with the less-than-snappy title of the ‘Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework’. This has goals and targets that are highly relevant to the work of museums, and is the successor to the set of Aichi targets that ran out in 2020 (none of which were met, highlighting the need for better action). The new framework is for an ‘all-of-society approach’. Target 21 is especially relevant to natural history museums: “Ensure that the best available data, information and knowledge, are accessible to decision makers, practitioners and the public to guide effective and equitable governance, integrated and participatory management of biodiversity, and to strengthen communication, awareness-raising, education, monitoring, research and knowledge management and, also in this context, traditional knowledge, innovations, practices and technologies of indigenous peoples and local communities should only be accessed with their free, prior and informed consent.” There is a whole section on educational approaches that museums can align with and promote (Section K).
  • Sustainable Development Goals as a single programme bringing all the major social and environmental agreements into a relatively simple set of goals.

Please, have a look at these, ask how your current work relates to them, what else you could be doing to support them, and how you can use them as practical tools.

Lastly, if you are feeling like you need to get up to speed with what is happening in the world of nature conservation and ecology, the best opportunity is to take part in the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting (usually in December): that is a great way to hear many different perspectives, meet researchers (many of whom are using natural history collections) and build bridges between the museum, research and nature conservation sectors.

With abundant opportunities in museums, ongoing declines of biodiversity, and when museums need to be making choices that maximise impact, benefit and use of shrinking resources, now is the time to step into the world, and unlock the potential of natural history museums for all our futures.

Further reading

Convention on Biological Diversity (2022). Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework,

McGhie, HA (2019). Museum Collections and Biodiversity Conservation. Curating Tomorrow,

McGhie, HA (2019). Museums and the Sustainable Development Goals. Curating Tomorrow,

McGhie, HA (2022). Action for Climate Empowerment: a guide for galleries, libraries, archives and museum,

McGhie, HA (2022). Understanding the Sustainable Development Goals: a guide for galleries, libraries, archives and museums. Curating Tomorrow,

SEI and CEEAW (2022). Unlocking a Better Future: Stockholm+50,

SEI and CEEAW (2022). Unlocking a Better Future: Stockholm+50 summary and recommendations,

SEI (2022). Stockholm+50: Unlocking a Better Future,

UNEP (2021). Making Peace With Nature. UNEP,

UNEP (2021). Making Peace With Nature actions,

One thought on “Natural History Museums for a World in Harmony with Nature: Now’s the Time!

  1. Pingback: NatSCA Digital Digest – March 2023 | NatSCA

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