Natural history museums are magical places. They inspire awe and wonder in the natural world and help us understand our place within the animal kingdom. Behind the scenes, many of them are also undertaking world-changing science with their collections.
But they are places for people, made by people. We might like to consider them logical places, centered on facts, but they can’t tell all the facts—there isn’t room. Similarly, they can’t show all the animals. And there are reasons behind what goes on display and what gets left in the storeroom.
The biases that can be detected in how people talk about animals, particularly in museums is one of the key themes of my new book, Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects. Museums are a product of their own history, and that of the societies they are embedded in. They are not apolitical, and they are not entirely scientific. As such, they don’t really represent reality.
1. Where are all the small animals?
Museums are overwhelmingly biased towards big beasts. It’s not difficult to see why—who can fail to be awed by the sight of a 25 meter-long blue whale? Dinosaurs, elephants, tigers, and walruses are spectacular: they ooze presence. It is easy for museums to instill a sense of wonder with animals like this. They are the definition of impressive.