Nicola Novarini (MSc) is an Italian herpetologist who graduated in Biological Sciences at the University of Padua. After experiences at the University of British Columbia (Canada), the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and the University of Kentucky (USA), today he curates the collections of amphibians, reptiles and freshwater fish of the Museum of Natural History of Venice, for which he also co-authored the scientific plan of the new permanent exhibit. His main research interests involve taxonomy, phylogeography, and the distribution and conservation of the herpetofauna, including sea turtles.
Museums are important permanent institutions that serve society. These institutions have multiple roles since they acquire, conserve, research, communicate and exhibit not just the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity while also acting as places of education, study and enjoyment (ICOM). Among all categories of museums, natural history museums play an important role because their collections serve as essential sources of biological data not only for scientists but also for educators and the general public (Bradley et al. 2014). The utility and value of their collections have recently been further emphasised as they allow future research concerning several issues such as biodiversity, extinctions, climate change and environmental degradation to be understood (Suarez & Tsutsui 2004; Winker 2004).
This interview aims to better understand the role of these institutions, the usefulness of their collections and the challenge concerning their correct conservation. Moreover, it discusses methods and aims of successful strategies of public engagement. Finally, complex themes such as the impact of reduced economic budgets on these institutions and the importance of academic and political support are examined.
1. What kind of collections does the Museum of Natural History of Venice host?
The museum hosts a wide variety of collections numbering to date several million specimens and encompassing most of the natural world, as well as some human artefacts. These are mostly preserved animals, plants and fungi, including whole organisms and parts of them, preserved dry or in fluid, as well as many fossils, minerals and rocks. A variety of organisms are represented, from huge dinosaurs and whales to the smallest invertebrates and tiny plants, and of course, humans. Artefacts mainly consist of a few (but rather large) ethnographic collections, as well as scientific instruments and tools, icons of the history of science and the activity of past researchers. In addition, the thousands of animal parts forming the large 19th-century collection of anatomical preparations are both natural objects and fine artefacts at the same time. A well-stocked library with scientific publications and manuscripts spanning from the XVI century to today completes the cultural heritage managed, preserved and studied by the museum.
2. How and where do these materials come from?
Our finds and collections originate from a variety of sources spanning about two centuries and beyond. The Museum of Natural History of Venice (owned by the Venice Municipality and managed by Fondazione Musei Civici) was founded in 1923, but its core collections come from two pre-existing Venetian institutions: the Museo Civico e Raccolta Correr (i.e. the civic museum) and the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere e Arti (the region’s academia for arts and sciences). Since the middle of the XIX century or earlier, both institutions have been building large natural history and scientific collections, among other collections of art, history and other disciplines. Later on, further collections and specimens were acquired or deposited by local and foreign scholars including the museum’s researchers, an activity that goes on still today.
Geographically, specimens come especially from Veneto, Italy, the Mediterranean Basin and Africa, but almost the whole planet is indeed represented within the collections.
3. Can you explain what exactly your role is and what it practically involves?
As a herpetologist (i.e. a zoologist specialised in amphibians and reptiles), my main role at the museum is the care and preservation of herpetological samples and collections, but I also care for the freshwater fish. This includes maintenance and routine inspections of specimens, restoration of damaged or threatened preparations, cataloguing and proper maintenance of records, dealing with loan requests and preparing new specimens.
However, I’m also involved in the broader activities of the museum, including temporary and permanent exhibit planning and setup; teaching, conferences and other activities engaging the public; paper writing, editing and peer-reviewing; co-tutoring of university and high school students carrying out projects at the Museum and more.
In addition, I also carry out research in the field of herpetology, both through the museum’s collections (e.g. investigating the relationships between species by means of DNA analysis) and in the field with the aim of monitoring and preserving local biodiversity. An example of this is our collaboration with the regional sea turtle stranding network and the small rescue centre run by the museum near Venice.
4. What kind of care do natural history materials require? What kind of challenge do you face in terms of their conservation?
With natural samples, the key issue is the proper routine monitoring of specimens to promptly identify potential threats and damage. These are, of course, very different depending on the type of preparation, material, age, etc.
Talking about amphibians and reptiles (but possibly applying to vertebrates in general), modern fluid preparations are generally the easiest to survey and eventually restore if they have been properly prepared and stored. However, ancient fluid preparations may have many issues like the usage of improper fluids for long term preservation (e.g. formalin, which produces tissue alteration over the years and is dangerous for operators) or jars that are not especially suitable. All these preparations should be secured by restoring or changing containers, topping up or replacing fluids, with extreme care not to damage the specimens, which are often very fragile. Proper care should be taken also not to lose any pieces of information and data. In fact, jars often maintain the original labels and cards handwritten by past scholars, the importance of which goes even beyond the information reported itself. The features of these labels may help in situating the object in its proper historical/scientific context, something often shared by the original container itself. In general, the samples most at risk are fluid specimens on exhibit, which need to be protected from accidental mechanical damage and from the harmful effects of light.
On the other hand, dry specimens (e.g. skins, taxidermies, skeletons and mummified specimens) are often more difficult to survey and need careful scrutiny, sometimes using magnifying lenses or a microscope, to identify possible threats. These are usually represented by mould, bacteria and insects infesting the specimens (not always externally and thus readily detectable), as well as variations in humidity that may produce shrinking or cracks. Again, specimens on display are those that may suffer more damage, especially those uncased. Fixing these specimens is often complicated, involves treatments that may be long and expensive, and cannot always be performed ‘in house’.
The main challenge, therefore, is always to prevent or contain damage by establishing proper policies and protocols, as well as providing the necessary resources to enforce them.
5. Which materials are the most fragile? Is there a danger of losing collections?
Biological specimens, especially historical ones, are mostly very fragile. In ancient jars, small cracks in the thin glass or even in the wax layer sealing the lid can pass unnoticed and lead to the complete evaporation or leaking of the fluid. This has dramatic consequences for the specimens inside, which can end up completely dried up and deformed. This is especially risky with large collections stored in small spaces, where frequent surveys become very difficult if not impossible. Also, the long-term displaying of such specimens in exhibits may lead to substantial damage produced by the loss of original colouration because of the effect of light on cell pigments, which is why many finds of the XIX century appear white today.
Similar issues may affect dry preparations, especially if stored in opaque, stockpiled containers that cannot be surveyed properly. As such, parasite or mould attacks may be detected late.
In herpetology, amphibians are usually the most fragile specimens due to their soft, unprotected bodies, especially larvae. More generally, invertebrates appear to be the specimens most in danger: dry-preserved insects, usually stored together in the same box, may be quickly destroyed in great numbers by parasites before detection, while for fluid-preserved, soft marine animals (e.g. jellyfish), drying up equates to complete loss.
The loss of specimens or even full collections were rather common in the past, mostly due to poorly effective conservation means and procedures, negligence, infrequent care and inadequate facilities, not to mention the effects of wars and natural disasters. Today in proper museums, even in those facing shortage of resources, it is unlikely that threats on specimens are detected when it is too late to save anything, but of course, substantial damage may occur anyway if technical and financial resources are not sufficient. This results in the reduced value of the affected preparations for both research and display, which in turn is damaging to the cultural heritage itself. Moreover, even today, a number of natural history collections, either private or public, are still deposited in largely unattended facilities with only formal managers (sometimes not effectively in charge or even competent) due to lack of interest, lack of resources or both. Indeed, such collections may end up offered to museums sooner or later, but not rarely when substantial damage has already happened.
6. What is taxonomy, and what is the role of museum specimens in terms of taxonomy?
Taxonomy, in this context, is a branch of natural science dedicated to the classification of organisms, including their description, identification and naming, according to shared principles, generally organised in ‘codes of nomenclature’.
As a rule, the scientific name of an organism is associated with a ‘type series’ of specimens made of one (the holotype) or more individuals upon which the species has been factually established and described. These specimens, which then represent the worldwide reference for such species, are deposited in publicly accessible collections (mostly in natural history museums), where they are the most important and valuable items.
Scientists who come across individuals that look similar – but not quite the same – to a known species often need to make detailed direct comparisons (either morphologically or using DNA) with the types of that species to evaluate differences and similarities in order to understand whether they came across a new taxon or not. For this reason, type specimens are continuously studied by specialists and need to be readily accessible for research in the museum where they are deposited or through inter-institutional loans.
7. How are museum specimens useful for studies in the fields of ecology, environmental sciences and climate change?
Preserved specimens represent the physical proof of existence of an organism in a certain place and time, even decades or hundreds of years earlier (and up to millions if we include fossils).
Therefore, they are not only taxonomic references, but rather each one is a true archive of data and potentially new information about the natural world surrounding us, both present and past. A few examples may better clarify this issue.
The past distribution range of a species can be inferred from (properly labelled) museum specimens, especially for times when the environment was different from today. The digestive tract of a preserved animal – even hundreds of years later – may hold traces of its last meal, which can tell us about the diet of the species, the food items that were available, and even more fine details about the surrounding environment through pollen grains and other minute casual intakes. Chemicals, either natural or man-made, accumulate in the tissues of living organisms, and many of them can also be tracked in preserved specimens, providing further information on the environment where they were living. Traces of predation on preserved carcasses, even fossil ones, can help the understanding of the prey–predator relationships in a certain area and/or period. And so on.
Climate change research also takes advantage of museum specimens and samples, as plants, rocks, soil and animals collected in the past, sometimes well before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, can be compared to samples from more recent times. This way, scientists can investigate the effects of variations in greenhouse gas concentration (like CO2) or in the mean temperature through morphometrics, biochemical analysis or other methods.
8. Can museum specimens contribute to a better understanding of evolution?
Of course. Large collections of preserved specimens provide scientists with the essential material to study morphological adaptations, species radiation and diversification through time.
Moreover, to understand the relationships between all living organisms, including humans, we combine data from fossils with the genetic information from DNA of modern species so that we are able to build reconstructions of most of the tree of life. The more taxa we include in the analysis, the more precise and focused the picture becomes. Natural history museums hold huge sets of organisms from everywhere in the world and from pretty much the whole history of life known to date. The majority of representative fossils discovered worldwide are in fact deposited in museums, where they are studied by palaeontologists; but also, part of the DNA samples of living (or recently extinct) species contributing to such studies come often from museum collections.
In addition, museums are very involved in the dissemination and popularisation of scientific issues to the general public of all ages, ‘translating’ complex scientific concepts related to evolution and science in general to non-specialised audiences. In this respect, museums have a special key role as scientific contents are often provided and made accessible directly by those people who are actively involved in research, unlike in the cases of professional science communicators and journalists.
9. How can these museums contribute to other disciplines such as archaeology and historical studies?
Many disciplines benefit from the collections of natural history museums. Archaeology and the study of human history, in general, can gather information about the environmental framework in which human cultures and settlements have developed for centuries, as well as the impact of these cultures on the local habitat. The comparison between modern biodiversity and ancient remains may help to understand the processes underlying the appearance of certain species or their extinction. It can also support or disprove interpretations about the knowledge and importance of certain animals and plants for a given culture. Molecular analyses of samples from wild and domestic organisms, including ancient specimens from museums, may shed light on their domestication pathways.
This works vice-versa too, as the interchange between disciplines is extremely important in both directions. Archaeological excavations are in fact a precious source for natural history museums in terms of archaeozoological and archaeobotanical materials, as many archaeological artefacts and tools made of raw materials of animal, plant or mineral origin may provide information about the past wildlife of a territory. The arts also have a role in the mutual exchange of information among distant fields of study. In fact, art scholars often benefit from natural history collections as precious sources of real models for anatomical and still life studies, while historical depictions of species (e.g. in ancient paintings or sculptures) may help biologists to expand their knowledge on such species in a certain area and period.
10. Is scientific production relevant in museums, if so, why?
Active research keeps museums themselves well rooted within the scientific community they serve, away from the simplistic perspective of being just ‘educational displays’ for paying visitors. It represents a true ‘added value’ of these institutions.
In fact, besides the main institutional mission of preserving natural specimens and samples, museums of natural history are primarily research institutions devoted to taxonomical and morphological research, though other biological fields are not excluded. In fact, their research spans across a variety of topics extending beyond the ‘biology of organisms’. These include the techniques and procedures for the preservation of natural samples and materials, ethical issues related to collecting activities, dynamics and problems of scientific culture fruition and communication, among others.
Therefore, the scientific output from museums is essential for the progress of natural sciences and the preservation and interpretation of cultural heritage, especially in fields that are often neglected by different research institutions.
In addition, most museums come from a long publishing tradition, with their own scientific journals and monographs having been published for decades or even centuries. Several of them are now well established, peer-reviewed international journals, featuring contributions from both internal and external scholars and may even represent the world’s leading reference in specific fields.
Scientific production, therefore, is a substantial part of a museum’s cultural output and should always be thoroughly considered while evaluating the quality and performance of such an institution.
11. In your opinion, is the true worth of natural history collections properly understood by the public?
Not really, or rather, not by the whole public. People passionate and knowledgeable about natural history, nature or science in general mostly understand and appreciate the role of our museums and collections. However, even among them, still, not everyone is aware of the size and usefulness of the collections besides what is readily available for the general public’s fruition, not to mention all the work and resources that are behind them.
With respect to other audiences, it is still often difficult to even attract them to natural history museums, especially in Italy, possibly due partly to an endemic low level of scientific acculturation of the population, and partly to the unfortunate, long-lasting traditional imagery of such museums as ‘dusty spaces filled with dead stuffed animals’. Also, the perception still holds that such places are mostly designed for and dedicated to kids’ education only.
In many other countries however, this cultural bias is not so apparent. In Northern Europe, for instance, visiting natural history museums appears rather ‘transversal’ across audiences, and the appreciation of these institutions is more widespread in the population, something we observe here in Venice too with foreign visitors.
12. Is it possible to engage people strategically and to make them understand the value of these institutions?
This is quite an open question, I think. Nevertheless, to foster the appreciation of natural history museums, a key issue is surely to increase the visibility of their manifold activities and outputs beyond the exhibits.
First of all, as natural history museums are strongly present within the local territory and usually known to residents since their early school experiences, it is extremely important to develop and maintain such a sense of community and inclusion with the local population. Thus, organising and supporting qualified and continuous activities dedicated to science and nature that engage the whole community is very important for retaining a loyal and interested audience. Depending on the local framework, involving more distant visitors and tourists should also not be neglected.
On the other hand, people lacking an intrinsic interest in nature often tend to ignore natural sciences museums unless they are driven inside by their children or by collateral events. Well-planned and well-managed modern museums, however, do not fail to intrigue such casual visitors once they come inside, as proven by the Museum of Venice or the MUSE in Trento, for instance. This is why strategic plans to attract visitors should act on multiple and diverse levels, focusing on communication, modernisation and collateral events such as temporary exhibits ‘contaminated’ by different fields (e.g. arts), concerts and readings.
Virtual communication is also very important: websites, social networks and other social media greatly help the visibility of almost everything. On the other hand, nowadays, everyone is on the web, thus it is often very difficult to emerge from the strong ‘info-noise’ surrounding the public. These channels are surely useful, especially for advertisement and for direct, even one-to-one interactions with visitors and other stakeholders, but they should not become prevalent, neither in terms of investments nor in the ‘signature’ of the institution. In fact, to not lose focus on what is (and should always be) the museum’s mission, it is important to avoid pursuing an easy gain through visibility and appreciation in lieu of heritage conservation, research and the spreading of scientific culture. Otherwise, the key role and importance of natural history museums will be substantially lost.
13. Are there targeted plans to encourage children to approach and appreciate natural history museums?
Children are often naturally attracted by nature and animals, and they already represent the main proportion of museums visitors through family and school visits. Most of the targeted communication of natural history museums in Italy and elsewhere is, in fact, traditionally addressed to schools and families with children. Many activities and sometimes even the exhibits are specifically designed to engage early age visitors (e.g. laboratories, guided game tours, facilitated lessons, ‘small scientist’ competitions, etc). This is an approach that art and history museums have begun to follow only in recent years.
Therefore, as mentioned above, I think the main challenge in the future is actually to develop targeted plans to better engage adult visitors, especially those not especially interested per se in the natural world.
14. It seems that natural history collections have been impacted by cuts to budgets, reduced academic support and elimination of staff positions. What does this mean, practically?
The decline of natural history collections in Italy (but not only here) has a long history, possibly rooted, at least in part, in the humanistic-biased perspective of our national culture. This has historically resulted in a very low allocation of resources for the care of scientific collections, or even to the buildings that host them, except for rare one-off support, often provided for political reasons.
With few exceptions, the material and cultural worth of natural history collections has been always difficult to understand by public administrations in charge of their management, especially (but not limited to) those not involved in science. Besides their ‘utility’ as display objects to attract visitors, there is in fact little understanding of their importance as a heritage per se. In addition to their ‘immaterial’ cultural value, however, there is certainly a very material one, which is providing the scientific community with specimens and samples that are routinely utilised by a multitude of researchers and labs, an aspect that is sometimes overlooked even by the administrations of university museums.
Furthermore, there is a long history of neglecting the economic value of these collections (except maybe for those that were actually purchased), a value that comes from both efforts in the collection process and in the long-term care. In fact, field collecting campaigns often have high costs related to the distance and difficulties of the territory where they are carried out, and every specimen collected in a campaign shares a fraction of this cost. But even for collections acquired through free donations, specimen management and maintenance involve some expenses in terms of personnel and supplies, which are not so difficult to estimate and should be considered everlasting. Actual costs should be the basis upon which to establish a proper yearly museum’s budget.
This deprivation of both cultural and economic value of collections by the public bodies ultimately in charge of their maintenance, instead, paves the path for continuous and indiscriminate cuts to museum funding and staff positions as they are perceived as non-essential or at least deferrable (often for decades). The result is a shortage of investments for the proper care of the collections, sometimes abandoned for years, for the acquisition of new ones and for the specialised training and proper turnover of the staff, who becomes progressively older, smaller and less specialised, ultimately leading to a slow but certain sinking of museums. In recent years, this issue has even reached the pages of international scientific journals, with pleas to the authorities and the scientific community urging for concrete and immediate actions for the safeguard of the Italian natural history collections. No outcome seems to have emerged yet, though.
15. How can politics help to support natural history museums?
Politics is in charge of managing the territory, including its cultural and natural heritage, and addressing the social-economic choices that may affect it, for better or for worse.
Therefore, for politics to play a role, the prior condition would be the actual recognition of the proper value and importance of these museums and their collections by politicians and, in turn, by the administrations that put their decisions into effect. Then, politics needs to have a strategic view of these institutions. Cultural heritage cannot be managed based on short-term time horizons and museum roles should be integrated with the needs and demands of the territory, from locally to nationwide and beyond. Both aspects, however, seem to be strongly missing from the agenda of most Italian political bodies, from local and regional to national, despite adequate interest and availability of resources from the European Union.
On the other hand, natural history museums are very heterogeneous as they are managed/owned by municipalities, regions, provinces, the state, universities and public research institutes or even the private sector. Often, there are rather distant visions, approaches and attitudes among the different managers and operators.
Therefore, they generally fail to be perceived as a unique body, despite the existence of national associations of scientific museums (ANMS in Italy), and are considered something ‘hybrid’ between ‘science’ and ‘culture’ (in Italy the latter being often identified with the ‘humanities’ only). This implies the lack (at a national level) of a univocal institutional referent, which can actually be either the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, the Ministry of Education and Research (under whose criteria some NH museums do not even qualify as research bodies) or the Ministry of Environment, depending on the issues at stake.
Such a situation surely does not help the communication between politics and museums. Only a radical change in the attitude of politicians and administrators toward scientific museums (and science in general) and a more cohesive approach of museum operators toward their common objectives will be able to trigger a virtuous circle to grant a future to our scientific collections.
The Heritage Call warmly thanks Mr Nicola Novarini for sharing his knowledge and experience as a professional in one of the most important cultural institutions in Italy.
From Nicola’s experience, it is clear that natural history museums cannot be superficially considered as ‘dusty spaces filled with dead stuffed animals’ but instead, these cultural institutions play a crucial role in conservation, education and dissemination of scientific knowledge.
These institutions, in fact, are relevant and help understand important themes such as climate change. Their collections also help to shed light on research linked to other disciplines such as archaeology. Thus, natural history museums contribute to a better understanding of many multidisciplinary aspects, meaning that the preservation of their collections is crucial.
As can be seen, monitoring and safeguarding biological collections requires precise and daily care, particularly for historical collections, which are also the most fragile ones. For this reason, the work of conservators is vital for the maintenance of these valuable remnants of the past.
The above discussion highlights that adults engage less than kids, who conversely are naturally inclined to and attracted by natural objects. Thus, targeted strategies need to be pondered in order to stimulate the interests of adults much more and to make people understand the value of these institutions.
Two problems have been highlighted by our expert Nicola: the shortage of funding and a sort of incorrect perception of these institutions by politics. Both problems may negatively impact conservation practices, as well as other managerial practices with long term severe consequences.
Bradley, R. et al. (2014). Assessing the Value of Natural History Collections and Addressing Issues Regarding Long-Term Growth and Care. BioScience, 64(12), 1150-1158.
Novarini, N. (2010). The herpetological collections of the Museo di Storia Naturale of Venice: chronology of the acquisitions and state of the collections. Museologia Scientifica Memorie, 5, 92-105.
Suarez, A. & Tsutsui, N. (2004). The Value of Museum Collections for Research and Society. BioScience, 54(1), 66-74.
Winker, K. (2004). Natural History Museums in a Postbiodiversity Era. BioScience, 54(5), 455-459.
Official website of the Museum of Natural History of Venice: https://msn.visitmuve.it/
Interview directed by Dr Barbara Mordà
Nicola’s feedback on The Heritage Call:
I warmly thank Dr Barbara Mordà and The Heritage Call for the opportunity to discuss natural history collections, museums and their activities, as well as their many problems, topics that are often overlooked within the cultural heritage system. This is surely a great chance to reach a wider audience among the variegated world of cultural operators and people interested in cultural heritage. Indeed, I have been very pleased to discover such a keen interest in the scientific side of culture by a website devoted to the promotion and support of the cultural heritage and its institutions.