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Natural selection

A charming relic of a museum considers how to update its mission without losing its history

The animal wing of the Harvard Museum of Natural History contains a breathtaking array of extinct creatures, including a giant ground sloth, a massive seafaring Kronosaurus, and even the bones of the "Harvard Mastodon."

There are smaller curiosities, too, including tapeworms harvested from the guts of the Boston elite, a room full of glass animals, and a sea unicorn known as the narwhal.

The only thing the Agassiz Museum is missing is science.

The extensive display of Galapagos finches -- the kind that inspired Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution -- includes no reference to Darwin or explanation for the different shapes of their beaks. The only family tree in the museum shows the modern wolf descending from the cave bear descending from the sabertoothed tiger.

"You bring up a sore point," said Douglas Causey, head curator in ornithology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. "Some of the displays are basically stuffed animals in a glass box, and that's not very informative."

The Harvard-based museum is one of the oldest natural history museums in the country and home to a world-class research collection, which has spurred many advances in evolutionary theory. But the museum's public face is more a monument to Victorian taxidermy than to science education.

Now, nearly a decade after deciding to refocus its mission on public outreach instead of simply collecting specimens, the museum is slowly starting to update its displays -- many of which date back a century or more.

"If only it were cheap and easy to do, it would have been done a long time ago," said Causey, pointing out that while Harvard is rich, the Harvard Natural History Museum is not.

Causey promises to make some changes, despite the lack of funds. "Given the limited budget that we have, I'm going to find a way, even if it's just retyping labels," he said.

It might make sense to start with the finch exhibit, which was likely designed by the museum's first director, the naturalist Louis Agassiz, who founded Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1859.

Agassiz, who set the museum on the course it still follows today, went to his grave attempting to refute Darwin. Like his mentor, the legendary French taxonomist Georges Cuvier, Agassiz believed that all organisms were created by God one by one to match their own habitats.

"The evolutionary tradition came slow to this museum, because the first director was anti-evolutionist," Causey said.

The goal back then, it seems, was to overwhelm the viewer into a sense of awe at the teeming precision of all God's creation. Agassiz went so far as to refer to taxonomic systems -- the different ways that all of life could be divided into hierarchical groupings -- as "translations into the human language of the thoughts of the Creator."

When his students began to embrace Darwin -- including his own son Alexander, who took over the museum on his death -- Agassiz's faith-based naturalism was replaced by a more scientific humanism. But the museum's layout has not changed all that much since the days of its first director.

The Hall of Mammals is stocked from ceiling to floor with a rich array of skeletons and taxidermied creatures, from the chest-pounding mountain gorilla to the ceiling-suspended right whale. That two-story Victorian space -- the gold standard of its day -- has remained unchanged since Alexander Agassiz designed it a century ago.

"Some of those displays are relics," the museum's current director, James Hanken, readily admits. "They are objects frozen in time. You don't get to see this kind of display in many places."

Causey points out an exhibit that dates back to the 1870s, possibly the oldest left in the museum: a wall of hummingbirds. A full wall of hummingbirds, mounted on an undulating backboard, dozens and dozens, all of different sizes, colors, and shapes. It's a jawdropping display of biological diversity.

But then what?

"It's not all hummingbirds, or any logical group, but just a really cool display of hummingbirds," said Causey. "It's neat, but you learn little from it."

So how would he rearrange the display?

One option would be to arrange the specimens into a visual family tree, like so many exhibits at the recently overhauled American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Patrons might then ask how the species evolved from short and stubby beaks to enormous sickle-shaped ones, prompting interest into current research on hummingbird evolution.

Another would be to demonstrate the "functional mechanics" of being a hummingbird, approaching the wide diversity of beaks, wings, and so on one-by-one with an engineer's curiosity.

Or, Causey continues, one could organize the birds based on how they survive, paired with the different kinds of wildflowers they feed on and pollinate. (This approach might work particularly well for the Galapagos finches, whose many beaks have evolved to let them specialize in crushing seeds, pecking wood, or collecting nectar.)

"Same birds, but different ways of arranging them, and you can get people to start thinking about pretty complex, interesting things," he said.

Back when the Agassiz Museum was founded, most natural history museums had creationist ideas built into their physical layouts, according to Stephen Asma, author of "Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: the Evolution of Natural History Museums" (Oxford, 2001). But most of them, including New York's American museum, have updated at least once since the 19th century, incorporating evolutionary theories and high-tech displays.

So why doesn't the Agassiz Museum change its exhibits?

Hanken explains that in the second half of the 20th century, the museum didn't devote much attention to the public exhibits, focusing on research instead -- building up its specimen holdings from 2,000 to more than 20 million, now tucked densely in drawers out of public view.

That all changed when the Harvard Museum of Natural History was founded in the mid-90s, with a mission to unify all the public exhibits of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Botanical Museum (which includes the famous glass flower collection), the Mineralogical Museum, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology -- and to attract people to them.

Gradually, the museum's exhibits are being modernized, Hanken said.

For example, an upcoming exhibit on marine invertebrates will present some of the latest methods in molecular biology. "We want to present natural history as a dynamic science, and that includes showing people what researchers are doing right now," he said. He's considered bringing in lab equipment, and live animals to make the exhibit more vivid.

There is even a chance that a museum complex at Harvard's new Allston campus would include an entirely new public natural history museum.

"That would be a very ambitious project," Hanken said. "But [it's] not out of the question."

Hanken wants to make sure that any move respects the museum's history. It's one thing to see a picture of an old museum, he said, but it's a completely different experience to walk around in one.

"We don't want to get rid of everything," he said. "We would like to preserve at least a part of the original museum. Not just for the sake of preserving it, but because it's informative and valuable."

The museum, whose entrances are at 26 Oxford St. and 11 Divinity Ave. in Cambridge, offers free admission every Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon and during the academic year, on Wednesdays from 3 to 5 p.m. Regular adult admission is $7.50. Galleries are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, call 617-495-3045 or check www.hmnh.harvard.edu/index.html

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