Art Museum vs Natural History Museum
The Difference between collections in an art museum and in a natural history museum.
Richard H. Zander
June 19, 2001
Each work of art has intrinsic interest and, usually, commercial value. Each are "specimen" makes a particular, unique statement. Art objects often have individual names. Art historians use art collections to create theories of art and human culture.
Natural history objects have individually little scientific interest (some do have "art" value) and individually have no commercial value. They represent Darwinian (that is, by natural selection) solutions to environmental problems only in aggregate (as populations evolve). Museum specimens have no individual names but each one is named with the name of a theory about the natural environment (for example, Sugar Maple, known scientifically as Acer saccharum, is not the name of a specimen but of a theory about what is going on "out there"). Natural historians use collections to create theories about nature.
The collections of the Buffalo Museum of Science are best viewed as a collection of theories grounded in environmental samples. The best scientific theories are those that, among other things:
- best explain nature,
- can be used to predict things about nature, and
- are fruitful of new theories about nature.
Thus, a theory about a species generates theories about genera, these generate more theories about families, about evolution, about geographic distributions and what influences plant and animal migration, about medicinal properties, etc.
It all hangs together because the theories build on each other. A natural history museum is best viewed as "a collection of theories based on a collection of environmental samples."