Natural history museums as provocateurs for dialogue and debate

Mark Carnall, Jack Ashby*, Claire Ross

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Interpretation in natural history museums is generally conservative with methods of collections interpretation barely changed since the first natural history museums were founded. For all the changes undertaken by museums in the last 20 years, sector leaders such as the American Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum, London, the National Museum, Prague, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin and the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, Paris still operate by connecting objects with facts about their biology. The recent relocation of the Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London has offered the opportunity for the museum to become a space for dialogue and experimentation.The museum, in collaboration with the university, has developed 'social interpretation' designed to engage visitors with controversial questions in life sciences and museum practice. Visitor responses are recorded and used as the basis to plan future work.The paper explores how this form of engagement with visitors might allow natural history museums to add to established methods of interpretation, and - in a form of co-production with their visitors - challenge attitudes to scientific knowledge and its development. Thus, the way natural history museums function as sources of knowledge for the public and the 'front line' of biological engagement is potentially changed, based on the responses of museum visitors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)55-71
Number of pages17
JournalMuseum Management and Curatorship
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • collaboration
  • digital interactive labels
  • engagement
  • interpretation
  • iPad
  • natural history museums
  • participation


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