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The science of nature and the nature of science: Natural history museums on-line


Roy Hawkey
Head of Education
The Natural History Museum
London , UK


Natural history museums have a peculiar public profile. Often seen as places most appropriate for visits by children, they also carry a number of other persistent associations. These include assumptions that dinosaurs comprise a key part of the subject matter and that dioramas constitute the major interpretative strategy. In reality, both content and presentation are highly diverse and there is much complex, sophisticated and specialist material in evidence. Furthermore, unlike most other museums – including, ironically, museums of the physical sciences and of technology – natural history museums are characterised by a high degree of fundamental scientific research. This research role is reflected in statements, both formal and informal, of the aims of natural history museums relating to using collections to make discoveries about the natural world. For example, The Natural History Museum (UK) uses its collections ‘to promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world’ (The Natural History Museum 1996).

‘Understanding’ reminds us that natural history museums also have an educational role. They generate resources of great use in the wider world of education, particularly to the teacher and learner of science. Increasingly these resources are being produced in electronic format, often on-line. (To confirm the diversity and complexity of such resources, one need only type a key term such as ‘fossil’ or ‘dinosaur‘ into a natural history museum’s internal search engine.) While many of these electronic resource materials are designed and developed by education professionals working within the museum environment, some are products of the research scientists themselves. Yet others may have been produced by staff whose principal focus is within the field of information and communications technology itself. There are also examples where the rationale for and the origins of web materials lie rather in promotion and marketing, complete with the potential pitfalls described recently as ‘public relations masquerading as science communication’ (Wellcome/OST 2000). Because of the seamless integration of all aspects of a museum’s website, the provenance of a particular resource may not be immediately (if at all) apparent. Neither – and this is not to necessarily imply any specific correlation – may its value in any educational context.

From their inception, the websites of natural history museums have been seen as potentially excellent vehicles for conveying ideas about the life and earth sciences to a much larger and more diverse audience. The early content was principally visitor information – about opening times, entrance fees and bus routes – but included something of the nature and scope of both collections and exhibitions (Shaw 1995). In addition to general improvements in graphic design and enhanced functionality, subsequent developments have – in one dimension – increasingly featured active involvement by the virtual visitor, and have also – in another dimension – showcased the museums’ scientific research work. This paper explores the expression of that science, particularly views of the nature of science, on selected natural history museum websites. It also looks at their potential as a resource for learning in this domain.

The science of systematics

Students’ – and, indeed, the public’s – perception of science is frequently linked to practical, experimental work in laboratories. Certainly, the test-tube and the Bunsen burner have become stereotypes, classic icons, of school science. Natural history museums do undertake work of this type; many apparently traditional laboratories may be found, especially in earth sciences and in microbiology. An excellent example of a contemporary natural history museum laboratory is provided by the Pritzker laboratory at Chicago’s Field Museum (Figure 1), a ‘core facility dedicated to genetic analysis and preservation of the world's biodiversity’ (Field Museum 2000a).

Figure 1: On-line invitation to the Field Museum’s Pritzker Laboratory

There are, however, many other important aspects of science for which the popular image is quite inappropriate. Paramount among these is systematics, a major concern – indeed, the raison d’être – of most natural history museums. Systematics is the science involved in the discovery, description, naming and classification of living and fossil organisms, and the elucidation of their evolutionary relationships. It therefore encompasses taxonomy, the naming and classification of fossil and living species, although the two terms are often used as if they were synonyms (UK Systematics Forum 1998). Although it constitutes a fundamental area of study in all natural history museum research, relatively few websites make it explicit – and even fewer explain systematics in detail or underline its significance. Those that do, however, give valuable insights into the nature of the scientific study of the natural world. 

The Natural History Museum’s website identifiessystematics and evolution as one of seven key research themes: 

The aim is to discover and investigate the broad patterns of biodiversity and evolution, as a foundation for comparative biology and its uses. Scientists use both traditional and modern techniques – the latter frequently derived from molecular biology – to investigate the systematics and evolution of key groups ranging from microbes to fish.’ (The Natural History Museum 2000).

Another important example is provided by the California Academy of Sciences, whose website points out that natural history museum collections as we know them came into being along with the science of systematics. Its research focus, on systematic biology, is seen as ‘becoming increasingly important as the understanding of the value of biodiversity grows’ (California Academy of Sciences 2000).

Also of particular value is a further component of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History – Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy– as it features not only the nature and value of the scientific work, but also the impending shortage of suitably skilled scientists:

The accelerating loss of biological diversity in the world, through habitat destruction, pollution, and ecosystem fragmentation, has been accompanied by a loss of taxonomic experts who are trained to discover, identify, describe, and classify the world's organismal diversity. Retirement of taxonomic specialists, shifts in academic recruitment and staffing, and reductions in graduate training have conjoined to impede biodiversity research and conservation, particularly on large but poorly known groups such as bacteria, fungi, protists, and numerous marine and terrestrial invertebrates. Vast numbers of species in understudied "invisible" groups constitute critical elements of food chains and ecosystems, both aquatic and terrestrial, but the high proportion of unrecognized species in these groups limits research and progress in many areas of biology and conservation. (Field Museum 2000b)

Other aspects of scientific research are also featured on a number of sites. While many provide little more than annotated lists of departmental organization, others give great insight into research practice and, occasionally, philosophy. Some examples are incorporated into Table 1.

Table 1
Examples of research policy and practice


Expression/impression of museum science

American Museum of Natural History

For 125 years advanced scientific research has formed the core of the Museum. Scientists at the Museum conduct innovative research programs both in the field and within the walls of the Museum's laboratories and collections areas.

California Academy of Sciences

The California Academy of Sciences actively pursues original scientific research and is committed to fostering a spirit of scientific discovery and stewardship of the natural world. Systematic biology, the focus of the Academy's research, is becoming increasingly important as the understanding of the value of biodiversity grows.

National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian)

NMNH's scientists are…

    filled with questions and are committed to finding the answers

    have enduring curiosity

    seeking and finding the puzzle pieces to significant questions about the natural world and about vital topics such as global warming, the loss of biodiversity, and invasive plant and insect species

Research provides knowledge as the essential building blocks for integrative, overarching scientific interpretation. It leads to an understanding of processes that shape the natural world. The answers for today's questions come from crossing traditional academic boundaries and integrating multiple perspectives.

Another useful approach is shown by The Natural History Museum, where departmental designations have been augmented, if not superseded, by multi-disciplinary research themes (Table 2).

Table 2
Departments and scientific research at The Natural History Museum (UK)

Scientific departments

Research themes

Key aspects of science





Library &





Biomedical Sciences

record / explain

distribution / diversity / ecology / taxonomy

Collections Management


Earth Materials, History and Processes

investigations / properties / relationships

origins / history

Ecological Patterns and Processes

investigate / patterns

conservation / distribution

Environmental Quality

impact assessment

aquatic & terrestrial pollution

Faunas and Floras

description / keys / naming


Systematics and Evolution

investigate / patterns

biodiversity / evolution / systematics

Research, communication, education

The findings presented in this paper reflect attempts to develop more consistent and more objective approaches to the analysis and evaluation of the philosophy and practice of websites in terms of science communication and science education. Each of the three strategies divides its particular perspective into four or five categories and looks for the representation of these elements on the websites. Such an approach inevitably relies upon an ‘expert’ understanding both of natural history museums and of issues in science education and communication, especially in relation to identifying concepts and strategies that are merely implicit. It is hoped subsequently to develop a more sophisticated methodology, incorporating detailed checklists, rather than the crude ‘none-little-more’ scoring presented.

A science communication approach

As part of a study of two new natural history museum exhibitions, King (1996) developed a set of categories relating to aspects of the nature of science, although these categories do overlap or blend into each other, rather than being totally exclusive. It is possible to apply this analytical approach to a selection of natural history museum websites. The rationale for her categories, together with examples of their on-line realisation, is given below. Table 3 presents the results.

    Science as a human endeavour. Presenting science as a social and cultural activity, as a human enterprise, may facilitate enhanced access and help to question the oft-supposed neutrality of science. Some websites, especially those of the larger US natural history museums, include scientists’ names, photographs, case studies and even live links to the field. For example, Chicago’s Field Museum site has on-line exhibits on ‘Women in Science’ and on ‘Adventures in the Field’. Other sites refer more generically to ‘scientists’ or include rather more limited biographical information.

    Scientists at work. Showing what scientists actually do – processes such as investigation, publication and debate – can contribute to an understanding of the status and validity of scientific knowledge. The vast majority of sites include considerable reference to the research activity of their scientists. This may be implicit – look for terms such as investigate, discover, model, describe, identify, experiment, analyse, properties, patterns, relationships – or, more rarely, explicit.

    The status of scientific ideas. Stressing scientific ideas as theories or models – rather than as incontrovertible fact or the revelation of truth – leads to a different view of scientific understanding. Much of the material that is easily accessible on websites (ie relatively few clicks from the home page) tends to give the impression of science as ‘the sure and solid mastery of nature’ (Durant 1992). Where there are more reflective and discursive approaches, they tend to be rather deeper in the site.

    Doubt and debate. Presenting scientific ideas as the best model so far developed introduces scope for further questioning and reinterpretation of evidence. Although many sites explore the scientific research process, there is little evidence of the dynamic interplay between conflicting or competing ideas.

    Opportunities for visitors to formulate their own opinions: an exhibition can reflect the social construction of science and encourage the visitor to formulate his or her own opinion. Given the inherently interactive nature of the web as a medium of communication, it is perhaps surprising that there are few examples of empowering learners or even of facilitating dialogue. The increasing practice of such approaches in science centres – although not necessarily on their websites (Hawkey 2001a) – may be expected to have an impact on this.

Table 3
King’s (1996) categories applied to selected websites


Field (Chicago)


California Academy


science as human endeavour
what scientists do
nature of scientific knowledge
doubt & debate
own opinions
Key: ** clear and/or frequent * evident - little or none apparent

A science process approach

Many formal science curricula, such as those in the UK (QCA 1999) and in the USA (AAAS 1993), include among their requirements some study of the nature, methodology and operation of science, as well as some understanding of its knowledge base. Beyond the classroom, recent developments in thinking about scientific literacy or the public understanding of science have also given increasing emphasis to the processes and practices of science (House of Lords 2000).

Significant among these are:

    influences on and mechanisms for selection of research programmes

    the collection and analysis of data

    the evaluation of evidence and its interpretation

    the development of models, hypotheses and theories

    publication, debate and peer review

All of these issues feature in the research programmes of natural history museums and are potentially accessible through the material made available on-line. These provide an alternative series of elements for which evidence can be sought. Each is explored below, while Table 5 provides a summary of this analysis, which can be compared with to that presented (Table 3).

Selection of research programmes

In recent years both students and the general public have increasingly come to question earlier notions that science is inherently beneficial and worthy of support. A heightened realisation that science is neither certain nor neutral – especially in its selection of topics for research – has been a significant factor in this. Rationale for research is therefore expected to be explicit, even in apparently non-controversial areas, and natural history museum websites are beginning to go some way towards providing this.

The most frequently emphasized, and the most likely to be explicitly expressed, is ‘biodiversity’. Biodiversity is a theme that looms large in the realm of natural history museum websites, despite its being a term little understood by non-specialists, and one that is not present in many school science curricula. (The National Curriculum in England & Wales (QCA 1999) has recently introduced the concept of ‘sustainable development’, but ‘biodiversity’ itself remains surprisingly absent.)

Natural history museums display a range of examples of biodiversity resources on their websites. Some of these are virtual representations of real exhibitions. Others stand alone. There are even examples that encourage learners to participate in the collection, identification and mapping of organisms such as woodlice (Hawkey 2001b).

Other than biodiversity, the most common rationale given for natural history museum research is for the benefits that it can offer to humanity: predicting volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, increasing food supplies, locating oil and gas reserves, maintaining and conserving natural resources. Occasionally, reference is made to economic or commercial considerations – and even, rarely, to sources of funding – but often the goal is expressed simply as that of ‘better understanding’.

Data collection and analysis

The collection of data and its subsequent analysis are integral to much of the scientific process. Almost every natural history museum website includes reference – whether in outline or in detail – to more traditional and/or contemporary methods. Table 4 indicates a range of these, divided into predominantly field and laboratory techniques, drawn from a variety of sites.

Table 4
Methods of data collection and analysis




    chemical indicators


    ecological techniques

    field observation

    field research

    describe & name


    experimental growing

    microscopic analysis


    fossils to locate oil/gas

    satellite telemetry

    age determination by isotope analysis

    computer analysis

    molecular biology (DNA analysis)

    3d X-ray

    mass spectrometry

    high resolution transmission / scanning electron microscopy

Evidence and interpretation

Recent reports on museum education (Anderson 1999) and in both science education (Millar & Osborne 1998) and science communication (House of Lords 2000) have proposed a shift in emphasis in the presentation of science. These changes in balance can be summarised as moving from a perception of science as unquestioned answers to one of unanswered questions (AAAS 1993), or from expectation to inspiration, from elucidation to innovation and from interpretation to empowerment (Hawkey 2001c).

Developing learners’ understanding, however simply, of the kinds of questions that scientists ask about evidence – and the ways in which they interpret it – must be a key aim of the science educator. However, despite some clear statements of policy and some excellent examples such as Science Casebook (The Natural History Museum 1997), the links between data collection and accepted scientific ‘knowledge’ are often tenuous. Natural history museums as a sector have yet to acquire the confidence to expose the less committed learner to the issues.

The more advanced student can, however, find excellent resources, often in the form of on-line essays. What could be more enthralling than Martian Meteorites, and the search for life on Mars (Grady 1999), with its explicit emphasis on evidence and its interpretation?

Models, hypotheses and theories

Despite some attempts to indicate ‘how we know’ or ‘what we do not yet understand’, the majority of natural history museum websites do present science as a fixed body of knowledge. This is, in essence, little different from the perspective of their nineteenth century counterparts – the transmission of the curator’s expert knowledge to an ignorant public. The challenge for museums is to present the dynamism and fluidity of science as well as an authoritative view of current understanding (Hawkey 2001c). It will be interesting to see whether the changes in emphasis recommended in recent studies make any impact.

Meanwhile, however, for those prepared to delve deep, there are alternative insights. In many ways parallel to the discussion of life on Mars – and even more difficult to find – is Stringer’s (1999) essay, entitled Were the Neanderthals Our Ancestors? Although also concerned with evidence, this provides lively access to the nature and status of scientific ideas. 

Publication, debate and peer review

Students and public alike – and, especially, the media – frequently express surprise when scientists disagree. Whether or not one takes a Kuhnian view on paradigm shifts, a key element of the scientific process is argument, discussion, debate. Publication – at conferences, in journals or on-line – is an essential component of this process. Although publications do feature on natural history museum websites, they rarely give this critical perspective and are more likely, for a public audience, to be used for the simple dissemination of information, with any element of dialogue reserved for experts.

There are rare examples of web resources that allow learners to share findings and ideas. One such is QUEST, significant among whose features is an on-line notebook. This provides access to this aspect of science – discussion and debate – that is all too often absent from conventional learning resources, and rarely included as a significant component of formal science education (Hawkey 2000a). 

Table 5
Evaluation of natural history museum websites, using science process categories

Field (Chicago)


California Academy


rationale for research
data collection
evidence & interpretation
models, hypotheses, theories
publication, debate, peer review

Key: ** clear and/or frequent * evident - little or none apparent

A science education approach

It is possible to focus on the technical aspects of the use of the Internet for learning. It is common to stress ways in which the Internet can deliver conventional science education messages more rapidly, more effectively and to a much wider audience. But the essential issues of on-line learning are much more fundamental. It is now twenty-one years since Papert (1980) imagined, in the broader context of educational computing, a learning revolution. He envisaged a complete reappraisal of the curriculum and of pedagogy, with the responsibility for decisions about learning being transferred to the learners themselves. As Hawkey (2001a) has observed, use of the Internet can facilitate democracy and differentiation by learner choice. Do the websites of natural history museums provide such opportunities? Has Papert’s view come of age or are his ideas still in their infancy?

Resource (2001) has recently produced an extensive report that explores the whole basis of museum education on-line. Not only is this analysis useful in its own right, but it reaffirms the dictum that the key issues of on-line learning are essentially the same as those relating to learning in any museum context. Hawkey (1999b) has suggested four categories in which to evaluate the potential of resources, especially websites, for science education. These ask the teacher (or, increasingly, in independent learning scenarios, the learner him or herself) to consider four factors.

* Is the proposed activity intrinsically worthwhile, rather than merely trivial?

Of course, any notion of ‘worthwhile’ is subject to changes in philosophical, ethical and sociological perspectives; it is even possible to argue that desirable goals can give meaningful status to apparently trivial tasks. And if the website is intended primarily as an information resource, to be incorporated into an educational programme, then any consideration of worth will depend on the wider context.

* Is using the resource inherently interactive?

Although it is important not to simplistically equate museum interactives with multi-media, Caulton’s (1998) definition of an interactive museum exhibit can be readily extended to the virtual domain. He requires that there are ‘clear educational objectives which encourage individuals or groups of people working together to understand real objects or phenomena through physical exploration which involves choice and initiative’. It certainly seems appropriate to expect a website with educational aspirations to incorporate clear learning objectives and a multiplicity of outcomes depending on the visitor’s individual explorations.

* Does the material provide an appropriate model of scientific enquiry?

(This has been dealt with in previous parts of this paper.)

* Does the use of the website embrace an apposite philosophy of education?

There is a naïve model of education, increasingly inappropriate in an age of information, which regards learning principally as the receipt of knowledge (Hawkey 2000b). This is certainly unsuited to the museums of the 21st century, which are places for exploration and learning through discovery, and where – rather than provide all the answers – exhibits should ‘be interactive and stimulate the visitor to ask questions’ (Abungu 1999). This idea is also evident in Anderson’s (1999) study, which signals the move of museum education ‘away from the rigid, supply-side model of the past, and towards individual choice and responsibility for learning in a diversity of contexts’. And, if ‘…museums offer the learner the opportunity to stop at will, to loiter and repeat, to ignore what does not stimulate, and to share what seems interesting’ (Hein 1990), then museum websites should do so par excellence.

A similar theme is taken up by Wild & Quinn (1998), who point out the importance of providing multiple paths for navigation that facilitate choice. This enables the learner to ‘engage, explore and build’, by providing information resources, deliberately facilitating cognitive processes and offering opportunity for ‘scaffolded reflection’. The attempt of QUEST to fulfil these aims and to support different learning styles is evident in its underlying educational philosophy and rationale (Hawkey 1999a). Indeed, in many ways it appears to be the very antithesis of the conventional approaches taken by museums in providing access to objects and educational programmes (Hawkey 1998).

It is important to distinguish between perceptions of knowledge – from revealed truths to best-fit paradigms – and perspectives on learning – from tabula rasa to personal sense making. There are both epistemological and cognitive perspectives that are often labelled as ‘constructivist’ and which, as Hein (1995) has highlighted, have frequently caused confusion and contradiction in the museum context. His simple model overcomes this, creates four complementary, but distinct, philosophies – and can be applied to museum websites as readily as to museum exhibitions. The categories so created – behaviourist, constructivist, didactic and heuristic – form a useful means of checking both the philosophy of science and that of education that are predominant. Figure 2 applies the model to a number of elements of the website of The Natural History Museum (UK); it could equally well be applied to that of any other museum on-line.

Figure 2: Hein’s (1995) model applied to the NHM website (www.nhm.ac.uk)


Despite a number of exceptions such as those exemplified in this paper, the majority of natural history museum websites have yet to realise the opportunity to bring science education and communication into the modern age. (More sites were surveyed than is apparent from the examples given, but most showed little evidence of the research process.) All too often science is presented only as ‘revealed truth’ and both education and communication as uni-directional transmission. The potential of the Internet for museums to truly share their passion for science, especially the less fashionable areas such as systematics, is clear. That such an opportunity coincides with changes in views about the public understanding of science and about the role of museums (both already evident) – and with a radical reappraisal of curricular and pedagogical thinking (starting to make an impression) – makes it an opportunity not be missed.

Given the cautions expressed, natural history museum websites certainly provide a resource that those engaged in science education, learners and teachers alike, can use to support their studies of the nature of science.


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About the author. . .

Roy Hawkey holds a first degree in Natural Sciences from the University of Cambridge and a Master's in Science Education from King's College, London. He has been Head of Education at The Natural History Museum since 1995, where he is responsible for all aspects of the Museum's educational programmes, both formal and informal, for all audiences from pre-school to post-graduate. He has published widely on science education and continues to give conference papers and presentations on a variety of topics, although his principal interests are the development of resources for independent and constructivist learning, the role of ICT in science education and the public understanding of science.

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