Starting A Regional Natural History Museum:What's Important, and How to Begin

CITATION: Schueler, Frederick W. & Aleta Karstad. 2002. Starting a regional natural history museum: What's important and how to begin. 31 pp. booklet produced for Lake Abitibi Model Forest, Sept. 2002.
[museum work] [museum label]

Starting A Regional Natural History Museum: What's Important, and How to Begin

ADDRESS: Bishops Mills Natural History Centre, Bishops Mills, RR #2 Oxford Station, Ontario K0G 1T0 (613)258-3107 and Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum, Box 1860, Kemptville, Ontario, Canada K0G 1J0


Introducing us
What is a natural history museum?
How Does A Museum Differ From A Nature Centre?
Why Do We Need Active, Collection & Research-based Regional Museums?
What Kind of People is A Museum Looking for?

The Initial Steps, Initial nucleus, Circulate plan to community, Call a meeting of "stakeholders," Form a Steering Committee, Visit other museums, Hold a visioning exercise...
Decide on the guiding principles, Draw up job descriptions, Decide about Museum Membership...
Draw up a business plan, Choose a totem and design a logo, Choose a Pro-tem Board of Directors, Incorporate, Secure a museum site...

Geographical Mandate
Community Outreach
Field Work/nature Outings
Publishing / Museum Shop
Fund Raising / Promotion
Observer Network / E-mail List


Introducing us: We have lived in Bishops Mills, the centre of the Kemptville Creek Drainage Basin, between Kemptville and Brockville in Eastern Ontario, since 1978. As collectors for the National Museum, we have travelled throughout Canada south of the Arctic, and as local naturalists, we have observed and recorded much of what comes to our notice. We take note of the weather, and how it affects timing and movements of plants, insects, snails, frogs, fish, birds, and mammals. Each organism whose name we learn becomes a neighbour to keep track of. Part of our endeavours to share knowledge about our flora and fauna has led toward an all-taxon inventory held in the Eastern Ontario Natural History Database, and part has led toward art and literature.

In 1993 we began to call ourselves the Biological Checklist of the Kemptville Creek Drainage Basin, in an attempt to counter the anthropocentric bias of local politics with an institution centred on the nonhuman inhabitants of the area, and in 2002 this is evolving into the non-profit organization Fragile Inheritance Natural History, which has its physical base at the Bishops Mills Natural History Centre which is the building of the former Bishops Mills General Store.

In our travels around Canada, Fred's first visit to Cochrane was in 1971, and in 1972 made the first visit to Long Lake sampling site, which has since 1983 become a regular programme of spring and autumn visits to monitor the growth and abundance of Frogs, Salamanders, and Snakes.

Both of us have been involved in and affiliated with natural history museums since our student days. Fred worked as a curatorial assistant in the ornithology collection at Cornell University as an undergraduate, and collected for the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) during his years as a graduate student at the University of Toronto. As an art student at Central Technical School, Aleta had weekly classes at the ROM and began to use its specimens as reference for her work as a budding biological illustrator. After completing Art School, she worked as an illustrator in exhibits at the National Museum of Natural Sciences (NMNS, now Canadian Museum of Nature, CMN) in Ottawa, and collected amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates for the museum during a visit to Kenya. After her marriage to Fred in 1973, she continued freelancing as an artist for the museum in Ottawa, but also had a part time job at the ROM in Toronto, cataloguing in the Bird collection. We moved to Bishops Mills when Fred began a two year post-doctoral fellowship at the NMNS, and to this date he is the CMN's longest-standing research associate.

Despite working with the National Museum, we have long regretted the centralization of natural history collections that took place through the 20th Century. In the 19th Century many local naturalists, schools, and other institutions kept collections of a variety of specimens, both for research and teaching, but through the 20th century, beginning with the restrictions on Bird collecting brought in by the Migratory Bird Convention, these local collections were either lost or consolidated in ever-fewer ever-larger collections. Techniques for collection care and information management were developed and professionalized in the large institutions. Naturalists who did not have easy access to the big museums then grew up relying on popular books for their knowledge of local biota - and were estranged from the tenuous character of this knowledge, and how wide were the gaps that were papered over by the zip-tone maps and carefully crafted generalizations in the field guides.

Until the 1970's, as provincial and National museums carried out vigorous programmes of exploration and collecting, the consolidation of collections and research into a few institutions didn't seem to be a great evil. Since then, our "need to know" has become urgent. Habitat destruction has continued and legislated requirements for knowledge of species distribution, abundance, and status have increased, and a few centralized institutions have proven unequal to the detailed work required all over the country. In the 1980's provincial museums were unloading collections on the National Museum in Ottawa, and in the early 1990's even the National Museum was run by managers' who didn't understand its mandate to explore Canada's natural history, and who weren't able to present an effective case for adequate government funding. We worked with the True Friends of Nature' to expose some of the problems and suggest solutions.

These three factors --
  1. the continued need for exploration
  2. the decreased effectiveness of centralized institutions
  3. the importance of acknowledging collections as the basis of nature knowledge
led us to suggest that the orphaned teaching and research collections of Carleton University become the core of a new regional natural history museum for Eastern Ontario. The Canadian Biodiversity Institute helped to realize that goal. The Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum (EOBM) has now been open to the public as a full service museum in Kemptville since 1999.

Drawing on our many years of working with and in museums, as collectors, cataloguers, preparators, researcher, illustrator, exhibit designer, writers, and teachers, always coming in the 'back door' with the workers, rather than the 'front door' with the administrators and visitors, we have given much thought about what is unique and distinctive about the culture of museum work and how this culture can best be taught. We have witnessed the conflict between the work that is done at museums and the hostile administrative atmospheres to which many have been subjected. At its best, museum culture is based on a tradition of free sharing of specimens, resources, and data, with multi-talented workers whose positions depend on competence and willingness rather than on formal certification, sharing collegial relationships in a broadly non-hierarchical workplace. This 'potlatch' culture is, of course, often largely observed rather than prescribed, because the organization of many museums is dictated by the hierarchical forms of parent or host institutions. This museum culture does the real museum work, often despite a state of constant struggle against administrative regimentation and regulation.

Because museum work is not just scientific scholarship, but extreme scholarship embodied in bulky objects (rather than working only with convenient texts or classes of objects or compounds), and because museums are often the creatures of local or provincial governments, and are subject to public expectations of what they should be, museum work is often caught uncomfortably -- with a lot of push and pull -- between the scholarly and commercial ways of life.

Three philosophical tenants of museum-based understanding

Each of these mid-20th century philosophical advances inverts the traditional way of thinking about biological subjects - population thinking makes the individual rather than an abstract ideal the 'real' subject of study, authentic hypothetico- deductive reasoning makes doubt the engine of certainty and agreement, and phylogenetics connects individuals and species through time by a history of change and inheritance rather than as random members of a class - and our relatives rather than our slaves or automata. Each of these tends towards or derives from a democratic world view in which externally imposed mystery is replaced by internally generated wonder and interest - the world is, in the Haida phrase, 'as sharp as the edge of a knife' because of the historical uniqueness of its composition and inhabitants (see O'Hara, Robert J. 1997. Population thinking and tree thinking in systematics. Zoologica Scripta, 26: 323-329.).

authentic epistemology (Karl Popper) - One of the most basic questions is 'how do we know a generalization is true?' Popper gave up on the long and unsuccessful search for philosophical surety, and asserted that we can't know - we can never absolutely affirm that "All Ravens are black," because we can never be sure, for any assertion, that the Queen Charlotte Islands Observer won't break out in stories about a white Raven hanging around Port Clements. Only hypotheses that could be refuted are allowed to count as scientific, and the only genuine tests of a scientific theory are attempts to refute or to falsify it. In this view, science builds up a vast webby nebula of logically interconnected stories fitted over the unknowable face of the truth like a mask, fitting more closely in some areas, and more loosely in others. This inverted approach to Truth endows individual objects with scientific importance as potential falsifiers of a multitude of theories. If the stories are about the natural world, the critical objects either are, or must become, museum specimens, since it's only by re-examining the material our predecessors worked with that we can re-study their hypotheses, and only by examining old specimens that we can test hypotheses about past conditions.
Popper was an Austrian/English philosopher of science (1902-1994), see The Logic of Scientific Discovery. 1959. (translation of Popper, 1934. Logik der Forschung). Hutchinson, London. and

population thinking (Ernst Mayr) - Population thinking rejects the idea that each species has a somehow intrinsic essential character, and instead sees every species as a varying population of populations of interbreeding individuals. "For those who have accepted population thinking, the variation from individual to individual within the population is the reality of nature, whereas the mean value ('the type') is only a statistical abstraction." The shadows on Plato's cave wall are no longer the actual objects of this World, but the ideas we have about them and the stories we tell about them. The implications for museums are clear: since variation is the real object of study, the a series of specimens from which statistical conclusions may be drawn replaces the 'typical specimen' as the representative of each species and locality in the museum collection.
Mayr is a German/American ornithologist and philosopher of biology (1904- ) see Animal Species and Evolution. 1963. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press (expansion of Mayr, 1942. Systematics and the Origin of Species). and

phylogeny (Willi Hennig) - Phylogenetic thinking implements the Darwinian realization that living organisms are not independent replicates within a class, but are instead interconnected parts of an evolutionary history (phylogeny). Hennig's insight was that natural taxa (species or groups of species) could only be those that included all the descendants of a single ancestral species - not necessarily those that were bodily the most similar. Further, these groups can only be recognized by the shared possession of new characters that originated in the ancestral species, and derived characters of particular interest to the taxonomist were no grounds for placing a group in its own taxon of higher or equal rank to its ancestor. In a nested classification you can't have a group 'Reptilia' (cold-blooded Amniotic Vertebrates) of equal rank to others made up of descendants of 'reptiles,' such as Aves (feathered warm-blooded Amniotes) and Mammalia (hairy warm-blooded Amniotes). Subsequent workers have developed methods of objectively finding these evolutionary trees, and the organization of data on phylogenetic trees has revolutionized the museum sciences: systematics, taxonomy, biogeography, geographic variation, and comparative biology.
Hennig was a German dipterist (1913-1976) see Phylogenetic Systematics. 1966. University of Illinois Press, Urbana (translation by D. Dwight Davis & Rainer Zangerl of Hennig, 1950. GrundzŁge einer Theorie der Phylogenetischen Systematik.)

It has been our dream since 1974 to establish local natural history museums, and we have been encouraged by our association with the Haida Gwaii Museum of Qay'llnagaayand visits to Sam Waller's Little Northern Museum in the Pas, and the founding of the EOBM, to continue across Canada, encouraging

a network of regional natural history museums, founded to

  • study local fauna and flora
  • care for existing collections and make them accessible
  • provide active community centres for learning about and participating in the study of local natural history.


MUSEUM: source of knowledge (research & education both)
  • keeps extensive series of well-documented specimens
  • bases its exhibits on explictly well-documented specimens
  • emphasizes evidence for what we think we understand
  • facilitates exploration and observation to fill in the gaps in knowledge
  • teaches uncertainty and the extent of ignorance - encourages investigation

    NATURE CENTRE: a way of disseminating knowledge (education only)
  • may keep limited representative collections for aid in identification - as representatives of what is already known rather than sources of new knowledge
  • may participate in field studies and monitoring projects initiated by other organizations, but does not keep what is found for specimen-based research
  • teaches facts, its philosophy is about being sure

    ...though of course each institution falls somewhere between these ideals, and at the far extreme of the museum ideal...


    ...a new kind of institution that would take on the largely ignored primary responsibility of government, which it would radically redefine as the relationship between People and their non-human neighbours. The methods of this institution would grow out of the culture of the traditional natural history museum. Its interactions with the public would flow from its collections and research, explicitly tied to the scholarly methods the collections embody and the methods exemplify.

    A natural history museum is the oracular temple to self-immolating Truth, the modern home of the truth-speaking Muses from whom it is named. In this temple, the children Truth has made from herself by descent-with-modification-by-natural-selection are revealed and understood through the analogous processes of hypothetico-deductive scholarship. In a museum every individual object, no matter how insignificant it may appear, sits at a nexus of history and authentication, theories and hypotheses, that it silently or actively corroborates or falsifies.

    Similarly, everyone who participates at a Museum, no matter how casually they may visit, has the option of contributing to the scientific enterprise of learning to know and understand their neighbours, and the option of learning to know and understand the stories of their history and of the underpinnings of their world. At a museum, scientists, artists, and their diverse helpers participate in the intricate composition and reprising of the nomenclatoral lyrics and systematic melody of the song of the first-given names of all the children of the Earth.

    ...They sacralize life's occupancy of space-time by the exacting struggle to find and document every population and to precisely geo-temporally reference each specimen and observation. They shake out the tenuous dendrograms that represent life's tangled history by the quantum winnowing of phylogenetic systematics, and they build multi-dimensional statistical structures that pluck subtle threads of historical and ecological effect from the differences between geographically separated populations. They assemble exhibitions of objects with authentically pivotal roles in the mazy structure of interlocked stories with which scientific scholarship models Truth, so that visitors can both learn the stories and see the evidence that supports them.

    The themes suggested by this study cannot be fully expressed as formal verbal or mathematical models, and they are, accordingly, drawn out in multi-dimensional graphic artistry, chanted as songs, parsed in verse, laid out as essays, and dramatically re-enacted.


  • 'Our Area' is unique - and given the lack of attention paid to many aspects of natural history, is is effectively unknown, especially in the public knowledge of published scholarship. Environmental change and advances in knowledge and interest constantly require re-exploration of every territory, and there are ever-increasing levels of spatial detail and environmental and biotic correlation at which every territory can be profitably explored. H.D. Thoreau 'travelled a good deal in Concord,' providing an unparalleled public record of its biota and making fundamental advances in ecology simply by constantly re-exploring his ancestral ground.

  • special features to be proud of, and problems to be solved - such as Unionids mussels in Claybelt Rivers which only can be studied during drought summers - can only be discovered by local residents who know the land and waters, in consultation with specialists who know what to look for...

  • the museum can present special features to both residents and visitors...

  • engage local naturalists to help find out more - and to know what's unknown

  • teach local youth to learn about and value local natural communities, understand the effects of human interventions in these communities, and to be involved in research and conservation.

    Caution: Generalized 'nature' information may be misleading -
  • gives the impression that more is known than actually is, leading to complacency - populations of Northern Leopard Frogs may be 'stable' in southern Ontario, but we may not know they're gone from NE Ontario if nobody's worrying about them.
  • propagates facts that may not be correct for the local area
  • does not inform about threats to local species and areas
  • may be based on sketchy or regionally inappropriate observations


    You'll want People with both specialized and general knowledge who are comfortable with consensual decision making. In a museum every worker has a unique combination of knowledge and skills, and each has knowledge and skills that will bear on a wide range of problems. Respect and deference are granted in proportion to these needs and abilities, with shifting patterns of dominance in different situations. For this reason, it is important to minimize hierarchical attitudes towards governance, and secrecy has no legitimate place in any scholarly institution. Consensus takes time in regular staff meetings where everyone has the opportunity to have their say (and to learn to hold their tongue when they really haven't anything to say), but it pays off in the time and trouble saved when trust is established and decisions can be made quickly or indepedently without resentment.

    WARNING: Be sure the relationship between the institution and any founding couple is clearly defined. A wife and husband team can work very hard and effectively in founding a musuem, but they can't be treated as independent individuals by the Board or by other workers. A wide range of kinds of trouble is likely to ensue if the distinctiveness of this entire-household devotion isn't explicitly recognized and acknowledged, or if the founding couple comes to regard the museum as a part of their household.

    Training: ignorance of any part of the museum's work should not be allowed to persist. Everyone who works at the museum should be encouraged to learn at least the rudiments of biological taxonomy, phylogeny, statistics, & monitoring; the names of at least many of the species the museum works with & the outlines of local geological and biotic history; principles of specimen preparation, labelling, & conservation; profit margins in the gift shop; how to set up a webpage; how to lead vistors through the exhibits; and how to feed the Salamanders. For employees teaching and learning this general material should be formally 'part of the job' whether through reading, nagging, or seminars, and the same opportunities should be provided to volunteers (this internal training can also serve to develop material for external programmes on the same subjects).

    Appreciation & social interaction :
    No one can continue to work, especially as a volunteer, if their contribution isn't explicitly (but please not gushingly) appreciated and noticed as an integral part of the progress towards the museum's goals. Parallel to 'quiet curatorial work' is the gossipy conversation which may seem (to the efficiency-minded) a waste of time, but is the means by which the workers gain their well-rounded knowledge of what each other knows. Working and eating together is a big part of this - curatorial and construction work can be organized as bees, everyone in the building should be herded into regular 1000h and 15000h coffee breaks, evening programmes should be preceeded by potluck suppers, and seasonal outdoor meals will get the staff and volunteers together away from the museum building. Nonetheless, reclusive workers and not-talking-to-each-other are also elements of the museum tradition, and should be expected and worked around.

    As examples, here is a list of the kinds of people that the EOBM either has employed, worked with, or consulted. The reason we've named them as individuals is because you are not going to find other people with these particular combinations of these skills, but you need all these skills, and you will be able to find them. With the drawing up of this list we are again impressed with the quality and the caring with which the museum has been blessed. The museum way of working is really there among people of goodwill all through the community. There are others whom we haven't listed here, especially volunteers, but we've tried to list enough of them to show a balance of their roles in the museum.

    a D-M-A----- sort of person as the Curator
  • a good general naturalist, has done PhD level research (whether or not holding the degree)
  • knows a wide range of taxa at the species level
  • a competent and conservation-minded collector
  • writes well and publishes voluminously
  • a frugal manager, but willing to spend to get what the museum needs
  • probably recruited from outside the community, has been waiting for a long time for a 'job in a museum'

    a R---- S-------- sort of person as the Database Manager
  • a good naturalist
  • loves data -- loves to use it and 'keep it clean'
  • competent with all forms of databases
  • has some statistical training

    a N---- L------- sort of person as Manager
  • understands research and collections
  • intelligent and friendly
  • efficient and well organized
  • field experience and likes to be out doing things
  • understands where the sources of funding are
  • can speak with authoritative understanding about the museum's activities and research

    an A---- M---- sort of person to design and make exhibits
  • intelligent, quick to learn, with active imagination
  • good sense of design, with good skills in draughtsmanship and lettering
  • museological training
  • is passionate about archival material stability and conservation of specimens
  • particular about details, and a job well done
  • facile with computer graphic design
  • good writer

    an A----- H----- sort of person as Education Coordinator
  • loves to learn as well as teach
  • teaching experience in both classroom and elsewhere
  • familiar with mandated curriculum and classroom routine
  • comfortable in the field (not squeamish)
  • good sense of artistic taste (won't impose vulgar cartoons on museum decor)

    a G--- H----- sort of librarian
  • interested in acquiring equipment for the museum, and in looking after the equipment
  • a good naturalist with an in-depth interest in some taxa
  • loyal, and tolerant of museum demands

    a M--- R----- sort of technical volunteer
  • loves to take care of live animals - to slosh dirty turtle water about
  • willing to enter any environment where it is suggested something might be caught
  • runs his own research projects

    a M---A---- H----- sort of volunteer
  • a special needs high-school teacher
  • boundless energy and enthusiasm, physically active
  • learns avidly anything about nature, loves all living things
  • willing to docent exhibits on her own, and help with any reasonable project
  • intensely involved in the community

    a S--- H----- sort of network observer
  • interested in the things that make a big difference to the landscape
  • always ready to go out and observe some class of phenomenon
  • a note-taker who naturally keeps his own database of observations
  • well-versed in resource management
  • good contacts with local landowners and sportsman groups

    a K----M-I------ sort of construction volunteer
  • cheerful and willing to help whenever asked -- helps a wide range of people
  • superb carpentry skills
  • passionate about environmental issues, conservation of materials, frugality, and good design

    a B-- W----- sort of explorer
  • local explorer -- prepared to take a GPS where no one has taken one before
  • an excellent photographer
  • enthusiastic about new technologies
  • a good webpage-designer
  • active in conservation advocacy, with many contacts

    a M---- M------ sort of young naturalist
  • teenage naturalist, boundless enthusiasm
  • remembers every nature fact and species name
  • loves to ask questions and also to teach others
  • a good field companion, he'll go anywhere
  • keeps his own field notes
  • interested in field equipment

    a J--- W------ sort of curatorial volunteer
  • elderly retired academic, limited mobility
  • avid birdwatcher
  • constant and loyal to quiet curatorial tasks

    Perhaps you'll even be able to find a Don McAllister sort of mentor: "Model Citizen of the World... as fearless and compassionate in his scientific work as he was in his personal life: ready to tackle the taxonomic complexities of Smelts and Sculpins, the first Canadian ichthyological proponent of computer cataloguing and of the field datasheet, always ready to defy hierarchical museum managers, an inventor of computer multi-tasking (3-4 computers running simultaneously among the heaps of documents in different corners of his office in the early 1980's), never shy of new methods of looking at data (even if the Principal Components produced by his HP 9845 PCA programme turned out to be strongly correlated), always ready to expand anything to its logical limits (as the taxonomic dictionary of the CURATOR system ballooned into the hundreds of fan-fold samizdat pages of the Fish of the World), never interested in sparing himself trouble or expense in any worthy cause (as when he mortgaged his house in Ottawa to support the training of Philippine fishermen in the non-cyanide capture of aquarium fish), co-collector of the first modern Alasmidonta marginata in Eastern Ontario, mentor, poet, artist, and supporter of collections-based small regional natural history museums." (EOBM Almanack 3(2&3):16).


    WARNING: Discuss goals thoroughly, decide what your mission and objectives are, and make sure that you maintain their integrity and consistency throughout the founding process and in all your operations, and that those who don't adhere to some of the goals make these disagreements explicit at the beginning, so they can be accommodated or asked to defer to the majority. Everyone begins with a personal vision and everyone has something different to contribute, but consensus should determine the museums's purpose, objectives, activities, and role in the community, as well as almost all day-to-day decisions.

    Resolve, or expose any conflicts of vision at this point, or your museum will be weakened by internal discord, wasted effort, and failure to reach its potential. In a lot of issues, there is no harm as long as it is out in the open. However, the more destructive elements in your team are never going to say what their agenda is anyway. Even as they are dragging down the institution, you'll never know why. No matter how clever and useful one of these secretive types may be, it is best to keep them at arms length and deal with them on a business-like basis.

    THE INITIAL STEPS are in more or less this order:

    Initial nucleus: Two to four people who feel comfortable with working together should draw up the initial plan to present to the community.

    Circulate plan to community: respond to suggestions, write further drafts, collect a contact list of interested parties

    Call a meeting of "stakeholders" to get consensus on the need for the institution and what its role will be. You may draw the first members of the Steering Committee from this meeting.

    Form a Steering Committee: some characteristics and groups you may want represented are:
    1. dedicated natural history museum experience
    2. natural scientific experience
    3. naturalist's organization
    4. schools/home-schoolers
    5. resource-extraction industries
    6. writing & desktop publishing
    7. government/government agencies
    8. local business experience
    9. public relations & advertising
    10. nonprofit organizations & conflict resolution
    11. recreation/environment/nature interpretation
    VISIT OTHER MUSEUMS! It is important to send at least some Steering Committee members to a variety of natural history museums (ROM, CMN, EOBM, Ecomuseums in Hull and Montreal, Redpath Museum, Cornell University natural history collections, Adirondack Natural History Museum, etc.) to see what they look like, and how they are run. Prepare a list of questions before you go, and meet somewhere soon afterward to discuss the whole visit.

    Hold a visioning exercise:Early in the process of founding the museum, the steering committee should engage in extensive visioning which should involve not only brain-storming, but deliberate presentations of ideas by members and interested parties from outside, for in-depth discussion. Record carefully and circulate results of all visioning exercises to make sure that no-one's ideas are left out. Revisit the visioning at few-yearly intervals, with enough time committed to it that it's not rushed, with full records kept, and comparisons between each year's conclusions "So in large invertebrates we're backing off from our concentration on clams and Crayfish in rivers, and putting more emphasis on forest-defoliating caterpillars." A pragmatic moderator familiar with what the museum has done is necessary to turn visions into goals, projects, and tasks, getting commitments from proponents of the ideas. Many visions have been wasted when no connection is made to work or there's no attempt to 'get there.'

    Decide on the guiding principles:

    Every Museum has Guiding Principles, either explicitly or by tradition or default. Realize that when you are considering what other institutions have done, that there is a necessary hierarchy of conformity to established practices. Some are pretty well mandatory for museums, and others you have more choice about. The three kinds of guiding principles below are in order of increasing freedom:

    Museological Standards: apply to collection care, and methods of handling and keeping specimens and data. These principles are well-established, and should be adhered to. The most mandatory rule for any museum is that care of the collections comes first!

    Philosophy: Discuss the range of approaches that you will take, and agree upon the philosophy of your institution. However, just as a hospital serves the interests of the sick, and a school its students, remember that a natural history museum serves the interests of the non-human inhabitants of its region rather than of its staff and supporters. In everything presented to the public a museum should emphasise the placing-in-context of the historical viewpoint and of the museum way of study: the depth of time, the phylogenetic patterns of relationship, the identities of homology, the authenticity of specimens, and the story-winnowing humility of scientific epistemology.

    Approach: the methods taken by the institution to reach local residents and visitors. Your list of activities will arise from this, depending upon the interests of the population, the interests of the museum workers, and the collections available. For example, you must decide whether to charge admission.

    Draw up job descriptions: These are necessary from Steering Committee to Board, to volunteers to paid positions, so everyone knows what to expect of themselves and each other. Some roles can be defined as provisional or stopgap, but they should all be on paper. This is a big help in introducing the institution and its workers to new board members, new staff, and potential funders.

    Decide about Museum Membership: Is membership going to be restricted to the governing board, or will it be offered to anyone who is willing to pay a membership fee? Members of non-profit organizations are entitled to vote at the AGM, or in any vote that is called by a petition among members. Museum memberships usually allow free admission to exhibits (if you charge admission), a newsletter or journal, and can also include discounts on fees for programmes and merchandise. Decide upon a range of membership levels, based on level of donation, e.g.: after individual and family, sustaining, life, benefactor, patron.

    Draw up a business plan, but don't be daunted by unknowns - everyone understands that there's need to guess in order to form a business plan, and the plan can be changed as you go along.

    Take care not to commit to on-going expenses that cannot be met. Be aware that frugality is a big part of museum culture, and that if collections are properly housed, decades can intervene between various stages of processing and study, so the episodic funding and staffing characteristic of the present times can be used for this task. If there's continuity in the curatorial direction, it should be possible to support collection care in this way, using the buzzwords 'computer,' 'term employment,' 'archive,' 'database', 'long-term monitoring,' and 'public service,' to attract grant-based support.

    Be on the lookout for windfalls, and be ready to acquire assets that you are likely to be able to use for in-kind exchanges in the future (eg. a big load of used computer equipment, or extra space in a building, or palettes or shelving that can be stored until needed).

    Choose a totem and design a logo: Select a species, or relationship between species, that characterizes your site or message. For instance, if you are a Biodiversity Museum, you may want to have all three kingdoms of macroscopic organisms represented (Plants, Animals, Fungi). Design an elegant and compelling logo that incorporates the totem species, emphasising the accurate representation of the organism, and clarity when it is reproduced at a wide range of scales. You may want to put a giant representation of your totem on the lawn or beside the highway.

    Choose a Pro-tem Board of Directors: (a unelected board of directors to sit until the first annual general meeting). Some of your Steering Committee members will agree to be on the Board. There is a wide range of involvement/uninvolvement practised by various boards, but we think it is optimal to let Board members know that they are expected to:
    1. attend meetings
    2. participate substantially in the work of the museum, especially in low-cost museum functions such as an e-mail list
    3. attend a substantial fraction of the public programmes.
    WARNING: These people will govern the museum for good or ill (or else they'll be deadwood). On one hand you want to have a balanced board. On the other hand, you want to be sure that a board member is not just an ornament, or there to perform their professional work as a volunteer service. A popular practice for board composition is to have a complete range of outside, non-museum expertise, but this is a way that many museums have come to crisis - governed by people who don't understand how museums work or what they need. Even if board members do not participate in the "extreme scholarship" of museum work, it is essential that they appreciate that there is something in this scholarship to understand. This "scholarly principles embodied in objects" work is different from the commercial or government ways of doing things -- of necessity more connected to place and time, to the land and its flora and fauna, more concerned with a the future and the past, and less interested in immediate results.

    Incorporate: In order to operate as a group rather than an individual, you must be incorporated as a business or a non profit organization. The whole tax structure is much more lenient for a non-profit.

    Federal or Provincial? Federal incorporation is an easier process for a non-standard institution in Ontario, as Provincial forms rely heavily on a ready-made set of pre-approved activities for conventional kinds of non-profit groups such as churches, sporting teams, daycares, etc. Since museums are not included in this standard list, there would be an arduous vetting procedure for the wording of objectives and activities. Charitable status usually takes a year to go through the government process (don't ask us why...) If you intend to issue tax receipts to donors at any time, you should apply for charitable status. We have been advised from all quarters to get this application made first, even before incorporation, in order to get Revenue Canada's critique of objectives and activities (this to ensure that you won't have to go back and change the wording of your letter of incorporation when Revenue Canada objects to one of your stated activities or objectives). Until you get charitable status, you may still receive grants and donations as a non-profit organization, However, in order to satisfy requirements for tax receipts from donors, you will need to set up partnerships with one or more like-minded organizations with charitable status who will receive and receipt funds intended for your projects.

    Secure a museum site:
    Your occupancy should be stable for the long term, because it is a great deal of trouble and a lot of labour to move collections, and destructive to move permanent exhibits. You will have to choose between finding an existing building and waiting until you can build something new. With a new building you have control of the layout, and can be guided by texts on museum design. With an existing building, you have got to make do. But the designs of schools and industrial sites are relatively easy to convert to museum use.

    A museum is about work with large numbers of real objects, so you must have lots of space for -

  • ranges - large dark storage spaces for collections with climate control (temperature, humidity) appropriate for the kind of specimen
  • lab space with light (counters, cupboards, shelves, and sinks - likely to be the most deficient thing in accommodations you take over from some other use)
  • office space for desks, computers, and files
  • secure work areas for the Curator, at least two Research Associates, one or two volunteers, and shelf and storage space for one visiting scientist.
  • kitchen and meeting space for staff convenience and easy hospitality
  • exhibits - with separate spaces for permanent and temporary exhibits
  • exhibit construction space
  • storage space for exhibit material and other equipment
  • public programme space
  • museum grounds and access to natural areas

    MUSEUM ACTIVITIES: Advice condensed and revised from the one-page information sheets from the visioning exercise for the EOBM (June 1998):

    GEOGRAPHICAL MANDATE: The core geographical mandate of a museum established by a government will be the territory of that government, but an independent museum will want to define its territory by watersheds or geological regions rather than political boundaries. On the model of the EOBM you may want to choose a politically defined core "programme territory" using county-level boundaries, surrounded by the edges of an ecologically defined "research territory".

    Programme Territory: The Eastern Ontario Model Forest, or Ministry of Natural Resources Kemptville District - Lanark, Leeds-Grenville, Ottawa-Carleton, Stormont-Dundas-Glengarry, and Prescott & Russell counties.

    Research Territory: The entire larger drainage basins which of which the Programme area is comprised: The drainage basin of the Rideau Canal and Ottawa River (including the Nipissing drainage because of its historic connection to the Ottawa), and the direct drainage of the Bay of Quinte, and of St Lawrence upstream of Montreal.

    We try to cover the Programme territory evenly, both in surveys and in providing services to People who live there. We'll seek information from the Research territory, with no obligation to give equal coverage. We won't refuse information from outside the Research area unless there is a significant cost associated with accepting it.

    COLLECTIONS: Museums' authentic specimens of local and exotic organisms form the core of research in biology, and they should be at the core of teaching about biology. People seriously learning about natural history must see and work with the real museum collections, and see the labeling that records the web of authentication that surrounds the specimens. The collections of a regional museum will serve to document the local distribution, variation, & history of the biota, to represent the whole diversity of life to local People, and to hold mass samples of possible future importance to biotic inventories.


  • exhibits will be based on the museum's collections, and all other functions of the museum will use or contribute to the collections.
  • vouchering service for authors of non-taxonomic publications and reports, so that permanent reference material will be available to support their work.
  • identify organisms for diverse sectors of the human community, i.e.: farmers, foresters.
  • make specimens available for teaching natural history in public schools, high schools, and universities.
  • provide hands-on volunteer experience for high school and college students and other volunteers in all aspects of natural history museum work.
  • loan specimens to local schools and natural history artists
  • set up a cataloguing system and database
  • find shelving and containers - whatever you can get out of the basements and attics.
  • locate specimens that may come to the museum (collections held by private individuals, schools, or government agencies)
  • locate backlog material from your area in other museums
  • build synoptic (reference) collections locally and work out a plan for collecting in your area that will balance the need for reference material
  • detailed surveys of the whole research territory
  • use curatorial tasks to teach students about biodiversity
  • provide volunteers with useful work that is mentally tranquil because of its diversity of content within a uniformity of process, and retain them through respect and appreciation so that they provide continuity between episodes of temporary staff..

    Quiet curatorial work. The main thing that is required for proper museum work is tranquillity: freedom to take time for the details. Panics about programmes and events and exhibit preparations are fine as interruptions in the curatorial process, but shouldn't take continuous precedence at the expense of collection care.

    FISCAL BALANCE: Maintaining the collection is always the primary major expense of a museum. Recover as many costs as possible by:

  • charging appropriate user fees
  • sales of locally common value-added specimens such as skeletons prepared by museum Dermestid colony (export to southern museums, zoo-archeological consultants, and other responsible users).
  • sales of teaching kits made up of sets of identified specimens (e.g.: local plants).

    DATABASE: Museum collections and the associated card files were the original databases for biological distribution and life history information. With computers, you can now include more than the museum catalogue -- any kind of data that is can be formatted into the "one-species-at-one-place-at-one-time" record analogous to a museum specimen.

    GOALS: A regional natural history database will help to coordinate research efforts among projects and institutions in the region. It would include a catalogue of specimens held in the museum collections, a gazetteer or significant sites, a classification of species recorded, and observations of all organisms in the territory based on information from various institutions, field notes, and scientific literature. Such a database should disseminate the results of research and help in planning human activities.

  • all knowledge of the biota, including catalogues of specimens held in museum collections
  • observations of all species of organisms in the museum's territory
  • information from various institutions, the raw data of a variety of kinds of research
  • fugitive records such as collected for reports in which the data are not published
  • the biological information that has been centralized in specialized databases like bird atlases (so that everything recorded about a local area would be available locally),
  • partners of the museum could require that all data from their contracts be submitted in a form appropriate for archiving in the museum database
  • a wide range of environmental data, records from naturalists' field notes and the scientific literature.
  • electronic records from observations contributed to the e-mail list

    Naturalists' field notes are often the only records of the natural history of many species over wide stretches of space and time, and a major aim of a regional museum should be to document records from such field notes before they are lost. Even if they are scrappy and kept on poor paper, it is worth making an effort to secure them for posterity.

    AVAILABLE RESOURCES: The museum database may use the format of EOBase, developed by Fred Schueler in FoxPro at the EOBM. Naturalists who have seen this system or used data from it uniformly admire the ease of data entry, manipulation, and extraction. Since 1996 we have been using a Global Positioning System, which frees us from the difficulties associated with manual geo-referencing using maps. EOBase presently contains 45,000 records from all across Canada. Regionally appropriate EOBase records can be transferred to the files of the new museum. This database should also be tied into a GIS system, which in turn should be related to the local Model Forest system and the OMNR's NRVIS system.

    FISCAL BALANCE: Requirements:
  • one full-time staff person
  • one to three nearly-current desk-top computers.
  • volunteers for data input and checking Revenue:
  • contract preparation of reports for government and private agencies
  • user fees for data extracted for funded projects

    INTERNET: The internet is the medium for institutional advertisement and information dissemination in the modern world. A website is another medium for making multiple and continuing use of what the museum does.

    GOALS: Electronic communication of data makes selected aspects of a museum's programmes instantly available world-wide, and is an important way to allow a community of People to be in touch with each other on a daily or more-frequent basis. Naturalists in New Brunswick, for example, follow the movement of migrant Birds and the emergence of Butterflies across the province on the
    NATURENB list. The museum should have an active internet site, and use e-mail lists to communicate with its membership, report observations from its observer network to the database, and to catalyse relationships between internet users and non-users. A good long-term goal is to have the whole catalogue and database online, and also have it linked with a "bioinformatics", automatically searchable international network of museum collections.

    FISCAL BALANCE: Requirements:
  • one fairly large, fast computer with modem, CD writer, graphics editing software (or more involved software if you are going to be a server, with the database online)
  • basic internet setup and maintenance is very inexpensive, especially if the structure of the site is kept simple enough for all staff to be able to directly contribute their own work)
  • your own domain (custom website name including website and 5 or more e-mail addresses) and e-mail list service would likely cost between $50 and $100 per month.
    Revenue: the cost of corporate internet services should easily be recovered by sales and interest catalysed by the internet activities.

    RESEARCH: The research done at a regional museum will likely be a combination of contract work for other institutions, individual projects of amateurs, joint projects with other academic institutions, and results from the exploration, surveys, and monitoring carried out by staff and the observer network. This finding-out-what-wasn't-known-before is the heart of museum activity, and all the other activities either serve it in some way, or are driven by it.

    The museum should:
  • make environmental and distributional data as accessible to researchers as possible
  • hold and borrow the specimens researchers need for their work
  • support the work of both taxonomic and non-taxonomic researchers
  • maintain an atmosphere in which researchers are encouraged to undertake and complete projects
  • see that investigators receive samples from the museum territory by seeking out People who are studying taxa that occur in their area
  • support research by collecting specimens of interest to other researchers
  • actively increase the research base of local flora and fauna by providing a venue for the results of field work and observation
  • ensure that the results of research are brought to the attention of the human community as exciting news

  • institutional partners
  • local naturalists who can be encouraged to work more systematically or write up their findings
  • the one big resource now is e-mail and the world wide web - the doorway to the world of scientific expertise and publications.
  • schools and youth groups interested in having students participate in field research and analysis
  • work done for government agencies could be done at commercial rates and generate significant revenue for the museum.
  • The museum takes an appropriate administrative cut from any research projects that come through it.


  • to create a long-lasting network of support and partnerships with surrounding communities.
  • to increase public awareness, interest and activity in the Museum through partnerships and affiliations with local groups and institutions.
  • to turn the attention of society as a whole away from inward-looking anthropocentric activities to the outward-looking understanding and participation in the natural community.
  • local festivals
  • annual museum events which become community traditions
  • museum building and grounds
  • museum staff and volunteers
  • the community itself, with all of its public institutions, service groups, individual volunteers, etc.

    KIDS: Young People are assailed on all sides by insipid pleas for environmental life-styles, but these are usually highly abstract, urban- and anthropo- centric appeals. We need to expose as many kids as possible to the inhabitants of the real world, what they can know about them, what kinds of things are unknown about them, and how to study them. We need to tell kids about the possibility of a deep life-long affiliation with a particular taxon, and to present biophilia as a viable alternative to anthropocentric creeds such as consumerism. The religions that rehearse the event of conversion, are, after all, those where conversion events are most common. If kids never hear or see that the life of a naturalist is a rare rip-roaring hoot, as well as being the most worthwhile crusade possible in the present age of the world, only the most exceptionally motivated will discover this life for themselves. We've got to encourage academic freedom in the schools, and try to offset the distressingly widespread anthropocentrism common among home schoolers.

    PLANS: We hope to relate well with the institutions and organizations in the local community to help with publicity, lend credibility, create partnerships and maintain constant community contact. We will do this by various means: giving talks, participating in community events, and keeping interested parties apprised of the museum's activities.

    FISCAL BALANCE: This will not cost much, as we will be using mostly telephone and e-mail. Any costs that are incurred would be through mailing, photocopying, or time costs. However, good relationships with the communities and organizations of Eastern Ontario can be expected to benefit in the search for funds.

    EXHIBITS: "Museums... centrally... display real objects, in the context of classificatory and explanatory theories, in such a way that the authenticity and importance of the objects is paramount. They demonstrate to a society accustomed to uncritical information and interchangeable objects that scientific scholars have found that Truth cannot be stated with certainty, but can only be hedged in by stories that are vulnerable to falsification but have not yet been proven false. This strange, inside-out, approach to Truth endows individual objects with scientific importance as potential falsifiers of a multitude of theories, and makes museums the heart and centre of our understanding of the natural world." (from proposed Mission Statement for the National Museum of Natural Sciences, 1986, FWS)

  • teach natural history by displaying natural history objects within the context of the theories they corroborate
  • each visitors to recognize the species of the local biota (introducing common plants and animals that are not often seen or understood)
  • teach the geological and biotic history of the region
  • display the specimens important in current museum research
  • understand and appreciate biodiversity both locally and on a global scale
  • construct and loan portable display units
  • display permanent exhibits, both indoors and outdoors at the Museum

    Caution: Don't use old textbook-and-field guide information, or general and misleading internet research for exhibit content and interpretive text. Internet research should find who's doing the research in the field and ask them for a critique of the material that you intend to use. Nobody is so busy that they wouldn't be pleased to be asked about their research for material in a museum exhibit. In "this is the species" ehhibits emphasise what you know about it locally? How did it get here after deglaciation? How does it relate to other species that you have exhibited - and the big Canadian concern is "what does it do in the winter?"

    For example: To do this in an exhibit about Monarch Butterflies, we would feature historical hypotheses about migration routes, discuss the Monarch's relationship with the Viceroy within the Nymphalid family of Butterflies, the common elements in their mimetic colour patterns and how they relate to the colours of other Nymphalids, provide collection data for each specimen displayed, and recount the history of theories about the selective basis of the mimicry between the species.

  • Exhibits could be sponsored by different groups or individuals that have commercial, organizational or individual interest in the subjects of exhibits.
  • Income derived from exhibits may be in the form of admissions and donations.

    PROGRAMMES: Programmes are designed to proactively involve the public, especially young people, in popular science-based ecosystem study projects, which

  • encourage, educate and enable participants to understand and appreciate the region's biodiversity
  • gather observations useful for museum research and teach how to make detailed, permanent records of natural history observations
  • help People see, work with, and make real museum collections, and understand the labelling that makes the specimens useful
  • host regular public lectures, seminars, and workshops on topics ranging from species identification to travel slide shows
  • host conferences on topics of interest to the museum's researchers and associates -- a meeting place, at a provincial or regional scale, for many biodiversity topics that need attention
    Meetings: Start out with small groups, but, with practice, hosting meetings could become fairly routine, and fees, sales of publications and identification kits, and of resulting publication of proceedings could bring in revenue, while billeting visitors in the households of members would expose them to biologists and conservationists of diverse backgrounds. [the EOBM Chorus Frog meeting, modelled on the above paragraph, resulted in a lot of gifts to the museum from participants, though we didn't charge a registration fee]

    Bio-Blitzes: The Bio-Blitz is a community-based volunteer initiative linking science, education and public participation. The activity brings together members of the public with local specialists (both amateur and professional) in taxonomy, natural history and ecology. The objective is to survey an area, and identify and record as many species as possible from as many taxonomic groups as possible in any 24-hour period in May, June or July. Bio-Blitzes can be sponsored and organized by groups such as Scouts, schools, naturalist clubs, etc. with the guidance of the museum, and can be held on either public or private land. Contact Heather Hamilton of The Canadian Biodiversity Institute <> or (613)826-2190 for more information.

    Backyard inventories, or mini-bioblitzes, for interest and education, and also for birthday party 'edutainment' for kids. Our daughter Jennie pioneered this, by attaching bio-blitzes to her elaborate 12th and 13th birthday parties, and it should be possible to use these as a way of reaching kids who wouldn't ordinarily come within the museum's orbit. -- suggested revenue from fees, $100/inventory depending on effort.

    FISCAL BALANCE:programmes should be self-supporting, and in the long run, as delivery becomes more routine, there will be a net input of funds to the museum from the programmes.

  • workshop courses in field note technique, science-media relations, and identification & natural history of particular taxa -- revenue from registration fees >$40/participant, and ultimately from sale of publications.
  • remedial classroom instruction in evolution, biostatistics, particular taxa, and other subjects neglected by the Ontario curriculum, directed at the high-school/college level but open to anyone.-- revenue from fees, ca$100/classroom
  • demonstration projects for backyard biodiversity, sort of a schoolyard greening for households, perhaps with publications sprung from the Lawn Care Manual, tree planting guide, with an infusion of CBI school greening material. -- revenue from sale of manuals

    FIELD WORK/NATURE OUTINGS: The museum's biotic survey of its region should involve active field work as well as the recording of routine and random observations, and should tie into the broad spectrum of ongoing research by the museum's curators, partners and associates. Research-oriented nature outings will provide naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts with increased understanding of biodiversity as they are introduced to a variety of their commonly overlooked neighbours and help to survey those with which they are already familiar.

  • hold regular field outings led by museum workers and others
  • advertize for suggestions from the public of locations and routes for outings
  • report results of each outing in local media
  • be sure that all observations are entered in database
    Volunteer role: Participants in the field trips would be volunteers who would provide their own transportation to the sites by car-pooling. As the database is developed some volunteers would take on data entry for the trips, and sorting, preparation, and curation of samples. As we assemble a network of knowledgeable volunteers the "museum teams" targeting particular taxa would have more volunteer and less staff participation.

    Be prepared to catalyse networks of hiking trails, and to provide information for signage along them, as a way of getting People out into relatively wild habitats.

    COSTS/REVENUES: Costs for field work will mostly be staff transportation, staff time, and curation, and collecting containers. Volunteers would provide much of their own transportation to sites, so this cost would not fall to the museum. If trips are cast as programmes, schools and other groups may pay on a cost-recovery or greater basis. Surveys conducted for government agencies or Conservation Authorities could be done at commercial rates and generate significant revenue for the museum.


  • to disseminate information and to share understanding of natural history, particularly that of the local region
  • to preserve information for the future
  • to inject the museum's findings into the scientific literature
  • to make money for the museum and for continuing publication
  • to publish both on paper and on the internet
  • to sell a variety of items relating to natural history
  • to sell locally produced art and artifacts
    The museum newsletter:
    The museum should make multiple, and continuing, use of every thing it writes. The museum's newsletter should be centred around essays, book reviews, articles reporting natural history observations, and reflective articles, rather than mostly reporting details of organizational doings, past and future. A good journal is the main benefit a museum can provide to members, and it is the benefit that will retain members who live too far from the museum to visit it regularly, while there's nothing gripping about a self-centred NGO newsletter.

    FISCAL BALANCE: Be careful not to have too much stock in the shop that doesn't move -- but on the other hand, you've got to have as wide a variety of books and artifacts as possible. Locally consigned items don't involve any cash outlay, and you realize all the profit on items produced by the museum itself.

  • stock (consigned, made in-house, or purchased)
  • display furnishings
  • staff or volunteers able to attend the shop when it is open
  • a bookkeeping system
    Revenue:Many museums are largely supported by sales from their book & gift shop. In addition to well-stocked shelves, we must have locally authored and produced publications, artifacts, and posters or other art reproductions that many visitors will want to buy, in order to increase the amount of money they leave behind, and to give them something to take home that will remind them of the museum and inform them about the natural history of your region. The emphasis you put on the museum shop will depend on how much tourist attention you will have.


  • To hold as many as possible of the books and periodicals as the staff needs (these may be kept separate from the lending library)
  • to provide a place for private individuals to deposit their series of technical journals or nature-related popular magazines
  • to be linked with the public library system to provide interlibrary loans and community access to its holdings of natural history references
  • to provide other reference materials such as duplicated sets of identified specimens, photo reference files, video documentaries, and electronic databases
  • to provide a quiet place of study for museum visitors, perhaps including a computer for internet research
    FISCAL BALANCE:Requirements:
  • shelving
  • dedicated computer for cataloguing
  • dedicated computer with modem for visitor use
    Donations and Volunteer:
  • you will be flooded with donated books and periodicals
  • you will need a volunteer librarian and other volunteers who like books
  • receive books from the community for special fund-raising book sales
  • library may sell museum publications as well as the gift shop
    Note: If you solicit private donations of books and periodical subscriptions, and exchange publications with the libraries of other institutions you can increase our library holdings without purchasing.


    GOALS: To raise money to support the operations of the museum, above user fees for services, but also, as much as possible, teaching donors about natural history in the process.

    Caution: The museum should provide People with stuff they need, and provide it so efficiently that, while they think they're not paying much for it, what they pay represents a fiscal gain for the museum. It's not healthy to rely entirely on gifts and hard-won grants for support. You also need the assurance, given by payment-for-service, that the museum is providing at least some goods and services People appreciate. And it should be a policy that in grubbing for grants, all applications should include something that provides residual revenue: for each funded programme have a publication, CD or whatever that is produced in numbers greater than that needed at the programme, but which can continue to sell for years afterwards.

    Redefining news: The best anchor for a healthy promotional strategy is a system of frequent press releases about natural history events and research results. News media may appear unwilling to cover natural history news, but it's important to remember that they receive most of what they publish from outside sources rather than seeking them out themselves, and they aren't often provided with 'first Robin,' 'new record of the Elktoe,' or 'Phragmites north of Timmins' press releases. A regular nature column in local newspapers should be cast as news and based on current observations.

    Sources of funding for the museum: There are numerous funding possibilities for the museum, which include:

  • grants from government (the provincial Museum Assistance Program requires that certain of the museum's policies be in place, and that the facility pass a site inspection)
  • grants from foundations (there are many foundations, and they are much set upon by hundreds of worthy causes, so study carefully how well you meet the funders' criteria. The waiting period can be long, with little or no indication of what your chances are)
  • grants and donations from local service groups (you should make an annual presentation to each service group -- go prepared with one or more appealing projects which the group may be pleased to make possible for a few hundred dollars (eg: library, particular exhibits, lab retrofit, field equipment, a boat, etc.). Present them with some snappy new ideas that they haven't known before!
  • donations from individuals (these are simple and easy to get once a willing donor is located. Meaningful personal contact is essential - donors have to feel involved', and they need to see that something has changed as a result of their donation. Thank them with a gift or put their name on something in the museum, and follow up with further friendly contact, regular news, and more opportunities to give in subsequent years)
  • donation box revenue (an imaginative, interactive donation box can be a compelling "game" for kids)
  • User fees for visitor entry, programmes, exhibit rental, contract research, specimen loan and database access fees (you may rather not charge admission fees if you think donation box revenue would be equal or greater)
  • Gift/book shop sales, sales of field guides, museum publications, etc. (some of this may be mail-order, especially useful in non-tourist season)
  • Various classes of memberships
  • corporate sponsorships of exhibits or programmes
  • Tourism-based operational and developmental grants (there can be a considerable amount of local politics involved in this -- your community contacts are vital)
  • Community-based fund-raising events, community picnics, collaboration with local recreation council, charity auctions, charity dinners, & dances (you may want to try what has worked well in your community for other groups, without treading on anybody's toes)


  • The opening of the museum gives a good opportunity to hold a fund raising event, in the case of the EOBM a lecture by Robert Bateman. This can be repeated annually - if you've got volunteers ready to do the work, and enough prestige in the community to charge enough for admission to make it a fund-raising rather than fund-razing event.
  • The museum should establish or participate in one or two key events which are held annually so that these become identified with the museum in the human community. Examples include a large community garage sale and an annual book fair. Both of these types of events raise many thousands of dollars in the Ottawa area for the organizations running them. However, they also require a great deal of volunteer labour and time.

    Fred's cautionary challenge: Make sure that everything you do for fund-raising also teaches some aspect of the natural history message - you dilute your impact if you sponsor events solely for fund-raising that don't teach anything about natural history and don't attract your members. Bingos, lotteries, and other conventional games of chance, despite 'fun' that the participants may endure, or the 'good' they may think of as the goal of this 'fun,' is gambling, and gambling is, and is widely recognized as, an exploitation of ignorance of the laws of probability - a 'tax on stupidity' in the conventional phrase. Correct statistical inference is at the root of systematic practice (remember 'population thinking'), and chance plays a large role in evolutionary and biogeographic success, so you shouldn't exclude chance-based activities from fund-raising, but the chances should represent and teach-about some evolutionary, biogeographic, systematic, or ecological process.

    OBSERVER NETWORK / E-MAIL LIST: Museums have traditionally studied the biota of their territories by sending out expeditions of specialists to search for the species they are interested in, without reference to the People inhabiting the areas surveyed. An alternative to this expeditionary model does exist, however, in the Canadian Wildlife Inquiry, which tracked species of vertebrates subject to the 10-year wildlife cycle through much of the first half of this century by simply asking observers to report whether populations of conspicuous species had increased or declined over the past year. Since them many similar schemes have sprung up for monitoring particular taxa, on a provincial, national, or international scale. It is anticipated that, in addition to following yearly phenology and surveying the distribution of species, such a network would allow accurate tracking of invasions and population declines, and rapid assessments of biotic responses to regional events such as droughts, ice storms, or unseasonable cold.


  • surveying museum territory by establishing a network of observers who monitor taxa they are familiar with
  • encouraging consistency of data by providing a template in which to record each type of observation (e.g.: vertebrate tracks, bird feeder survey, seasonal emergence, etc.)
  • education of members/contributors through discussion of each others observations on e-mail list
  • prompt entry of observations into museum database, and regular written reports to observers, so they feel rewarded for their contributions
  • providing local naturalists with a sense of community as they are made aware of each other's interests and observations (hold an annual potluck or barbeque for observer network members)
  • press release-like announcements of seasonal and unusual observations to the news media result in community education and museum promotion

    'Observer Network' Associates: mark museum associates' households with logo-bearing roadside signs indicating willingness to attempt identifications and accept specimens for the museum, increasing coverage of phenomena interesting to the public, assessing what they find perplexing, and getting the logo out on the roadsides, showing that we provide a public service.

    The observer network would be a special category of membership in the museum, and would report largely on the e-mail list, on the model of the NATURENB list, with parallel postal communication with off-line observers.

    Each observer would register as competent to identify (i.e. know when an identification is doubtful or requires a specimen) for particular taxa, and would report observations of those taxa following specific EOBM schedules, which would be directed at phenology (date of particular seasonal events at a single site), monitoring (following population levels, persistence, or invasion over a period of years) or surveying (locating and identifying places where species occur).

    The NatureList <eobm-nat> has been sharing observations and comments over the internet since February 2000, with a membership average of 80 members. The list is busy but not too voluminous to read, sending from 2 to 10 posts per day to its members. This is a 'list-serve', run by a program called "Majordomo" on Storm, a small Ottawa-area ISP. The following note is a part of the welcome message to new subscribers:

    "The eobm-nat is administered by the Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum and hosted by the Eastern Ontario Model Forest Group. This list is intended as a forum for reporting and discussing natural history observations, phenomena, and conservation in the territory studied by the EOBM, especially the program area (the Eastern Ontario Model Forest counties: Lanark, Leeds-Grenville, Ottawa-Carleton, Stormont-Dundas-Glengarry, and Prescott-Russell) but also including the research territory (the drainage basins of the Rideau Canal and Ottawa River, the direct drainages of the Bay of Quinte and the St Lawrence upstream of Montreal, including areas in Quebec and New York). Participants from outside this territory are welcome, but it is expected that their contributions will take the form of commentary on, and comparisons with, events in eastern Ontario.

    "We expect that the topics discussed will centre on the distribution, seasonal phenology, behaviour, biology, taxonomy, evolution, conservation, ecology, and knowledge about all kinds of organisms and natural communities in our area, both urban and rural. For example: a beginner's first observation of a Scarlet Tanager is welcome, along with specialists' discussions of the fate of the third set of duplicate plant specimens from the Macouns' visit to Dow's Swamp in 1889. Notices of meetings, literature, software, websites, or any other relevant topics may also be posted to the list.

    "Contributions can be in English, French, or bilingual. The EOBM will post notices of our events, including meetings, seminars, field trips, workshops, etc., and we welcome similar notices by other groups and institutions in the area. New subscribers are requested to post a brief introduction about themselves, describing their interests in particular subjects, taxa, or geographic areas. We also encourage descriptions of particular locations which subscribers frequently visit, so the location and characteristics of these places can be registered in the EOBM database, and need not be repeated when writing about each visit."

    FISCAL BALANCE: If the observers do all the work themselves, the observer network won't cost anything, but the more formally it is managed, the more costly it will be to run. Observers may be provided with:

  • publications on species identification
  • on-site tutoring
  • mailed reports for off-line observers (paper & postage)
  • data entry for non-computerized off-line observers
  • observer network and naturelist members are potential museum members and supporters

    We suggest that observer network protocols should be as open-ended as possible, and accept and anticipate the full range of observations that might be made using the methods and sensory mode the procedure employs. A project to observe "Mammal" tracks in the snow should include all Mammals and Birds; listening for "Owls" should include Coyotes, and turning logs for "Salamanders" should include easily identified invertebrates and herbs. We are seeking to bring People up as naturalists, and at the core of naturalists and scholars' knowledge is the understanding of their limitations -- the willingness and ability to know when to say that they don't know -- and the ability to recognize new and unexpected phenomena. Our procedures should enhance and facilitate this process, not, like so much society does, obstruct it.


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  • COMMENTS: This document is a preliminary abstract of our proposed handbook "Principles of Operation of the Ideal Natural History Museum." It was hurriedly composed in early September 2002 for a presentation to the Board of the Lake Abitibi Model Forest, in response to a request for information about the value a research-oriented museum could have for a community such as Cochrane, Ontario. It draws on our experiences in the founding of the Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum around natural history collections orphaned by Carleton University in 1997.

    We have for many years urged museums to become more aware of the philosophical and cultural bases of their activities (e.g. Schueler, 1983. Storylines and objects: Authenticity in exhibits. Muse 1(2):34, 36-37, 52.), and the present document emphasises explicit accounts of the epistemology and culture of museum work. We do not expect every museum to completely endorse these ideas, but we do feel that we present fair accounts of them, and hope that this explicit statement will encourage those who wish to establish regional natural history museums to understand the differences between essential museum work and the educational, government, business, or recreational activities that may be more familiar to them.

    We realize that the goal of redispersing specimen-based research across Canada is a huge undertaking, and that teaching the whole scope of curatorial methods will be a big task, but we feel that the imbalance between the extraordinary number of local human-historical museums and the near-absence of natural history museums must be redressed if Canadians are to discover their local biodiversity & natural history and to know how it is known.

    We haven't, however, so far felt ready to undertake this as an active campaign, but have just responded to inquiries and requests. This document is preliminary and incomplete, and we welcome commentary and criticism. - Frederick W. Schueler & Aleta Karstad
    Bishops Mills,
    copyright 2 October 2002
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