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A living collection

The Director of the London Natural History Museum travels to Brazil in search of partnerships

The central gallery, with the dinosaur skeleton lit for nighttime activity

THE TRUSTEES OF THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, LONDONThe central gallery, with the dinosaur skeleton lit for nighttime activityTHE TRUSTEES OF THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, LONDON

Michael Dixon, Director of the London Natural History Museum, arrived in Brazil early last month on a 10-day tour that included São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, the state of Minas Gerais and Brasília. The plan was to talk to researchers and representatives of museums and funding agencies. The first stop was FAPESP, which already has a tradition of collaborating with the United Kingdom through a number of agreements with universities and the country’s research councils. “FAPESP has a specific model for working collaboratively with other international organizations; we can look at it and think about how the museum can develop it,” Dixon says. For Dixon, having major similarities between the goals of his institution and FAPESP’s goals is key, with the focus being on social relevance.

The outcome of this first day of talks is not yet conclusive, but there is mutual interest. “In two weeks we met with visitors from Kew Garden and the natural history museums of the United Kingdom and France,” says biologist Marie-Anne Van Sluys of the University of São Paulo, who met with Dixon on behalf of FAPESP. “In all cases we have close ties, and FAPESP recognizes the value of collections as a source of knowledge of biological diversity and research on evolutionary processes and the value of disseminating knowledge through museums.”

Dixon’s motivation is spot on. “We are interested in topics that range from the formation of our solar system, which created our planet, and how life on our planet has evolved and how it continues to evolve over time, and as a result we conduct research on these processes,” he notes in detail. With a focus on biodiversity and how it is changing, as well as on the search for ways to live more sustainably, the scope of the museum’s activities definitely has considerable public appeal. Likewise, there was nothing modest about the goal of the director of this London museum during his visit to Brazil: to discover how things work in Brazil and how to bolster creative and effective collaboration in aspects that involve everything from research to public exhibits. “And everything else along the way,” he adds.

Dixon during a visit to FAPESP

Eduardo CesarDixon during a visit to FAPESPEduardo Cesar

“People know us as that magnificent Victorian building with the dinosaurs, but that’s only a small part of what we do,” he explains. Visitors only see less than half of the area of the building that is open to the public. But research and exhibits are not isolated activities, according to the director. “The authority of the science we make is required for everything we put on display for the public.”

Based on the idea that in the modern world, research is much more productive if it is collaborative, Dixon looks for points of contact with Brazil using existing connections. According to Dixon, at this time there are about 70 projects in which scientists from the London Natural History Museum (NHM) and Brazil are involved.

In addition, the enviable research collection that is housed in the building that opened officially in 1881 consists of 80 million items that include rocks, fossils and animal and plant specimens that are available to researchers worldwide through on-site consultations or loans. Last year, 80,000 researchers from other countries visited the NHM to examine a part of the collection. In the last two years, there were 32 visits by 28 Brazilian researchers to the Entomology Department alone for a total of 223 working days. The same department has 66 items on loan to Brazil, for a total of 8,223 specimens assigned to 37 individuals at 17 institutions. As a result, he prefers to call it the museum’s research infrastructure rather than just a collection.

The name is justified by the richness of the collection combined with equipment that is used to perform the most diverse analyses. One striking example is the fossil used to describe the Archaeopteryx, considered the missing link between reptiles and birds. But the glory of housing this important item definitely falls short for a museum that boasts of its excellent collection and research. Recently, a CAT scan of the fossil’s skull was compared to the brains of living species of birds and reptiles, and it was concluded that the extinct animal had more than just the adequate morphology to fly: the brain of the Archaeopteryx had well-developed sensory and motor structures needed for flight. “We could not have done this 10 years ago,” he stresses.

In addition to items of historical importance, which include specimens collected four centuries ago and some of the items collected during the travels of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, not to mention other explorers of the British Empire, the collection is constantly enriched through the work of the 350 researchers who make up the museum staff. Today, most countries control exports of biodiversity representatives, but the NHM enters into agreements to share the items it collects and, whenever possible, to keep collections intact so that comparative studies can be performed.

With more careful planning, these ties that already exist between scholars from both countries may lead to more productive collaborations. This was the focus of the discussions at FAPESP and that eventually were held at other sites that were visited. This planning is able to identify issues that are already being addressed in São Paulo and in London, to which the NHM collection could contribute. “Researchers always gravitate toward others who are interested in the same questions, but we try to determine whether it is worthwhile to institutionalize this relationship,” Dixon says. He explains that instead of establishing these ties haphazardly, it might be good for the institution to steer collaborative research. “Science tends to go where the money is.” This can be managed through calls for project proposals and workshops that bring together specialists from Brazil as well as the United Kingdom.

Dixon believes that the most likely outcome of his visit to Brazil will be to identify a list of proposals that can be implemented, and two or three that really work for the British side as well as the Brazilian side. Once the opportunities have been identified, Dixon himself or others could return to develop them further. If these ideas are encouraged, they can be the beginning of new initiatives in the future.

Public science
As for the public exhibits, Dixon notes that the NHM hosted the global launch of the Genesis exhibit by Sebastião Salgado. Afterwards, the exhibit, with photos of places that have been explored the world over, traveled this year to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Following this inspiration, the idea is to bring to Brazil exhibits that were put together at the museum in London. “For traveling exhibits, it may be ideal to have just one partner here, or the best solution may be something else,” he says.

The director of the NHM justifies the interest in joint collaborations here. Brazil is an interesting country because its economy is expanding quickly. There are strong scientific links and a large population. In addition, there are cultural parallels, such as the Olympic Games, most recently in London, to be followed by Rio de Janeiro. “Now there is a terrific window of opportunity for discussions.”

Brazilian museums stand to learn quite a bit from a close relationship with the London museum, which now counts roughly 5.4 million visitors per year, even though the building is not prepared for that many people. Dixon continues to search for opportunities beyond the borders, as if the challenges of attracting the public were not enough, or managing the 80 million specimens, about 20 million of which are on display at any time, and finding alternatives to house the research collection in order to expand exhibit space, which may involve digitizing the collection. “The work is never tedious,” he concludes.