The museums are moving again, and their physical move parallels a paradigm shift. Current science research in progress will be on display in the new Biological Science Building for all visitors to see, for free.
LSA researchers have been moving to the Research Museums Center (RMC) on Varsity Drive in Ann Arbor, just under five miles from Central Campus. The RMC now houses the museums of anthropological archaeology, paleontology, and zoology. (The herbarium moved there in 2001.) The U-M Museum of Natural History (UMMNH) eventually will scoot just across the campus sidewalk to a newly built Biological Science Building (BSB). Don’t worry — the pumas and mastodons will follow, and the Ruthven Museums Building isn’t going anywhere.
Throughout the last 180 years, museum exhibits have changed from encyclopedic to interactive. In the coming years, more so. Two public labs will focus on research in collections, genetics, and microbiology. Kira Berman, UMMNH’s assistant director for education says, “In the public labs, visitors will come in and not just see science being done, as they’ll do with the visible labs” — in which giant windows will offer a view on active research in paleontology and biodiversity genomics — “but actually do some science.”
One wing of LSA's Museum of Natural History will look something like this when the museum relocates to the new Biological Science Building. Photo courtesy of Great Plains Exhibit Development/University of Michigan.
“We can’t complain about a lack of public understanding of science if it’s conducted behind closed doors,” says former LSA Dean Terrence J. McDonald, who was involved early on in the planning of the BSB. “We have to open up the lab, invite people in, and mobilize our educational resources.”
“We also know that museums are social places,” says UMMNH Director Amy Harris. “It’s a relatively modern concept, and we want to facilitate those social interactions.” In 2007, UMMNH launched its Science Café program, in partnership with a pub in downtown Ann Arbor. There, the general public discusses current science topics with experts in an informal setting.
Science Cafés won’t move anywhere anytime soon. “Part of what makes the Science Cafés work is that they’re a mix of town and gown in a neutral place,” says Berman. It’s all in the service of blurring the boundaries that separate civilians from scientists and creating incidental collisions between those worlds.
“Programs are more important than buildings,” says LSA Professor Diarmaid O’Foighil. “But places like the BSB can help programs develop and grow in new ways.” He and other researchers will have more opportunities to collaborate in the new BSB, with shared space reserved for scientists from multiple disciplines.
“The work in this facility, along with the collections it houses, will have a continuous impact on ongoing research,” says LSA Dean Andrew D. Martin, “on everything from climate change to the impact of declining habitat on species.”
All this from humble beginnings on campus 180 years ago: a single cabinet of museum-quality specimens temporarily stored in the home of a faculty member.