Whither the Museum?

Michael Dixon, curator of London’s Natural History Museum, on cuts and the future

Over 5.4 million people moseyed through the doors of London’s Natural History Museum last year, which easily makes the NHM one the most popular tourist attractions in the UK. Boasting over 80 million specimens – from stick insects to a woolly mammoth – it confidently stands among the greatest museums in the world.

Running the place, then, is a big responsibility. Michael Dixon is Director of the museum and has already established an important legacy there since his appointment to the role in 2004.

Natural History Portraits
Michael Dixon
What made you take the job as director of the Natural History Museum back in 2004?

The opportunity to run one of the world’s great Museums and one of the UK’s top visitor attractions was irresistible. Partly this was because the NHM is so much more than what the public most recognise us for.

“The scientific research, based on the world’s most important collection of natural history objects, is much more extensive than many would realise… Over time we have directed the research focus into areas that have much greater relevance and impact, such as environmental change, human and animal health and the supply of food and mineral resources.”

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement in the role so far?

“When I joined the Museum, the Board of Trustees were considering whether the NHM should commit to the development of the second phase of Darwin Centre. This was a planned extension to the first phase building that had opened in 2002, but was a much bigger project necessitating the Museum raising nearly £80m in total funding.

“At the time less than half the funding was in place, and the Trustees were concerned about the size of the task in generating the rest. My conclusive view was that it was a project that would transform the Museum and that, since we had already raised a substantial sum of money for the project, we had to take on the challenge and raise the rest.

“We did deliver the project – Darwin Centre Phase 2 opened to the public in September 2009 and has led to an increase in attendance at the Museum from 3.7m to 5.4m annual visits. The building has set new standards for the care of collections, and showing our scientists at work has increased the public perception of the Museum as a research institution as well as being ‘the wonderful Victorian building with the dinosaurs’.

“The Office of Government Commerce reviewed the project at various key stages and post completion rated the project a model of how public sector projects should be run. So, all in all, I still rate this as the most significant achievement of my so-far 11 years at the Museum.”

The Darwin Centre (Image credit: Patche99z for Wikipedia)
The Darwin Centre (Image credit: Patche99z for Wikipedia)
Money must always be an obstacle when running a state-funded museum – even one as famous  as the NHM. What problems  can arise from this dependency on the government?

“Since the financial crisis of 2008 the need to reduce public sector expenditure has had a dramatic effect on the Government funding of national museums. Since 2010 we have seen the real value of our funding fall by a quarter, at a time when we have seen about the same amount of growth in attendance at the Museum.

“National Museums all over the world require central Government investment if they are to thrive and, despite growing our own self-generated income consistently at more than 7% per annum, the impact of cuts in Government funding made it necessary to take a long hard look at how we operate and reduce our workforce in the interest of controlling cost.

“It was really hard doing this at a time when we were celebrating successes like record attendance, growth in our revenue generation and scientific outputs, but we had no option. Taking tough decisions that are for the good of the institution, but have an impact on our people is always hard.”

How do you think museums will change over the next 10 years?

“Museums will undoubtedly change over the next decade as they have over the past 15-20 years, which I really do feel has been a golden period for museums. National Museums will continue to see Government funding fall in real terms, but while such cuts are, I believe, inevitable they must be carefully managed so that we do not destroy the essence of what makes these institutions great, their institutional knowledge and their long-term view of the world.

“The social and economic impact of National Museums is very great indeed and we should not put these public benefits at risk. We also expect the increasing pace of change in digital technologies to have a major impact, but we see this as a major opportunity to expand our audience and our reach, and ultimately have a greater impact. So we are embracing the opportunities as avidly as possible.”


What sort of opportunities do you think  digital technology will offer?

“Digital technologies and changing public expectations of what Museums can be will have a very big impact on the NHM and museums more generally. We are digitising major parts of our collection and will make the information openly available to researchers and the general public alike. These big, open datasets will enable scientists to answer questions about the natural world that have thus far been difficult or impossible to address.

“More fundamentally, the impact of digital technologies will have a big impact, not on replacing the visit to a Museum by a virtual experience, though this may have some future value, but by enhancing the experience of seeing the real objects and interpreting them at greater depth.

“Use of WiFi on the NHM site in South Kensington has taken off enormously since we made this available across all the public spaces just over a year ago. We can now deliver Apps and content direct to visitors’ smart-phones and provide information to enhance their visit in real time, yet we are only just beginning this journey.

“More recently, we have developed a virtual reality experience with Sir David Attenborough, in partnership with production company Atlantic Productions, software developer Alchemy and technology company Samsung. The result is an extraordinary journey through the Cambrian sea of some 540m years ago and encounters with life-forms so vivid and realistic that you want to reach out and touch them.

“It is a pilot project but it will inevitably lead to yet more innovation. For someone who learnt to programme computers on compiled punched cards, and remembers the computing power of the University of York’s DEC System 10 in the late 1970s, technology has come a very long way already.”