Natural History Museum declares ‘Planetary Emergency’ and reveals bold new Vision and Strategy to 2031 in response

The galleries at the Natural History Museum will resonate all week with sounds from nature as it declares a planetary emergency and launches a bold new strategy. Setting out the role it will play in tackling the planetary emergency as a global, scientific and cultural leader, the Museum describes its mission to ‘create advocates for the planet.’ It includes commitments to expand efforts to engage the public with planetary issues and further open up its collection and share the scientific data and evidence needed to find solutions to climate instability and biodiversity loss. Plans include:

The creation of new galleries and future-facing exhibition and events programme including: the forthcoming blockbuster exhibition, Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature, a children’s gallery to enable our youngest visitors to imagine new futures for a world where people and planet thrive, and a new world-class dinosaur gallery exploring biodiversity, extinction and climate change and featuring new specimens and exhibits.

Leading a major new UK-wide partnership tackling urban biodiversity loss and a bold transformation of the Museum’s five-acre gardens – the Urban Nature Project.

Launching a new year-long season of events, activities and digital content on the importance of nature and diversity – Backing Biodiversity.

Further expanding beyond South Kensington, building a brand-new flagship science and digitisation centre to safeguard and share the Museum’s 80 million specimens.

Becoming the first museum in the world to set a science-based carbon reduction target in line with the Paris climate agreement 1.5°C global warming trajectory.

The launch of the Museum’s strategy coincides with the presence of its scientists and Wildlife Photographer of the Year images at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos-Klosters.

The Natural History Museum is today declaring a ‘planetary emergency’ and revealing its new Vision and Strategy devised in response to the multiple and myriad challenges facing the planet as a result of humanity’s impact. The eleven-year strategy opens with Sir David Attenborough’s quote, “The future of the natural world, on which we all depend, is in your hands,” a powerful reminder that it will require everyone to work together to create a sustainable future both for the planet and human civilisation. It plots the future course for the international scientific research centre and world-class tourist attraction to 2031, the 150th anniversary of its South Kensington Waterhouse building.

Director of the Natural History Museum Sir Michael Dixon says: “We are facing a planetary emergency. Humanity’s future depends on the natural world, but we are not taking effective action to combat our destructive impact on the planet’s survival systems. Climate change, biodiversity loss and extinctions, habitat destruction, pollution and deforestation are just some of the crises which all flow from unsustainable human activity. 

“In this time of unprecedented threat, we need an unprecedented global response. Our strategy is built around our vision of a future where people and planet thrive. Our ethos is one of hope that by working together we can change the current path. The Museum is well placed to make a difference, it is a world-leading science research centre and our 300 scientists represent one of the largest groups in the world working on natural diversity.

“Our ambitions include a plan to create a flagship, sustainable science and digitisation centre to safeguard a remarkable collection that explains our past, helps us chart a path for the future and provides a hub for partnerships with research institutions, museums and industry. This facility will enable us to apply brilliant minds and 21st century technologies to the Museum’s 250 years of continued natural history collecting and research and supply big critical data, supporting the global scientific effort to find solutions to the world’s ecological crisis.”

Advocates for the Planet

Central to the Museum’s strategy is the mission to create advocates for the planet.  Executive Director of Engagement, Clare Matterson CBE explains: “An advocate for the planet is someone who can speak up for nature and is empowered to take action to protect it.  From the children who visit our galleries to industry titans and international policy makers – we want to inspire, inform and empower everyone to make a difference for nature.

“We will do this through major new projects such as the UK-wide Urban Nature Project to tackle biodiversity loss across the country, create brand new galleries to engage our more than five million visitors who pass through our doors each year and build on our 20 million international reach and influence to speak up for the natural world with rigour and impact.”

Globally, the Museum will expand its international reach through its touring exhibitions and digital technology to speak about the future of the planet to an international audience with greater force and impact. From this week, visitors to the Museum’s website will be able to access a new Anthropocene hub which is dedicated to content about human impact on the planet, and actions we can all take to help it.

As well as reaching out to public audiences, the Museum will increase its sphere of influence at home and abroad to inform actions and policy in business and in government, at a local and

international level. Through our research, such as our involvement in the Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES) and our work on plastic pollution, minerals and rare e-critical metals, we will play a crucial role in providing evidence to inform and influence corporate and government policy. 

New galleries and exhibitions to engage visitors with the planetary emergency

Since opening in South Kensington in 1881, the Museum’s attendance has grown from approximately 230,000 to 5.4m visitors a year, yet the area of public gallery spaces has expanded by a mere 50 per cent. In response to this urgent and growing demand for a connection to nature, the Museum intends to create more space for public use.

Children are the future stewards and custodians of our planet, so helping them to understand the challenges of the future is one of the Museum’s most important roles. A new interactive children’s gallery is planned to not just offer children the thrill of discovery but help them imagine how they can contribute to shaping a world where people and the planet thrive.

The Museum’s strategy also involves creating a new world-class dinosaur gallery. No other creatures thrill, fascinate and engage children with the natural world quite like dinosaurs. Their immense diversity, adaptation to the changing world they inhabited, long history and eventual extinction provide powerful parallels to the biodiversity of life on Earth today. 

The Museum will build on its world-renowned scientific expertise and reputation as the UK’s home of dinosaurs  by acquiring new spectacular specimens and creating engaging messaging about climate change and extinction, leaving visitors in no doubt that we live on a planet that is constantly changing, and that all of our actions matter.

Our ambitious temporary exhibitions and events programme includes the forthcoming Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature exhibition. Opening in May 2020, this exhibition is the result of a creative partnership between the Museum, the BBC and Warner Bros. aiming to shine a light on beasts in all their fantastic forms, including those created by J.K. Rowling both in her stories and in the Fantastic Beasts film series. Taking inspiration from the stories of dedicated conservationists and scientists, a central theme in the exhibition is the vital need to care for and protect the rich biodiversity of the planet. 

Urban Nature Project (UNP)

Biodiversity is often seen as something found in rainforests or African savannahs and urban biodiversity in the UK is particularly unrecognised and undervalued. With more and more people living in towns and cities this means we risk an even greater disconnect with the nature in our doorstep. To combat this, the Museum will document, study and raise awareness of the astounding variety of life on our doorstep, right here in the UK – making UK biodiversity a major focus of all its work.

The flagship initiative, the Urban Nature Project, will transform the Museum’s five-acre outdoor space into an exemplar of urban wildlife research, conservation and awareness – helping to engage the nation with urban biodiversity. The ambitious £20m project convenes a UK-wide partnership which will tackle challenges facing urban natural heritage, reconnect people to nature and explore the importance of evolutionary change through time. Comprising a coalition of museums and wildlife organisations, it will develop the tools and skills urgently needed to understand urban nature and inspire diverse audiences to make a lifelong connection with the natural world, learn about its value, and take action to protect it. Funding is well underway for this project, with initial support and development funding* from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and a wide number of trusts, foundations, companies and individuals.

The Museum is involved in the major research programme, Darwin Tree of Life Project, led by the Wellcome Sanger Institute, which aims to sequence the genomes of 60,000 species that live in, and around, the British Isles. It is one of ten institutes partnering on a project that will give unprecedented insights to the diverse range of species on the British Isles. The Museum’s world-leading collections offer the project unique insights into both the past, the present and the prospective future of UK biodiversity. Understanding changes that have occurred over time will be crucial in creating a future where both people and the planet thrive.

Backing Biodiversity season

The Museum’s world-leading research has contributed to the chorus of concern around the world that biodiversity is in trouble everywhere and biodiversity change is as catastrophic a threat to people and planet as climate change. 2020 will prove a pivotal year for world leaders to agree on a future global biodiversity framework with the parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Kunming, China in October.

In recognition of this ecological crisis and the need for greater public understanding of what biodiversity is and why it’s vital, the Museum is launching a year-long season of activities and events exploring these themes. Backing Biodiversity will engage the public with how the Museum’s scientists and collections are helping tackle biodiversity change and the actions they can take to help make a difference.

Visitors to the Museum will be able to experience a range of activities including biological surveys in its gardens from pond-dipping to butterfly spotting, after-hour events and multi-faceted family festivals. Visitors to the Museum’s website will discover a bold ‘homepage takeover’ about the planetary emergency which will link through to stories highlighting humanity’s destructive impact but also our ability to save species and halt harmful actions such as plastic pollution.

This week, as part of the season, visitors to the Museum will experience audio landscapes every hour on the hour from 11am to 4pm which bring the extraordinary sounds of the natural world to life. From the abundance of species in the Amazon rainforests to the alien underwater sounds of a coral reef, digital screens will inform visitors about critical issues facing these ecosystems and provide ideas on how to act to help them.

Scientists will also be stationed in the Museum’s Hintze Hall every day to engage visitors with their research, the specimens they care for and answer questions about the pressing issues facing the planet.

Brand new flagship science and digitisation centre

The Museum’s science is rooted in its remarkable collection of over 80 million specimens spanning billions of years and the breadth of the globe. It is a well-used and growing collection, serving international scientific communities today and containing priceless potential for future generations.

The collection has never been more critical in enabling the world’s scientists to address the crises arising from the planetary emergency we now face. Its vast scale enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have, and continue to, respond to environmental changes – which are vital in helping predict what might happen in the future. Future policies and plans to address the planetary emergency will rely on scientific evidence gathered from the collection which will prove critical in measuring whether conservation efforts are working.

This treasured national infrastructure of irreplaceable specimens is now at risk. The Museum’s buildings are no longer fit for purpose: sub-standard storage facilities put significant specimens at risk of deterioration and limit the collection’s expansion. To address this, the Museum intends to create a flagship, sustainable science and digitisation centre, establishing world-class research infrastructure that inspires, attracts and develops UK and international talent.

This new centre will drive technology and skills development through digitising natural science collections and creating and deploying the next wave of analytical technologies, such as AI, Big Data, genomics, remote-sensing and planetary exploration.

A new facility will also enable an acceleration in the digitisation of the collections, as well as the opportunity to work with other great museums and herbaria around the world to digitally unite over 1.5 billion items in global natural history collections so that they can be accessed and used by all. Currently, only around 5% of the Museum’s collection is digitised, yet remarkably, 18 billion specimen and research records have already been downloaded over 250,000 download events and over 420 scientific publications cite these data, demonstrating the immense potential there is for the  collections to make an impact on a global scale. Digitisation is essential to enable breakthroughs in research on adapting to climate change, addressing biodiversity loss, the spread of disease, feeding Earth’s growing population, use of critical raw materials and other key societal challenges.

Museum’s Sustainability Plan

The Natural History Museum will be the first museum in the world to set a science-based carbon reduction target in line with the Paris climate agreement’s 1.5°C global warming trajectory. Sustainability is at the heart of its new strategy and it is committed to reducing environmental impacts wherever possible.  The Museum will build on its strong track record of reducing its carbon emissions, energy and water consumption and work to reuse and repurpose where possible to minimise waste. The Museum is also encouraging a refill culture to reduce single-use plastic waste on site.

An energy strategy is under development to identify new ways to reduce carbon emissions such as using ground- and air-source heat pumps in the Museum’s energy centre, as well as installing photovoltaic cells on roofs to generate energy from the sun.

World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting

The launch of the Museum’s strategy coincides with the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. For the second year in a row, the Museum has been invited to showcase images from its prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition and the latest Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year, 14-year-old Cruz Erdmann, will address the Forum in a panel discussion on underwater photography and ocean conservation, joined by renowned marine biologist Dr Sylvia Earle.

In addition, the WEF is hosting three of the Museum’s world-leading experts –  botanist Dr Sandy Knapp who helped establish a baseline of plant diversity in the Amazon,  Head of Earth Sciences Professor Richard Herrington who is leading research into the sustainable ways to locate, extract and recycle e-critical metals  and one of the WEF Young Scientists of 2019, Adriana De Palma whose analysis of huge ecological datasets and the study of bees is helping further understanding of the impact of humans on biodiversity.  The scientists will engage the world’s political, business and other leaders with the major issues facing the planet today.

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