Ismail Serageldin


It's Natural: Know the World, Know Yourself

 03/07/2014 | Barcelona

It’s Natural:

Know the World, Know Yourself


Ismail Serageldin


A Lecture

Delivered in Barcelona on 3 July 2014





Ladies and gentlemen,


It is a great privilege to be here and to address you in this historic location, the Born, with its memories of bygone Barcelona in this special year for Barcelona and all of Catalonia, remembering as you do the 300th anniversary of the events of 1714.  And on the smaller scale of this event, to celebrate a cycle of reflections on the culture of the city and the role of its cultural institutions, especially the Museum of Natural history, and this citadel that went from being a citadel of weapons to a citadel of learning and science.  A great salute to one and all, as I give this lecture in humble homage to a great institution in a great city with a great past and an even greater future…



Ladies and gentlemen,


It is perhaps worthy of note that I head the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the new Library of Alexandria, which aspires to recapture the spirit of the ancient library using the tools of the 21st century.  The ancient library was not a library, it was a learned society of international scholars who were housed in the Temple to the Muses in the royal quarter of ancient Alexandria, a temple which was called the Mouseion in Greek or the Museum in Latin.  To that central facility was attached a botanical garden, a zoological garden, a dissection room and a library, which aspired to collect all the learning of the world.  That institution would represent the first attempt for humanity to organize universal knowledge and for over six centuries, from the third century BCE to the end of the fourth century of our CE, it would represent the zenith of learning. 


So the new Library tried to recapture the spirit of that vast ancient institution, using the digital tools of today, we find that it is much more than a library.   Thus in addition to the great library and its specialized libraries, the new Library we inaugurated in 2002 has its own super-computer, 15 research institutes, a planetarium, an Exploratorium, a huge conference center, a Culturama, and 19 museums and special exhibits, plus four major galleries for temporary exhibitions, the issue of outreach and the future of Museums, is very much at the heart of my concerns. 


So allow me today to cover four subjects:


First: The evolution of Museums:  The Modern museums evolved from collections of curiosities held by eminent Renaissance families or learned societies to the public institutions we know and love. The encyclopedic museums were a product of the age of the Enlightenment, while vast royal collections tended to be at the heart of many museums of art. We need to look at the past to think of the present and the future.


Second: The Knowledge Revolution we are living through.  We all feel some aspects of it, but I will argue that it is far more profound than anything that anyone imagined before.


Third:  The Implications of this Knowledge Revolution:  It is clear that this knowledge revolution will have profound impacts on how our children will learn, and hence a complete revolution in our prevailing concepts of managing education, research, libraries and  museums is required.


Fourth: The Museums of the 21st century.  These will require that they reflect the new ways of learning, while they will also maintain some of the characteristics that they developed in the last two centuries.  But I see the future as a bright and exciting one.


So allow me to proceed with a few words about each of these four subjects.


Let us start with the evolution of Museums.




From Curiosity Cabinets to Institutions of Learning


While much of what I say is suited to all museums, we shall focus more on museums of natural history.   These are generally museums with exhibits about natural history, including such topics as animals, plants, ecosystems, geology, paleontology, and climatology. Some museums feature natural-history collections in addition to other collections, such as ones related to history, art and science.


In the modern era, museums of natural history evolved gradually from private collections of curiosities, or holdings of scientific societies to the modern museums we all know.  These Renaissance “cabinets of curiosities” were private collections that typically included exotic specimens of natural history, sometimes faked, along with other types of objects.


The first natural history museum was possibly that of the Swiss scholar Conrad Gessner, established in Zurich in the mid-16th century. Some would argue that the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle, established in Paris in 1635, was the first natural history museum to take the form that would be recognized as a natural history museum today.   Others would point out that Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, opened in 1683, was the first natural history museum to grant admission to the general public.  But whatever the specificities of priority between these great institutions, it is clear that natural history museums evolved from the collections of curiosities in the Renaissance era, usually held by eminent learned families.  And Barcelona was endowed with a learned family, the Salvadors whose collection became the core of the Museum of Natural History and can be admired in the current series of activities and exhibition of the “Salvadoriana”.  The Salvadors were engaged with a network of learned people throughout Europe and exchanged information and specimens throughout the 17th and 18th centuries as the conception of Natural Science evolved and the position of Barcelona was being asserted.


So, here we are in the Museum of Natural History, with its antecedents and its derivatives as it links with institutions of learning that stretch far and wide.  And this building, with the new Blau Museum and other institutions forming the Science Park of Barcelona, are the hub of a vast network of knowledge institutions that start with those that are an integral part of Barcelona’s first Science Park, from the Botanical garden to the Zoological garden, and outwards to the university and the amazing wealth of the museums of Barcelona, be they for arts or artifacts.   


I must add a personal wish.  I think that this marvelous complex will be further enhanced by having under its wing a museum of history and culture that speaks to the Catalan and Spanish identity and its relations to Europe and the world, so that the experience of the visitor is as well-rounded as it can be.  In general, data when organized becomes information, and when explained becomes knowledge.  However, beyond knowledge there is wisdom. That is why in addition to the knowledge of the natural sciences, we need the insights of the social sciences and the wisdom of the humanities.  That wisdom requires our exposure to our history and our cultural heritage.


The Encyclopedic Museum was an invention of the 18th century European Enlightenment.  It accompanied the scholarly «encyclopédie universelle» by bringing together in one place as many parts of global culture as possible.  These museums flourished in the 19th and 20th centuries, playing profound cultural, scholarly and educational functions.  By the second half of the 20th Century, the Museums were playing a very important role to reach the broad public, and the objects of culture[1] presented in them, brought alive distant cultures and times, made real by the reality of the objects exhibited, as much as it highlighted the history of the city and location where they existed.


Today, the Encyclopedic Museum is playing a different role.  In the largely multi-ethnic and polyglot reality of the modern metropolis, it allows new citizens, part of ethnic and cultural diasporas from all over the world, to identify with the objects of their original culture while taking pride in being citizens of the nation where the museum is located.  In addition, they also redress stereotypes of these cultures in the public mind and thus help fight discrimination against minorities.  Today, exhibitions are a preferred tool of spreading the value of the Encyclopedic Museum to other locations in the same country, and to cooperate with other museums around the world.  The universality of our common humanity, the diversity of our cultural heritages, and the richness that this brings to the emerging global realities is encouraging.


In addition, it is be hoped that the Encyclopedic Museums of the world, who have done so much in the past, shall embrace the ICT revolution to the fullest, and take the lead in creating a Global Virtual Museum, where all the objects of all the museums in the world would be available to all people in 3-D, to see and download and print for free, thereby creating greater interaction than ever, and providing an invaluable context to visiting the real objects themselves in the museums where they are located and delicately cared for.  But let me get back to the Museums of Natural History.


Today, the museum as an institution is on a rendez-vous with destiny: as we all stand at this junction between two eras.  From a moment when order ruled to one where complexity and chaos (in the scientific sense of the term) are the norm.  It is a moment when human civilization teeters on the brink of a new world system… for we are witnessing a revolution in the structure and meaning of knowledge that is more profound than anything humanity has known since the invention of writing!  Writing, not printing.  For the former allowed the accumulation and transmittal of knowledge across space and time, and allowed primitive agglomerations to become thriving civilizations.   Printing merely spread the benefits of reading by multiplying the number of copies of manuscripts that could be produced accurately and inexpensively.  That is no mean feat in itself, but is far less significant than the invention of writing.


So am I exaggerating when I compare the current revolution to the invention of writing?  I think not, and I believe that the evidence that I shall marshal will satisfy you that this is indeed the case.  This revolution will require that we rethink all the institutions of cultural preservation and transmittal from education to research to what I may call the supporting institutions of culture: Libraries, archives and museums. 


The Seven Pillars of the Knowledge Revolution


The knowledge revolution, which I have chosen to characterize by “Seven Pillars” that together will define the direction in which change is taking us, without my being able to define a destination, a new status quo, for we are not moving from one static condition to another, we are moving from a state characterized by describable static conditions and stable institutions, to a state of constant change where institutions will have to constantly adapt to the new or risk being left behind as irrelevant legacies of a bygone era.


Just how fast we are moving is easily captured by a few examples:


The internet is now so pervasive that it is difficult to imagine life before emails and connectivity.  The internet undergirds globalization of banking and commerce and the availability of information. On line purchasing is becoming a larger share of global commerce every day. Think of Digital information storage capacity surpassed analog storage capacity only in 2002, yet it is so efficient for storage, search and retrieval that in less than five years, in 2007, it accounted for 94% of all information storage[2].


Mobile telephony has become so widespread that there are about six billion mobile phones in use in a planet with about 7.5 billion people.  These mobile telephones are now converging with the internet to become the fundamental tools of social connectivity and interaction.  Just how rapidly this has been happening can be seen if we remember that social connectivity started with “Friendster” in 2002, which was followed by “My Space” in 2003 and then “Facebook” in 2004.  In less than ten years Facebook had over a billion people using it! It was only in 2005 that “You Tube” was born, and the first smart phone, Apple’s “iPhone” appeared only in 2007.  Yet we think of these things as always being there!  We not only use them daily, we find the services so useful that we can hardly think of doing without them.


But the collapse of the global financial system in 2008 was a stark reminder that not all things that the new technologies make possible are ethically acceptable, and many have paid the price…. You here in southern Europe have paid an enormous price for the blinders that have had political leaders apply the austerity packages of yesteryear, that were already much criticized in the 20th century, to treat the ills of the 21st century.. not only in the corrosive misery of high unemployment, but especially among youth… how many dreams will not see the light of day, how many talents wasted , how many lives have been ruined by the prolonged and incredibly high rates of youth unemployment?  However, that is a topic for a different lecture.   Let us get back to the rapidly changing times and dreams…


We all agree that we are moving rapidly towards the knowledge based society and the technologically based economy, with the well-known and well-documented aspects of globalization overlaid on this transformation. Here I am speaking of the structure and presentation of knowledge and how we humans will most likely be interacting with knowledge, whether we are academics or researchers or simply the descendants of those who used to go to public libraries and ask the librarian for assistance with a good book to read or a reference source for the paper they are preparing for college.  It is this that I refer to as the “New Knowledge Revolution”, a subject I initiated in a distinguished lecture at the NSF in 2010, and have since evolved in a number of forums, and have treated elsewhere at length and in more technical detail[3].  This knowledge revolution can be diagnosed by seven key characteristics, which I like to call “pillars”, and which I shall briefly describe here.   These are:


  • Parsing, Life & Organization

  • Image & Text

  • Humans & Machines

  • Complexity & Chaos

  • Computation & Research

  • Convergence & Transformation

  • Pluri-Disciplinarity & Policy


A word about each of these seven pillars is pertinent here:



First:  Parsing, Life & Organization


Since the beginning of time, whether we were writing on scrolls or on codexes or the codexes were printed or manuscripts, the accumulation of knowledge was based on parsed structures, with units put next to each other like bricks in a wall of an emerging structure.


It was the juxtaposition of these individual parsed works that created the accumulation of knowledge… the rising edifice built piece by piece, brick by brick or stone by stone…


In addition each piece was “dead”.  By that I mean that once published it stayed as it was until a second edition would appear.  If we both had copies of the same book, we could both open to, say, page 157 and find exactly the same thing in our respective copies.  It did not change whether we did it immediately after the book appeared or decades later.


The Internet changed all that…


The web page became the unit of parsing.  Instead of the classical sequence of presentation, we now think in terms of a home page and then hypertext links into other related documents.  We can expect more fluidity into the merging of image, both still and video, and the transitions from one reference link into another.


Search engines complement the World Wide Web as the on-line material—unlike the traditionally published material – becomes alive.  Today if I look up a web page, and you look it up, at the same location a few hours later, it will probably have changed, since the material is constantly being updated.


Furthermore, as we move beyond the current structures of the web, towards the semantic web, where we can search for relationships and concepts and not just objects, the structure of organization and presentation of knowledge will become one large interconnected vibrant living tissue of concepts, ideas and facts that is growing exponentially and which will require new modes of thinking to interact with it.  It will automatically spawn these new modes of thinking and scholarship will be no longer be parsed like bricks in a wall, it will be more like a smooth fluid flowing river.


If one were to try to take into account as well the emergence of the social linkages phenomena that the internet and  the web have now made possible,  we can now visualize what some specialists have called the "Meta-Web", with high knowledge connectivity and high social connectivity.  Does the Meta-web prefigure the connectivity of intelligence?


Second:  Image & Text


Throughout history, the primary means for the transmission of information has been text.  Images were difficult to produce and to reproduce.  This has changed.  With the digital revolution, everybody can record images, both still and video, and computer generated graphics are becoming affordable by everybody. 


The human brain can process visual information with enormous rapidity.  Enormous detail can be captured and processed in a fraction of a second.   So some new features of the current knowledge revolution appear imminent.  One is the far larger reliance on image – in addition to text – in the communication of information and knowledge and the changing forms of the storage and retrieval devices that this will require as we move from text dependent book and journal to digital still and video image presentations as well as three dimensional virtual reality and holographic presentations.  Interactivity will also become a feature of this new image-based virtual-reality world.  Again what does that mean in terms of the presentation, the search and retrieval functions and the interaction between the researcher and the material in the future?


So what does all this mean for the effective description in meta-data, the storage, searchability and retrievability of this enormous and growing world of still and moving images, both fixed and interactive?   We will no longer be looking up images through key words entered into text data bases such as meta-data catalogues.  Computers will do this for us.


Third: Humans & Machines


With the exception of pure mathematics and some aspects of philosophy, it will no longer be possible for any human to search for, find and retrieve, and then manipulate knowledge in any field, much less add to it and communicate their own contribution, without the intermediation of machines.   Even in literary criticism and the social sciences, the stock of material to search through can no longer be done manually.  


This is not good or bad.  It just is. 


Now, after a special chess playing program called Big Blue of IBM defeated world champion Gary Kasparov in Chess in 1997, can we indeed ask, as some visionaries are doing, whether “consciousness” and “intelligence” are emanating qualities from very complex systems?   According to some, we are going to witness that happening with machines when they will pass certain thresholds of complexity and power, such as when the level of the processing power reaches certain sizes, and software advances within a decade or so after that to certain levels, all of which is likely to happen within the first half of the 21st century.


But whatever the merits of that particular debate and its ramifications, it is clear that changes are already noticeable in the domain of libraries and the internet.  One example of that is the new World Digital Library:  The system allows one to link video, image text and commentary and maps into one seamless whole and to be able to search by many different approaches (time, geography, theme, cluster, or even by a single word) and browse the material as well as find what one wants from the digitized material on offer from all the countries of the world.


Fourth: Complexity & Chaos:


The world we live in is a remarkably complex. The socio-economic transactions of a globalizing world are exceedingly complex as, with the click of a mouse and the flight of an electron, billions of dollars move around the planet at the speed of light.   The web of interconnected transactions is enormous, and the ripple effects of any single set of actions and its interaction with other effects is difficult to predict.  


Our cities have become not only much larger but also much more complex, and ecosystems are not only delicate, they are intrinsically very intricate.  So are biological systems.


The reality is complex and chaotic, meaning that complex systems have non-linear feedback loops that result in systems and subsystems that are extremely difficult to predict.   Many of our models, based on the simple mathematics and analogies drawn from physics, are proving inadequate.


Fifth:  Computation & Research


 Till now, Computing has been largely seen as the extension of a large calculating machine that can do dumb calculations at incredible speeds.  Computer scientist and engineers were implementers who made the life of the creative people and the researchers less tedious.  Wonderful tools, no doubt, but just tools all the same.  Today, the concepts and the techniques of computing will become a central part of the new research paradigm.  Computational Science Concepts, tools and theorems will weave into the very fabric of science and scientific practice.


Consider data management.  As I said earlier, data when organized becomes information.  Information when explained becomes knowledge.  That in turn, when coupled with reflection, insight and experience may lead to wisdom, but that is another story for another day.


Today there is much to be said for the deluge of data we are confronting and how we can make sense of it all, and I will say a few words about “Big Data” in a moment.  But beyond the scale and magnitude of the collections of data,  we are looking for connections between collections of data. These pose particular problems that involve qualitatively different issues.  Computer science is where the most work on such classes of problems has been done. 


Sixth: Convergence & Transformation


Domains are gradually converging.  In simplest terms, once upon a time we had chemistry and biology as distinct and separate enterprises, now we have biochemistry.  Such moments of convergence, generating new sciences and insights, turn out to be some of the most fecund moments in the evolution of our knowledge and the development of our technologies.    Today we are witnessing the convergence of three hitherto-separate fields with the birth of BINT: Bio / Info / Nano Technology. 


At the same time, we need to develop what the NSF calls Transformative research.  That is research capable of changing the paradigm in some fields and domains, such as Synthetic biology and femto-chemistry.  Such research is extremely valuable.  Thus we witnessed the discovery of the structure and mechanism of DNA engender entire fields like genomics, proteomics and metabolomics.


A question before is, is whether such developments will remain serendipitous or will our research paradigm systematically force the development of such converging domains and transformative insights?  I believe we are poised to do the latter.


Seventh:  Pluri-Disciplinarity & Policy


There is real value in crossing disciplines.   Increasingly, both in academic organization and in tackling real-life problems, we note that the old “silos” of disciplines are counterproductive.  Much of the most interesting work is being done in between the disciplines, where they intersect or where the gaps are. 


Increasingly we recognize that our real life problems, such as poverty, gender or the environment, are all multi-dimensional and complex and require a special way of organizing all the various disciplinary inputs.  Just as we say that diversity is enriching, so is the sharing of knowledge across disciplines. The nature of the challenge, its scale and complexity, requires that many people have interactional expertise to improve their efficiency working across multiple disciplines as well as within the new interdisciplinary area.    The knowledge of the natural sciences needs to be supplemented by the insights of the social sciences and the wisdom of the humanities.  That is a theme I will come back to later in this lecture.


Two other aspects of the context in which the new knowledge revolution is taking place must also be mentioned as they underline the speed and scale of the change taking place.  These are:


(i) The rapidly expanding area of big data, with vast amounts of new information being generated analyzed by ever more powerful computers and used not just by the NSA in its efforts to spy on people but also in the ordinary provision of services in the commerce as with and Google among others. Science from the huge demands of particle physics experiments to those of radio-astronomy, witness the Kilometer Square Array of radio telescopes in South Africa and Australia which generate as much data in one day as the entire world is putting on the internet today (one Exabyte).


To realize just how vast that quantitative growth of data is, consider that in 2007 researchers estimated that entire sum of recorded human knowledge over the entire history of humanity was estimated to be around 256 exabytes[4].  Today the world’s citizens are adding one Exabyte a day to the internet, and a single scientific experiment, the Kilometer square array of radio telescopes will generate by itself another Exabyte of information every day!


(ii) The vast expansion of connectivity especially with the huge spread of sensor networks that have the capacity of extending the human nervous system beyond anything that we have experienced before.  This means that virtual experiences can be much expanded in the years ahead. But that opens up many questions which are best left to a discussion for another day.


For many, this deluge of data and the new world that is forming before our eyes is a cause for alarm, and generates visions of future dystopias and dehumanized societies.  They echo the profound questions that were posed by T.S. Eliot a century ago when he asked:


Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?



But I find these developments exhilarating.  They open new vistas that younger people take for granted, and thus I invite all managers of cultural institutions to bring aboard the young, not as trainees and interns, but as colleagues and collaborators.  I feel like Robert Frost who said:


Now I am old my teachers are the young.

What can’t be molded must be cracked and sprung.

I strain at lessons fit to start a suture.

I go to school to youth to learn the future.


III.   Implications of the Knowledge Revolution:



General Implications:  


It is clear from the preceding that we are entering a new age where the production and dissemination of knowledge, its storage and retrieval, its understanding and manipulation, its interpretation and reinterpretation, its integration and reinvention, all necessary parts of a functional cultural legacy and a dynamic cultural scene, will all be different. 


If the diagnosis is correct, then we should be thinking from now as to how to design the infrastructure of knowledge in our societies to take into account The Seven Pillars of the New Knowledge Revolution, as I have chosen to call them, and their implications.  By the infrastructure, I mean the education system from pre-school to post graduate studies; the research institutions in universities, independent labs and in the private sector, and the supporting structures of knowledge and culture that are libraries, archives and museums.  I will leave the implications for education and research for another occasion.


The Implications for Libraries and Museums:


The implications for libraries and museums are profound.  Everything from cataloguing to storage to retrieval systems poses problems of technical and physical obsolescence.  For despite its enormous convenience and its ability to expand our mental and physical reach in many innovative ways, the new digital technologies are quite susceptible to rapid obsolescence, quite beyond the fragility of the items in the collections, be they natural specimens for museums of natural history or manuscripts or antiquities or art works. 


Elsewhere, I have written about each of these subjects in detail.  But there is one part, from my discussion of education for the future, which I must mention here.  It is at the heart of the student-centered educational experience of the 21st century, as much as the individual-centered approach of the public institutions of the future.  It is where I have found the title for this lecture:  “It’s natural”


A small child brings into the world a natural curiosity to learn about all that is around him or her.  It is natural to hear a child ask: why is the sky blue? Why are the leaves of plants green? And to explore our world is a human urge just as much as to explore and understand our bodies.  To know the world and understand how we are connected to it is exactly the mission of the museums of natural history.  Thus building on that child-based curiosity to connect to the child within each of us, the child who continues to be delighted by the new and in awe of our world and our place in it, is – I believe – the correct platform to launch a vision of the museums of the future.  Thus It’s natural: Know the world, know yourself is truly a self-explanatory title.


But Museums will be challenged as never before.  The new technologies will make virtual visits to long bygone sites, realistic animations with extinct species and all other sorts of phenomena available on personal devices that link to the Internet.  Our Museums of Natural History will have to reinvent themselves and focus on “connections between collections” and on “pivotal pieces” to tell the story of life on earth and our place in it.  They alone will be able to organize and curate all these facets into a coherent whole, but they will have to do all that differently.  To the extent that they can manage these changes our Museums of Natural History will remain important components of the cultural scene of the future as they have been in the past.


IV.  The Future of the Museum:


Rooted in the rich tradition of the past, museums everywhere have been struggling to redefine their future role in a society that we see being reinvented at a remarkable speed before our very eyes.  Every day seems to bring one more marvel of the new technologies, promising a future so different from the leisured past that we have known and grown in that alienation seems to be the very purpose of these new creations: wearable computers, 3-D interactive devices embedded in our smart phones, which themselves have become multipurpose magic boxes with hundreds of thousands of “apps” available to deliver everything from guiding you to your destination to identifying restaurants in the vicinity to taking pictures to reading novels to linking up with friends to an endless array of services.   It is a veritable Aladdin’s lamp with a technological genie there to respond to our every whim.


Drawing on its great historical background, and embracing the new technologies and the rapidly changing world of today, the Science Park of Barcelona takes a leap into the future.  It speaks to the present and prefigures the future, as it opens up selections of its vast collections to the public, and gets set to host the best cultural expressions of Catalonia, Spain, Europe, Latin America and the World.  The ecumenism and pluralism of this new approach to exhibiting collections, inclusive and sophisticated, shall be in the vanguard of contributing to meet the challenges of the information and knowledge society. 


Ladies and gentlemen,


A century ago a poet remarked


Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,

Falls from the sky a meteoric shower

Of facts...they lie unquestioned, uncombined.

Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill

Is daily spun; but there exists no loom

To weave it into fabric...

          --Edna St. Vincent Millay, Huntsman, What Quarry


The institutions of learning are the looms of today.  The Museums, libraries and research labs, as well as the schools and universities, are the artisans working these looms. These institutions are engaged in the pursuit of how to organize data so that it becomes information, how to link and interpret it so that we gain knowledge, which hopefully, when refined in the crucible of experience, with insight and reflection, may lead us to wisdom.  The wisdom to create that better world to which we are all committed.


Museums will have to become much more than the storage place of rare originals and the general imparters of knowledge.  Yes, there will always be that unique joy, this special feeling of awe that one has in being in the presence of the actual original piece of art or that rare object that has been recognized as worthy of being a “museum piece”.   For specialists, there may well be additional and possibly profound insights that can be gained only by the examination of the original specimen and or the original artifact, just as for artists and curators of art, there will always be a special quality to studying first-hand the original work not an image of it, no matter how detailed the image. 


But museums deal with more than specialists; they have to cater to the needs and wants of the general public.  They must take note of the fact that the web will provide excellent materials, in 3-D animations that will look very lifelike, and will provide access to many sources of information.  Thus the displays of tomorrow will change.  Already most museums show the original object behind glass and allow the public to manipulate it on a hand-held device that they can rent from the museum itself.  But more importantly the museum provides a “narrative”.



The Power of Narrative:


Having millions of facts at your fingertips and millions of specimens that you can see and manipulate in a virtual digital world does not bring understanding.  Too much information is almost as bad as too little.  You cannot see the forest because of the trees.  And the overall patterns that are so important to allow us to orient ourselves are lost.  Here the museums are the saviors.


Unlike libraries which largely remain reference collections, the interaction with the public requires that museums be selective in the pieces they will display.  They must choose the pieces for their impact value as well as their explanatory power.  These are what I have decided to call “pivotal pieces” in an exhibit.


Two recent volumes by two distinguished museologists highlight that concept: Neil MacGregor’s History of the world in 100 objects[5]  and Richard Kurin’s The Smithsonian’s history of America in 101 objects[6] .   Why select such a limited number of objects from collections that number in the millions?  Because more than that would severely impair the ability of the reader (or the exhibit goer) to follow the thread of the narrative that the exhibition or the book is presenting.  Thus the ability of the Museum of Natural History is not just to show the usual ten or so pieces[7] that are the pride of its collection and that most visitors expect to see, but their ability to spin a narrative and thread the pieces that they exhibit – like pearls in a necklace – is a key function of good curators today and will be even more so in the future. Curators can have major and minor stops on the journey of discovery on which their narrative will take the public of all ages…. But in the end, the narrative has to be there.


Thus some of what we see already in the Barcelona Museum of Natural History, especially in the presentations in the Museo Blau, prefigures the museums of the future: a basic curated show that is the backbone of the museum and that changes little over longer periods of time, plus many additional and changing exhibits telling other stories and narratives that enrich and complement the basic thrust of the main narrative of the museum.  These additional curated shows, will be perpetually changing as the institution tries to reach the public in myriad ways.  The skill of the curators will be apparent in the quality of the shows that they organize. So rather than standardized fare, we can expect that the museums of tomorrow will have perpetually changing displays, that make full use of the available technologies, but provide an added "oomph" that can only be provided by the size of the exhibition, the excellence of the space, the attractiveness of the surroundings, and the exciting manner in which the building itself provides a sense of place.


* * * * * *

Ladies and Gentlemen,


Have we even begun to plumb the depth of the transformations that Museum design will undergo?   I think not.  Only the actual work  of imaginative designers of cultural outreach methods and shows will give the museum buildings life and make the space all it can innately become in that vastly changed context of the not so distant future.  We will, with hindsight, know the measure of that success.  At present, we can only raise questions and express hopes…


Can we even claim to have properly sketched out the full range of implications that the seven pillars of the new knowledge revolution will force upon us?  Do we know what the technologies of the future will do to our ability to summon the spirit of the past and conjure inspiring images to help us create a new future?  Who can tell?


Yes, there are no complete or even fully satisfying answers to many questions implicit in the discussions above.   But in this modern age, we are, to use the expression of Boorstin, “Questers”, who understand that knowledge and cultural expression are a journey and not a destination, and who recognize that there is more importance in the fecundity of the questions than in the finality of the answers.


To tackle the questions of today and tomorrow we will need new ways of thinking, trans-disciplinary research, and a great deal of imagination.  Thinking of the multiplicative effect of the new technologies and how they impact on the environment, and how the very nature of human interaction in our societies will change remains a daunting and very exciting challenge.  But in the end, “It’s Natural”, and our vision or the future must be as open-ended as knowledge, as surprising as human imagination, as random as play, and as inspiring as ingenuity.  Museums are the natural guides to humanity as we try to explore all the wonders of the self and the other as much as we try to understand the world we live in and the ecosystem of which we are a part.  It is a journey of exploration and discovery that we start as wide-eyed children and continue all our lives… and as T.S. Eliot said:


"We shall not cease from exploration,

And the end of all our exploring,

Will be to arrive where we started,

And know the place for the first time."



Thank you.



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[1] These objects of culture became objects of controversy in the late 20th century, when with the rise of newly independent nations, the desire to build national museums around narratives of national history, and the fact that many, if not all, of these museums are in the West, resulted in a number of claims for repatriation of these objects to the original lands from which they came.   However, most nations are seeking collaborative and cooperative solutions to these issues, emphasizing that the legality of how the object was obtained, at the time it was obtained, should prevail. 


[2]   Mark Brown noted: “For example, 2002 was the year digital storage capacity overtook the world's total analogue capacity. By 2007, almost 94 percent of the world's data was stored in a digital format.” See Mark Brown ,  “Study estimates human information capacity at 256 exabytes” posted 14 February 2011 on  (accessed 02 02 2012)


[3] See, inter alia,  my rather lengthy monograph: The Shape of Tomorrow: The Seven Pillars of the Knowledge Revolution and their implications, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt, 2010


[4] Source: “How much information in the world” from USC science and wired (re-accessed 12 04 2014)


[5] Neil MacGregor, History of the world in 100 objects, Viking Adult; First Edition , London , 2011.


[6] See Richard Kurin, The Smithsonian’s history of America in 101 objects, Penguin Press HC, The Book Club Edition, London and NY,  2013.


[7] See Museum Bingo Card by Mark Carnall, on 15 October 2013

Source: (accessed 25 06 2014)

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