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  • John E. Simmons

Reflections on a Museum Centenary: A Celebration in Peru

I admit that I was surprised by the parade, especially when the cactus began dancing with the two penguins as their friends beat out a complex rhythm on empty 5-gallon water bottles. But then, many things about Perú are unexpected.

Students participating in the parade dressed as the organisms they study.

The parade took place in Lima in late February of this year, during an unusually hot and dry summer. It was part of a month-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Museo de Historia Natural. The museum is part of the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, which is the oldest university in the Americas (founded in 1551). Other events celebrating the museum’s centenary included public programs and lectures, collection tours, a documentary film festival, and several symposia for the scientific community (with an impressive lineup of international and national speakers). I was invited to speak in the final symposium, “Advances in Biodiversity and Conservation.” The title of my presentation was “Adventures in a Time Machine: The Challenging Future of Natural History Collections.”

Following the symposium, I taught a workshop on the care of natural science collections to an enthusiastic audience. The workshop was divided into two parts. Nearly 100 museum staff and university students attended the first two days of lectures and Q&A sessions. The last two days were devoted to hands-on, practical lessons in assessing collections, specimens, and materials—attendance for this portion of the workshop was limited to 32 participants as that was all that the laboratory space would hold. In the workshop we discussed the history of museums, the uses and value of scientific specimens, and how to care for collections. On the final day the participants were divided into teams to assess several of the museum’s collections.

Museum staff and students participating in the hands-on portion of the workshop on collections care, examining the effects of different preservatives on tissues.

Not many museums can claim 100 years of continuous service to the public. The Museo de Historia Natural was founded on 28 February 1918 and launched its first scientific expedition in April of that same year. Throughout its century of existence, the research focus of the museum has remained on flora, fauna, and cultures of Peru, resulting in hundreds of scientific and popular publications and a slow but steady growth of its collections.

The museum building is nestled within a walled-in botanical garden in downtown Lima, a tranquil space amid the bustle of traffic. Two impressive bronze statues of Amazons flank either side of the main museum entrance. There are several mounted whale skeletons on the museum grounds, as well as a special building for programs on ecology and recycling for children. The museum’s dioramas and exhibitions are very popular with the public. Although many of the exhibits are old, the labels are updated regularly and supplemented by lots of educational programming. The scientific collections are housed in several newer buildings at the rear of the garden.

The diversity of birds gallery in the Natural History Museum.

When I got to Peru, the museum director, Dr. Victor Pacheco, told me that we would need to schedule a break for a couple of hours on Saturday for the parade. “The parade,” I asked? “Yes,” responded Victor, “a small parade so the staff and students can celebrate their hard work on the centenary celebration.” As it happened, the parade was hardly small. Well over a hundred people took part, including two dance troupes, a band, floats, stilt walkers, a faculty delegation from the university, and throngs of students dressed up as the organisms they study in the museum collections—frogs, bats, parasites, mice, climbing vines, lizards, flowers, a praying mantis, a condor, two penguins, and of course, the dancing cactus. Despite the heat, almost everyone in the parade danced the entire route (for well over an hour), justifiably proud of their venerable museum and the work they do in promoting an understanding of Peruvian plants, animals, and cultures.

The museum parade makings its way around a city park.

The botany contingent in the parade.

The occasion gave me pause to think about the changes that I have seen since I began traveling in Latin America in 1971. The first time I visited Peru (in 1974) the museum was badly underfunded, the staff inadequately trained, and they suffered from a serious lack of resources. There have been substantial improvements since that time. Many of the scholars who went to Europe, the United States, or Canada to pursue graduate degrees have returned home to work and teach. Salaries have improved. Access to research materials underwent a major change in the 1990s when internet service became available. Almost overnight, Latin American scholars had access to the same materials as their European and US counterparts. The impact of these changes in museums and universities has been remarkable. The staff and students at the Museo de Historia Natural in Lima are now engaged in international caliber research and are dedicated to preserving their collections for future work, not to mention providing biodiversity information for the people of Peru.

I had never heard of a museum having a parade before (much less seen a dancing cactus), but what a great way to celebrate 100 years of service and success while having a lot of fun on a midsummer’s day.

Museum staff and students who participate in the full four days of the workshop on the care of natural history collections, gathered at the main entrance to the Natural History Museum.