museum display of geology

In situ interpretation and ex situ museum display of geology. New opportunities for a geoheritage based dialogue?

This article is based on a research assessment. As a museologist having studied geoparks in my previous works, some of them published in this review (Van Geert, 2019a), I was struck by the absence of bibliographical references dealing with the exhibiting of geological collections in museums. This situation seemed in fact paradoxical faced with the growing corpus of references on geoheritage since the 1990s and 2000s, as well as the desire of scientists to propose a better interpretation of the latter for visitors, mostly unfamiliar with this “unloved discipline” (Gohau, 2001), in order to spread the need for a better protection of geodiversity. For example, in the field of Earth sciences, the most prestigious geology or geography journals hardly ever address the issue of museums displays of geological collections, except for the specimens preserved there, which can be the subject of scientific studies. These collections are also almost never the subject of references in journals dealing exclusively with geoheritage, in which geologists, but also scientists from other fields present their researches. This is the case of Geoheritage where, since its creation in 2009, only 4 of the 343 articles have addressed geological collections in museums, even though none of them dealt exclusively with the way of exhibiting them in these institutions. This is also the case of the International Journal of Geoheritage and Parks, the second major journal on geoheritage published since 2013, where no article has since addressed museums. More intriguing, on the museum studies side, the exhibition of these collections does not constitute neither the subject of articles published in the main reviews of this field of research. International journals such as Curator, Museum World, or Culture & Musées do not address these issues, except for the latter, through researches exploring exclusively the science museums publics. At best, articles published in the bulletins of local geological societies present the history and experience of some geology museums, such as Plaine (2013) or Oudoire, Cuvelier, D’Andrea, Koch, and Dhainaut (2014) for the French case, although they do not address the current expositive practices of these institutions. As such, the study of museological issues regarding these collections seems to be a blind spot of the scientific research, since at least the 1990s, contrary to the study of geoheritage preserved in situ.

This scientific disinterest for these geological collections, however, contrasts with the extent of these collections within European museums, where an important part of what is generally considered as the ex situ part of geoheritage is preserved (De Wever et al., 2019). A large number of the continent’s institutions, whose objectives may however vary a lot, keep together several millions of objects illustrating geological, geomorphological and pedological features and phenomena with the natural processes which form and modify them. These are particularly natural history museums, but also science museums, interpretation centres, multidisciplinary museums and even private collections open to the public. In France, the National Museum of Natural History inventories not less than 296 institutions of this kind opened to the public (regardless of whether they are recognised or not by the French Ministry of Culture as “museums of France”1), conserving geological or prehistoric collections (the distinction between these two types of collections is not made by the Museum)2. This counting however does not contemplate university museums, many of which are closed to the public.

To explain this apparent paradox, we will postulate in this article that this situation is due to the fact that the reflections between in situ geological sites and ex situ geological collections were developed in two different theoretical and practical fields which now have little explicit links between them. To explore this idea, this article will focus on the context of Europe, and particularly of France, from which a large part of the bibliographical references will be drawn. We will therefore first address the historical conformation of these two fields of reflection, as well as their gradual separation between, on the one hand, the establishment of specific conservation and interpretation measures on geoheritage and, on the other hand, the exhibition of ex situ geological collections within museums. In the second part of this article, we will try to define the current major trends of museum display of these collections from the results of an observation phase of the permanent exhibitions of these institutions. Finally, from these elements, we will attempt to discuss, in our conclusions, the existing links between the reflections on the in situ and ex situ geoheritage, from their common points but also from their differences. This will permit us to end up calling out for a gathering between these two fields in order to nourish the reflection on the sometimes more than necessary museum renovations.

To preserve and to present the in and ex situ geology. The conformation and the separation of two fields of reflection

From the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, the first reflections on the conservation of nature and the preservation of ex situ collections will emerge, albeit in a somewhat different direction. Witnesses of geological phenomena of greater or lesser dimensions will then be protected in Europe, being classified as monuments and then as natural sites, particularly in France under the laws of 1906 and 1930. In a similar manner to the rest of the natural, but also cultural monuments-Fabre defines this first stage of development of heritage policies as the “monuments age” (Fabre, 2013) -, the latter were protected because of their “existence value” and their uniqueness, from a historical, scientific, legendary or picturesque perspective, rather than from a geological point of view. From the twentieth century, however, the creation of the first parks, reserves and natural sites will gradually put forward scientific criteria in the creation and conservation of these specific sites and monuments.

In parallel with these elements preserved in situ, objects of smaller size collected in nature will also be preserved in natural history museums, then the main places of consolidation of the scientific knowledge. Thus, unlike the first monuments and protected sites, these objects will be collected from the nineteenth century in museums for a scientific purpose, as study specimens documenting geological processes. As De Wever and Guiraud argue, the current composition of geological collections within museums illustrates the different interests and researches of Earth Sciences, from the history of the Universe and the Earth to the physical and biological mechanisms that underlie them (De Wever & Guiraud, 2018: 132). Alongside natural history museums, many university museums housing geological collections were also created during this century to train future researchers and engineers. Let’s note, however, as De Wever and Guiraud (2018) argue, that an aesthetic interest has also existed at that time in the acquisition and exhibition of minerals in these different museums, thus extending a practice already existing in the cabinets of curiosities of the Ancien Régime.

Between the 1960s and 1980s, however, new specific reflections will develop around the display of geological sites, but also around the conception of the role of scientific museums. In the first case, while the European continent was experiencing a new wave of heritagisation of its nature on the basis of criteria both economic (in connection with the development of tourism) and environmentalist (through the creation of the first national parks), we will see a desire to distinguish progressively geology from the rest of the natural biological heritage. In France in particular, following the application of the 1976 law on the protection of nature, the insistence of the scientific community on the fact that the specificities of geological sites were not sufficiently taken into account in these conservation policies will lead to the creation, in the early 1980s, of the first geological reserves. In this context, and while a desire for mediation was developing within the protected natural spaces, the interpretive narrative created for the visitors will progressively integrate the question of geology. This is the case of park houses or ecomuseums, created in France at that time within the national and regional natural parks, such as the Mount Lozère Ecomuseum, founded in 1984 in the Cévennes National Park. Indeed, this institution will insist in its exhibitions, not only on the local fauna and flora, but also on the specificities of its soils and subsoils as a result of geological processes. In this logic, however, as can be seen in Fig. 1, the specificities of geology is presented as something “given”, conditioning the appearance of local landscapes, but without indicating that they require special protection, as this will be the case later on.

Fig. 1. Display on the geology of the Cévennes National Park. Mount Lozère Ecomuseum, Le-Pont-de-Montvert. Author’s photograph, April 2016.

Parallel to these sites and spaces of interpretation, scientific museums will be affected at that time by a profound tendency to situate the public at the heart of these institutions, under the influence of the new science centres emerging back then (Eidelman & Van Praët, 2000). Born in the 1960s in North America (with the opening of the 1968 Montreal Geode, the San Francisco Exploratorium and the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto in 1969), they will spread in Europe from the 1970s and 1980s, based on the desire to teach science from a didactical perspective. In France, this will be particularly the case of the Palais de la Découverte, created in Paris as early as 1937 in order to present to the public the researches conducted in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and astronomy, and which will gradually integrate the geosciences. The goal will then be to explain to visitors, and especially to families and young audiences, the main geological and geomorphological processes, but also seismology or vulcanology. In addition to this centre, note also the case of the Cité des sciences et de l’industrie, inaugurated in 1986 in the Paris park of La Villette, which is the main example of these institutions locally known as Centres of scientific, technical and industrial culture (CCSTI), created in the country to bring closer science and society.

Faced with this new conception of museums, scientific institutions such as natural history museums will gradually be interested in their audiences and their understanding of the exhibitions, thus converging their interests with those of the didactics of sciences, which were also emerging at the same time (Schiele & Koster, 1998). Within the geological exhibitions, however, the presentation of the collections will still be based mainly on what Davallon (1999) defined as the “museology of knowledge”, where the exhibition is composed of ecological units, that is to say sets of objects presented from their accumulation in the display cases, in order to transmit knowledges to the visitors. The labels and texts are then used mainly to present scientific knowledge, explaining the geological or geomorphic processes from which the objects are the consequences, in a way that would now be seen as rather complex (Fig. 2). The chemical formulas of the composition of rocks and minerals sometimes accompany these explanations, as it is for example the case of the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels, along with the scientific names of the objects and their geographical origins (Fig. 3). In the collections traditionally associated with engineering training, the objects can also be exhibited to illustrate the composition of the national soils and the resources available for the development of the industry, as it is the case of the Mineralogy Museum of MINES Paristech (Fig. 4). Finally, note that an aesthetic approach is also clearly visible in the exhibitions created at that time in some natural history museums, like the one in Geneva, whose current geological exhibitions dates back to the 1970s (Fig. 5).

Fig. 2. Display at the Sofia Museum of Natural Science. Author’s photograph, October 2018.
Fig. 3. Display at the Brussels Museum of Natural Sciences. Author’s photograph, March 2019.
Fig. 4. The French Vosges mountain range resources. Display at the Mineralogy Museum of MINES Paristech. Author’s photograph, March 2019.
Fig. 5. Display at the Geneva Natural History Museum. Author’s photograph, December 2018.

Following these transformations, the 1990s will see the conformation of theoretical fields of research both on heritage and museum studies. Many authors will attempt to define then the same concepts of heritage and museum located at the base of these places and institutions. Within the social sciences, researchers will thus determine the process of heritagisation as a result of a complex social construction, in a context where political spheres were then engaged in a dynamic judged by some as an “heritage excess” (Debray, 1999), or as a “museification” process, following this concept used by Baudrillard (1976). It is indeed at that time that many new institutions will make their appearance in Europe, with the opening for instance of private collections to the public, sometimes composed of geological objects. Among these authors, let us particularly mention the works of Walsh (1992) and Smith (2006) in the Anglo-Saxon world, of Prats (1997) in the Hispanic world or of Davallon (2000) in the French-speaking world, whose theories will profoundly shape the conformation of heritage studies in these different linguistic contexts. In parallel, the definition of the musealisation process will also occupy a large number of authors driven by the desire to consolidate a museological science. This will be particularly the case of the authors who will continue the theoretical work started by Stránský in the 1980s, like Van Mensch (2004) or Mairesse and Desvallées (2007), who will particularly address the concept of museum as it is now perceived in the twenty-first century.

By crossing these two theoretical fields of research, some authors will argue that the heritagisation and the musealisation constituted similar processes, the first being part of the second, without however encompassing it completely. Indeed, according to Mairesse, “everything that is musealised is heritagised, but all of what has been heritagised is not musealised”, while the heritage reflex differs from the one of museum, both by its desire, for the first, to exceed “only material preservation of the ‘real thing’”, and its desire, for the second, to preserve not only the heritage in situ, but also ex situ (Mairesse, 2011: 254). From this postulate, some authors then proposed to group the sphere of heritage and museums in the same conceptual approach, such as Šola who proposed the development of a “patrimonology”, which would be interested in all activities related to the conservation and protection of heritage, whether preserved in museums or not (Šola, 2015). Given the potential threat that would make museum studies a mere component of heritage studies, some museologists indicated that, although these processes are similar, they should nevertheless be thought differently as they are related to very different issues (Chaumier, 2016; Desvallées, Mairesse, & Deloche, 2011).

From these theoretical debates, the extraordinary international proliferation of heritage and museum studies has gradually given rise to two fields of research, but also to different practical applications within geological spaces situated both in situ and ex situ. In the first case, the holding of the International Symposium on the Protection of the Geological Heritage of Digne-les-Bains (France) in 1991 opened a new field of reflection, after more than 120 specialists, researchers, academics of about thirty nationalities came together to determine, for the first time, a global state of geological protection. This symposium consolidated the idea of a need for protection of sites linked to various geological phenomena (volcanism, magmatic segregation, metamorphism, weathering, sedimentation, etc.) but also to those witnessing the history of the Earth (from the point of view of paleontology, global tectonics, climate, sea level, etc.), which until then were little taken into account in heritage policies. With the “International Declaration of the Rights of the Memory of the Earth”, published in 1991 following this symposium, the history of the Earth was then conceived as geological heritage. Like all other types of heritage, the recognition of this new symbolic status will involve the development of a great deal of research on each stages of its heritagisation process, as identified by Davallon (2006) and Heinich (2009). According to the latter, the construction of a public heritage policy would indeed pass through seven interdependent stages, constituting together the links of a “heritage chain” that is represented schematically in Fig. 6.

Fig. 6. The Heritage Chain. Adaptation of the author, from the Patrimathèque Project:

By taking up this theory, the identification and documentation of geoheritage spaces, the first two links of the “heritage chain”, will bring out theories and practices relating in particular to the realisation of inventories, but also reflections on their modalities, as they are meant to serve as a basis for the implementation of reasoned conservation policies. In France, the realisation of the national inventory, under the aegis of De Wever of the National Museum of Natural History, will give rise to a large number of symposia and publications (De Wever et al., 2018). Like the theories carried out over a hundred years ago for cultural heritage, notably by Riegl (1984), this process of geoheritagisation will also give rise to the will to theorise, within this selection of sites, their heritage values. It is the case of Reynard (2005) who will define the different types of values that can be attributed to geomorphological landscapes, such as the economic, scientific, historical, cultural or aesthetic values. With regard to the preservation and protection links of the “heritage chain”, reflections will emerge on the necessary measures for the conservation of this geoheritage, which is now conceived as geoconservation (Pannizza, 2001), while legislative devices will be put in place to better protect it, both at local and national levels, but also at the European and international levels.

In addition to these theories conceived essentially from the “existence value” of geoheritage (Greffe, 2003), where the interest for its protection is essentially defined by the very existence of these sites, the conformation of the next links of the “heritage chain” related to the promotion and enhancement of geoheritage will also lead to the creation, from 2000, of Geoparks, based on the “use values” of geoheritage, which can promote the economic development of territories. The creation of these first geoparks, their rapid reproduction as well as the establishment of the International Geosciences and Geoparks Program by UNESCO in 2015, will open up new research themes for scientists all over the world. Many references will then address for example the issue of geotourism, as a new type of visitors interested in the memory of the Earth, and for which some authors have tried to establish a categorisation (González-Tejada, Du, Read, & Girault, 2017).

Finally, the phases of promotion and development of geoheritage, the last two links of the “heritage chain”, will lead to the creation of interpretative activities aimed at spreading the importance of these sites beyond the scientific community. Mediation activities will be articulated within the geoparks, such as geological walks, days of disclosure, conferences, games, publications or digital applications to ensure geotourists a global visiting experience. Interpretative spaces will also be proposed in situ by geoparks, through educational trails, interpretation panels, or interpretation centres, often favoured, according to Cayla (2009), in the countries of Latin tradition, contrary to those of German culture where in situ actions are preferred. Within these devices, some of which will become genuine tourist information centres, different approaches will be observable in the new mediation strategies developed. Apart from the purely geological approach still existing, new interpretative narratives accessible to the larger public will in fact be created on the territory.

Within these, a willingness to offer a didactic interpretation of the formation of geological forms is clearly visible, often through drawings, videos or models (in the case of existing centres), as well as a desire to promote an interdisciplinary reading of the history of the Earth and its natural and cultural consequences on the conformation of landscapes (Fig. 7). As such, these devices will try to address cultures, ways of life but also local legends that explain these geological forms. Secondly, the latter may also attempt to propose an aesthetic approach to the history of the Earth, particularly through the production of exhibitions of paintings or photographs establishing formal links between human and “natural” creations. In France, this dialogue between contemporary art and geology will be explored for example by the Natural Geological Reserve of Haute-Provence as early as 1994, in collaboration with the museum of Digne-les-Bains, by soliciting artists to create and express themselves on the Reserve (Guiomar, 2009). Numerous other institutions have followed since then this practice, like the Maison de la géologie et du géoparc de Briançon- the information and interpretation centre of the Geopark of the Cottian Alps on the Franco-Italian border-, which realised in 2017 a temporary exhibition of snapshots of a local photograph based on the aesthetic forms generated by the history of the Earth. Thirdly, the natural risks of these territories related to their geological specificities may also be addressed within these mediation devices, thus attempting to have an impact on the spatial planning policies of these areas.

Fig. 7. View of an interdisciplinary interpretation panel set up by the Geopark of the Tremp Basin-Montsec (Catalonia, Spain). Author’s photograph, May 2018.

In parallel to these perspectives on geoheritage and the different levels of its heritagisation process, the scientific museums will be affected, since the 1990s, by internal reflections. The museographic experiments of this period will indeed give rise to rich thinking on the meaning of collections and their interpretation. The museum research of that time will for example demonstrate that the “setting of the museum objects” (Desvallées & Mairesse, 2011) intrinsically changes their meanings, by transforming them into “museum objects” through their exhibition and their conservation. Cut off from their original context, they are then incorporated into a new world, the museum one, which is, strictly speaking, “an utopian, a constructed and a projected world” (Gob, 2009), where these objects can acquire multiple layers of meanings according to the museum narrative that the curators wish to create around them. In this context, Hainard, the director of the Museum of Ethnography in Neuchâtel (Switzerland), will particularly focus on ethnographic objects which, according to him, “are first functional, then polysemic, but finally only make sense in a museographic context” (Hainard, 1984: 189). Beyond this last institution, these constructivist reflections will thus open museums to new interpretations of their collections, sometimes very imaginative.

In addition to this reflection on the meaning of collections, the science museums of the 1990s will also be affected by new conceptions of the museum institution, increasingly oriented towards the public and somehow less interested in scientific research. Davallon defines that the exhibitions of the time were often created on the basis of a “museology of points of view” (Davallon, 1999), which offers visitors, often non-specialists, a sequence of exhibitions as well as narratives through more or less pedagogical mediation devices. Some institutions will in fact think their exhibitions on the base of the supposed interests of the public. This will notably be the case for paleontological and comparative anatomy collections, which will then try to provoke what is defined in marketing as “the wow effect”, thanks in particular to the exhibition of skeletons, and especially of dinosaurs, whose effect on the public is attested since at least the nineteenth century. Some other collections will be presented in a very didactic way, with the aim for example to present to the public the various scientific professions. Finally, under the influence of the paradigm of the “society museums” (Drouguet, 2015), marked by a desire to achieve interdisciplinary exhibitions focused on contemporary issues, some science museums will also want to embody at that time places of reflection on the current society, rethinking for this matter their exhibitions as well as their narratives.

Among scientific institutions, some will indeed be particularly affected by this “society museums” paradigm. This is the case of the ethnographic collections preserved in natural history museums, whose exhibitions will be profoundly redesigned at that time under the influence of the “multicultural” museums created back then in most European capitals from the collections of ancient ethnographic and colonial museums. The latter, widely studied since then in the literature, will indeed be seen as places of social and symbolic stakes for the recognition of a Western postcolonial and plural society (Van Geert, 2019b). The exhibition of animal and plant collections will also be redesigned from the point of view of biodiversity, especially following the holding, in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (better known as the “Summit of the Earth”). In France, the great gallery of the evolution will be opened for this matter in 1994 at the National Museum of Natural History, being since then particularly popular among the public (Davallon, Grandmont, & Schiele, 1992). In addition to these changes in display, we should note that a certain number of institutions affected by the same considerations will opt for another approach. By keeping some of their showcases and rooms in their original state, they will thus musealise their exhibitions, while updating their narratives, in order to offer a reflection on the transformation of science and on our knowledge of the world.

Faced with these renovations, widely documented in the literature, and often conducted within the various departments of natural history museums, what happened to the geological collections? Have the latter experienced this same process of transformation, giving rise to new presentations of the collections? If so, in what ways have their exposure patterns been redesigned? This is what we will attempt to address in the second part of this article.

The contemporary trends of exhibiting geological collections within European science museums

This part should be started by stating that, for historical and institutional reasons due to the constitution of science, geological collections are often conserved and displayed in specific galleries, separate from other collections, especially in natural history museums. However, within these, it appears in a large number of cases, that they have only recently been the object of renovations and many older museographies are still on stage today. The geology rooms are in fact often the oldest-fashioned but also the least visited exhibitions of these institutions, showing a structural delay in relation to the ways museums are nowadays thought. Few traces of the didactics of science are visibles in these exhibitions, contrasting strongly with the other departments of these same institutions deeply renewed over the last twenty years. Faced with this situation, it should be asked in particular whether the didactics of science has not been sufficiently taken into account by the departments of Earth Sciences, while one can deplore the fact that, in France (but also in many other countries), there is now little courses in mineralogy (but also in paleontology) that open perspectives in museology.

This situation is however not representative of all the current science museums in Western Europe. An observation of their permanent exhibitions, and especially of those located in the major economic and cultural centres of the continent, shows that some of them have been renewed in the last two decades, from the public potential interests. These renovations are mainly based on a new polysemic approach of geological collections, the conditions of which were theorised by museum studies researches commented previously. In fact, Bétard (2017) pointed out that geological collections are not limited to the abiotic portion of the natural heritage. They are also loaded most of the time with a cultural dimension, allowing them to be considered as “hybrid constructs at the interface between a naturalistic or geoscientific knowledge, a sensitive approach, a collective appropriation and/or a political decision” (Bétard, 2017: 531). This conception will also be taken up by De Wever for whom geoheritage allows the understanding of the formation or the evolution of the Earth, but also of the history of sciences, while being able to serve educational purposes (De Wever et al., 2019: 14). By comparing these different renovations, it is then possible to determine a series of major trends in current presentations of these collections, which are sometimes found within the same institution, depending on the displays, the exhibition halls, and the sensitivities of their respective curators. These approaches are therefore in no way exclusive to one another, and tend to coexist within the same institution. With no presumption of exhaustivity, we could define three of these trends, which we will now illustrate through examples.

The first, most common and widespread trend, which updates an inherent perspectives of these museums, is an aesthetic approach of the collections, and especially of minerals. This type of presentation, found in both scientific museums and private collections, and open to the wider public, is not based solely on scientific content, but rather on an aesthetic or artistic appreciation of the shapes and colours of the objects presented. Favouring “the wow effect”, the iconic objects of the collections are then presented as works of art, magnified by a contemporary scenography that highlights their contours, materials, or brilliance, as we can see on the Fig. 8. The concepts of “treasures”, “wonders” or “masterpieces” of the Earth are often found in the titles of these exhibitions, some of which are very popular, and not only among young audiences. In some cases, this aesthetic approach may also be based on the curiosity provoked by the shape of certain minerals, which evoke to the visitors human or imaginary forms. Beyond this museum approach whose purpose would reside solely in the admiration of the collections, it is important to note that this aesthetic enhancement of objects can also be a means of mediation allowing the novice public to understand geological, chemical and physical phenomena. Through the admiration of shapes and colours. This is particularly the case of the presentation of the fluorescence of certain minerals by some museums, projecting ultraviolet rays on them. According to this perspective, the most beautiful pieces of the mineralogy collection of the National Museum of Natural History of Paris have been exhibited since 2014 in the permanent exhibition “Treasures of the Earth”, which replaced the old exhibition put in place in 1963. From a narrative both aesthetic and educational, it allows visitors, through the formal exhibitions of objects, to enter the world of Earth Sciences, some of which theories are presented within the galleries through digital devices.

Fig. 8. View of the permanent exhibition of mineral collections of the Sorbonne University (Jussieu site). Author’s photograph, March 2019.

The second current approach in the exhibition of geological collections, also widely visible in many institutions, is societal, wishing to establish links between the objects and the interests of the contemporary society of the visitors. Under the clear influence of the “society museums” paradigm, these exhibitions will particularly address the current uses of natural resources in our societies, updating the museography based on the potential natural resources that could be found in university museums in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The presence of the latter on a territory, their influence on the aspect of its landscapes and its constructions (Fig. 9) but also its modalities of extraction will be displayed, as it is the case of the Cantonal Museum of Geology of Lausanne in Switzerland (Fig. 10). Other institutions may finally insist on the use made of raw materials in the daily life products of visitors, as is the case of the Natural History Museum in Bern (Switzerland), which uses this approach in the “Mineral and Man” section of its permanent exhibition (Fig. 11). It is also the case of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, where geological collections are displayed, side by side, with luxury objects created from the same materials. In particular, let’s note here the case of the Museum of Confluences of Lyon, inaugurated in 2014 from the collections of the Museum of Natural History of the city, but also those of the former local colonial museum. Marked by a desire to establish a constant dialogue between its different collections, basing all its exhibitions on an interdisciplinary approach that crosses knowledge, collections and geo-temporal spaces, the use of raw materials is presented in this museum from the angle of resources, by bringing geological collections into contact with ethnographic objects and other technical and industrial collections (Fig. 12).

Fig. 9. Display of the permanent exhibition of the Cantonal Museum of Geology of Lausanne (Switzerland). Author’s photograph, December 2018.
Fig. 10. Display of the permanent exhibition of the Cantonal Museum of Geology of Lausanne (Switzerland). Author’s photograph, December 2018.
Fig. 11. Display of the “Mineral and Man” section of the permanent exhibition of the Berne Natural History Museum. Author’s photograph, December 2018.
Fig. 12. Display of “Creating” space of the “Societies. The theatre of Men” permanent exhibition of the Museum of the Confluences in Lyon. Author’s photograph, February 2019.

More critically, the Africa Museum in Tervuren, the former Belgian colonial museum, will also use this approach from its reopening in 2018 by exposing a large part of its geological collections from its new decolonial perspective and its interest in dealing with contemporary African societies. The geological collections of Central Africa are thus presented in the new “Cabinet of minerals” of the museum on the bases of a narrative that explores the wealth of its subsoil and the interest aroused by the latter, both for the mining industry and the scientific research, having had devastating effects on the political and social situation of his region of the world. Well connected to this new vision of the museum as a citizen space, the geological collections can also be presented from the contemporary issues of our world, including the risks and natural disasters caused by geological phenomena. The sustainability issues are indeed underlying this societal approach of the collections, trying to promote, within the walls of the museum, a social and political debate on the need for a reasoned exploitation and a good management of these natural resources in order to preserve the environment and ensure the sustainable development of societies, as mentioned by the Valentí Masachs Museum of Geology of the Polytechnical Engineering School of Manresa in Catalonia (Fig. 13). It is also the case of the Museum of Mineralogy of MINES ParisTech, previously commented, which is now rethinking its educational, scientific and social role in this direction (Nectoux, 2018). Within this second approach, it should finally be noted that dialogues can be established in exhibitions between geological collections and contemporary objects as a way of illustrating contemporary popular culture. Let us particularly mention here the case of meteorites, and more broadly of cosmology, whose representations are numerous in literary, cinematographic and more generally fictional universes, offering museums a unique opportunity to explore our collective imaginaries through the exhibition of these objects (Fig. 14).

Fig. 13. “Is a miner child a child?”, “Fair trade with China?”, “Blood priced minerals?” are some of the questions arisen at the Valentí Masachs Museum of Geology of the Polytechnical Engineering School of Manresa (Catalonia, Spain). Author’s photograph, November 2016.
Fig. 13. “Is a miner child a child?”, “Fair trade with China?”, “Blood priced minerals?” are some of the questions arisen at the Valentí Masachs Museum of Geology of the Polytechnical Engineering School of Manresa (Catalonia, Spain). Author’s photograph, November 2016.

Finally, in parallel with these aesthetic and societal approaches to collections, it is possible to define a third trend in the exhibition of geological objects, based on a heritage approach of the latter. Indeed, in many devices, museums emphasize this aspect of collections, presenting them as scientific heritage. These exhibition practice corresponds to the idea explored by some authors who conceive ex situ geoheritage in a broad sense, like Bétard (2017), for whom this term covers all geological collections, but also archives, publications, pictorial representations, maps, field notebooks and other handwritten documents that are of heritage interest for geosciences. According to this approach, the heritage aspect of the collections lies particularly in the possibilities they offer to illustrate the consolidation of geosciences, through their exhibitions (Fig. 15). This is particularly true of some university museums, especially of those that have only scarcely been renewed since the twentieth century. In the latter, the objects can then be presented in the exhibitions as illustrations of the progress of geosciences, the ways in which these were developed and transformed, or the interests of the researchers at given moments.

Fig. 15. Display of the collections as scientific heritage in the “Treasures of the Earth” permanent exhibition of the Paris National Museum of Natural History. Author’s photograph, March 2019.

Apart from this perspective, in other cases, these collections can also be presented as local heritage of an area, notably through their exhibition in identity museums, many of which were created in Europe during the 1980s, in a context of the “heritage excess” defined earlier in this article. In these spaces, museography is indeed based on the enhancement of what are presented as the cultural or natural “treasures” of the community, thereby justifying the latter’s financial commitment for its conservation through a space often created for the occasion. In this case, the geological objects are exposed, not as scientific specimens, but rather in connection with a territory from which they come, sometimes also allowing the enhancement of the scholar or the local amateur who collected and bequeathed them to the community.

Finally, the collections can also be presented in the exhibitions rooms as geoheritage, illustrative of the history of the Earth. It should be noted, however, that the use of this term remains largely absent from these institutions, both in the room sheets and labels of objects and in the oral mediations proposed around exhibitions, even in the most recent ones. This is the case for the institutions visited for the writing of this article, but this assumption also seems true for other geographical contexts. In Serbia, for example, Maran Stevanović (2014: 25) has indicated that geoheritage is never mentioned in the collections on display in the country’s natural history museums. However, narrative clues can sometimes indicate that this geoheritage aspect underlies some of the exhibitions purposes. This is particularly the case of the concept of “treasure of the land” used by some institutions, which may refer to the idea of a heritage of the Earth that should be preserved in the museum spaces. Does this explicit absence of this term nevertheless mean that geological museums have not incorporated the geoheritage concept, yet particularly used in the in situ mediation of geological sites, such as geoparks? This is what we will try to see in the conclusion of this article, by comparing these two logics that we have discussed until now in parallel.

The absence of a geoheritage approach in museums? Open reflections for a conclusion

In this article, we have tried to define what we consider to be two approaches in the presentation of geology to the public, either through in situ interpretation or through the ex situ exhibition of collections within museums, and especially scientific institutions. From a parallel analysis of these two logics, we have seen that they were each nourished by different reflections, where the will of scientific mediation is not always perceptible. In addition, with regard to museums, we have seen that the current trends in the exhibition of these collections, repeated in many institutions, often consist in a museographic updated approach, more or less didactic, that could already be found in these museums in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and reaffirmed in the 1970s. Beyond these trends of exhibits, we have also seen that the concept of geoheritage, which often makes it possible to group, from a theoretical point of view, the in situ and ex situ enhancement of geological phenomena, as especially stated by the actors of its heritagisation, is however not usually presented from a practical perspective in existing labels and mediations within museums. Nevertheless, it appears that there are common points between these in situ and ex situ presentations, indicating that transversal questions do exist in these two spheres of research but also in their application within different devices.

The will of interdisciplinarity seems in fact to be present in both cases, through an in situ interpretation combining geology, didactics of science and ethnology, while presentations of collections within museums also play on multiple and complementary layers of meanings to convey plural stories to visitors. In this approach, we can note that the aesthetic and societal perspectives are particularly present in both cases, as we have seen in this article. The museums’ desire to have geological collections interact with other objects also contributes to this same logic, which is particularly evident in the most recent institutions, influenced by the paradigm of “society museums”, as exemplified in Lyon. The approach of the latter is thus close to the holistic will abhorred by the geoparks, in particular, where the geology and history of the Earth are supposed to nourish the stories on the territories, conditioning to a large extent the development of their social, cultural and economic specificities. In museums, several authors would like to see this reflection pursued, like Henriques (2015) who wanted to combine geology, paleontology (seen as part of geoheritage) and biological sciences in order to present visitors a more holistic approach to nature. Note, however, that, unlike geoparks and their political will to develop territories through joint management, the “departmentalisation” of many natural science museums often limits this type of collaboration, while each one of them often evolve in parallel, and links are rare in terms of musealisation and exhibition processes.

Despite this interdisciplinarity, in situ and ex situ geological mediations also show significant differences. This is particularly the case of the question of the public, perceived, on the one hand, as geotourists, and on the other hand, as visitors coming to museums searching for a scientific knowledge, or a particular experience (Falk & Dierking, 1992). The question of research is also approached in a significantly different way. In the in situ interpretations policies, it may indeed appear secondary, while the value of heritage is often perceived from an approach once based on its criteria of existence to a new one defined on its use for the economic development of territories. However, many geoparks still say that they want to develop research on their territory, either directly or in connection with universities and research centres. On the contrary, museums presenting ex situ geological collections, unlike many other museums, mainly continue to be thought of as places of scientific research, even though the public can now take a central role in the definition of their activities. As a result, collections are not so much seen as part of a geoheritage that can generate economic resources, but rather, on the one hand, as objects of research, and, on the other hand, as part of a scientific heritage, as illustrative of the beauties formed by the Earth and its history, and even as part of a local heritage to be preserved. The reasons for conservation and development of geoheritage may therefore vary depending on where the story of the Earth is presented.

Faced with these similarities and divergences, is a rapprochement between interpretation and musealisation therefore possible, or even desirable, while these reflections have developed in two fields that have gradually become independent, without seeming to maintain now a constructive dialogue between them? This trend of separation is indeed observable for other types of heritage and collections, as it is the case of cultural heritage, and is seen positively by many museologists as a way of consolidating a scientific approach on museums, particularly rich in some institutions discussed here. However, in the case of geology, can museums really continue to “ignore” existing reflections on geoheritage, and in particular the implications they had on the implementation of new strategies of in situ interpretation that could be particularly benefit the museums in search of a public and of exhibit renovations? While a number of these institutions have developed new practices, the answer to this question ultimately depends on each one of them, and the desire of their teams to give their museums a new sense for the twenty-first century. While Earth’s history, but also its future, offer extraordinary abilities to think the world and to awake the imagination of citizens, let’s hope their responses will bring new cutting-edge solutions that will contribute to give these collections the place they deserve in the museum world.

Source: In situ interpretation and ex situ museum display of geology. New opportunities for a geoheritage based dialogue?

Author: Fabien Van Geert

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