By Ted Trzyna

This report on a scoping project done in 2014 and early 2015 is based on research; discussions at meetings of museum and conservation professionals; and visits to 36 museums and similar institutions. I concentrated on institutions in California cities, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia (USA); Beijing, Hong Kong, Macao, and Shanghai (greater China); Hobart, Melbourne, and Sydney (Australia); and London and Paris. I also visited many protected areas in urban regions. We plan to supplement this anecdotal information with more systematic collection of information as Natural Neighbors progresses. (Note that the project has since been broadened to encompass local history and culture.)

General findings

There are fine examples of what natural history museums and similar institutions can do to encourage their visitors to spend time in local natural areas. Some simpler but effective things require minimal investments of time or money. These institutions have captive audiences, but at most of them, unfortunately, this is a missed opportunity.

Many institutions devoted to educating and sensitizing the urban public about the natural world pay little attention to their local and regional environments. The major ones often see their roles as global, rather than local.

No examples were found of protected area visitor centers publicizing nearby museums and similar institutions.


More and better exhibits about local and regional nature are needed in natural history museums and similar institutions.   
In many cases, exhibits in these institutions focus on the exotic, giving visitors the impression that nature is someplace else. Entrances to zoos, for example, can feature buildings in pseudo-African style with signs in Swahili and piped-in tribal music.

In some cases, there is virtually nothing about the natural environment of the region. Most such institutions are organized by kinds of animals and plants, rather than by habitat, biome, region, or country. Even where there are exhibits of species found in the locality or region, they may not be labeled as such.

Here are good examples of what can be done:

The Oakland Museum of California’s 25,000-square-foot Gallery of California Natural Sciences focuses on seven places that depict the state’s ecological diversity, including Oakland.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has a Nature Lab with exhibits on native wildlife and invasive species in the Los Angeles area. A large interactive wall map points to wildlife species found in the built environment, rather than natural areas.

The California Science Center in Los Angeles has an “L.A. Zone” in its Ecosystems section with displays on water, waste, energy, and wildlife. A large wall map of the region has photos of a few native plants and animals found in the built environment, but does not tie them to natural areas that can be visited.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City has a Hall of New York State Environments focusing on Stissing Mountain and the farming village of Pine Plains, 90 miles from the city.

Among museums of cities and regions, the Chicago History Museum has exhibits on over-trapping of fur animals and deforestation in the 19th century. One of the Hong Kong Museum of History’s eight large galleries is "The Natural Environment."

At the Oakland Zoo, a planned California Trail exhibit “will honor our state’s most revered wildlife and enable visitors … to understand how the stories of California’s plants and animals are actually our stories too.”

The Los Angeles Zoo has a California Condor Rescue Zone, an immersive, facilitated play space for primary school-age children.

Aquariums are often focused on their immediate environments. The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California relates mainly to Monterey Bay and its submarine canyon.  

The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, in metropolitan Los Angeles, focuses on the marine environments of Southern California, Baja California (Mexico), and the Pacific Ocean more generally.

Also in metropolitan Los Angeles, the 85-acre Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont is planted with California native species by region and promotes understanding and conservation of these plants and their use in horticulture.

Information about nearby natural areas and other museums

Museums and similar institutions, as well as protected areas, rarely tell their visitors about each other, although this can be done easily and can benefit all involved.

Once they become interested in what they have seen in a natural history museum or similar institution, visitors can be directed to natural areas close by to see the “real thing.” This can be done by staff or with maps, models of terrain, kiosks, websites, apps, or brochures. Conversely, visitor centers in protected areas can publicize nearby museums and similar institutions where they can learn more about nature. Finally, such institutions can publicize each other; for example, a natural history museum can post information on its website about nearby aquariums, botanic gardens, and zoos.

This is where almost all of the institutions visited fail, although little cost need be involved. The reason given by museum professionals is that their institutions compete with each other for funds from many of the same donors.

Here are examples of what can be accomplished:

In Chicago, on summer weekends, rangers from nearby Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore are posted at the entrance to the Field Museum of Natural History to show visitors what they will find at the lakeshore (and other nearby natural places) and how they can get there.

At the Oakland Museum of California, panels in the Gallery of California Natural Sciences include a map and information about the nearby East Bay Regional Parks, which include many natural areas.

At the Peggy Notebaert Museum in Chicago, panels with maps and photos direct visitors to protected areas within a short driving distance of the city.

Books and souvenirs

Selling books about nature in the city or region is usually a lost opportunity; so is selling toys and souvenirs with a connection to local nature.

Few stores at natural history museums or similar institutions sell more than a token selection, if that, of natural history guides to their localities or regions, even when many such titles are in print. Typically they carry generic nature books for children.    

It may be that only a small fraction of visitors will be interested in such publications, but a small fraction of the large numbers of people who visit these places is still a substantial number and is certain to include people whose lives will be changed by reading and using these books.   

The toys and souvenirs sold at such institutions often have no connection to nature in the region. This is not to say that parents or children shouldn't be able to buy an exotic animal doll, but perhaps they should be given choices. 

Good examples of what can be accomplished:

The Monterey Bay Aquarium displays numerous field guides on California’s marine and terrestrial species and ecosystems. It also carries many of the books of John Steinbeck, who wrote about the Monterey area and its natural environments in such novels as Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row.  

London's Natural History Museum carries a large selection of books about nature in London and Britain in general.

The National Museum of Natural History in Paris has published and sells a guide to the wild plants of France's cities, in cooperation with a commercial publisher.

Although it is small (5,000 square feet; 450 square meters) and has only 70,000 visits a year, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, in Santa Cruz, south of San Francisco, prides itself on the broad selection of books it sells, making the museum store “the place for hard-to-find publications on natural history,” this in a university town with no shortage of bookstores.

The bookshop at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont has many titles on California natural history, especially about plants and birds.

Other onsite activities

In addition to tours and events onsite, some institutions include drop-in centers or natural or quasi-natural areas.

Almost all institutions offer tours of their sites to school and other groups, and hold events such as festivals of nature. Depending on the content of exhibits and events, these can be useful in introducing people to local nature. School groups account for most such visits, and staff confess that they have limited value: two-thirds of these trips are taken up by logistics, and students tend to pay more attention to each other than to exhibits. Public events are attended mainly by people already interested in nature.

Good examples:

The Natural History Museum in London has the drop-in Centre for UK Biodiversity, which helps visitors with public identification of specimens, research, and equipment such as microscopes.  

Along a restored bank of the adjoining Bronx River, the Bronx Zoo has the half-mile-long Mitsubishi Riverwalk, with signs identifying the many birds and mammals found there.

The Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont has the Grow Native Nursery, which sells and helps gardeners with California native plants.

Activities in metropolitan areas

From field trips to engaging with schools, universities, and underprivileged neighborhoods, natural history museums and similar institutions have opportunities to work with protected areas on several levels.

Good examples:

In the Chicago region, several natural history museums and similar institutions, as well as conservation agencies, are among the over 300 members of the Chicago Wilderness Alliance, which works on four fronts: restoration of natural areas, green infrastructure, climate change, and “leave no child inside.”

In Tucson, Arizona, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum cooperated with the National Geographic Society and Saguaro National Park in putting on a BioBlitz, an intense period of biological surveying.  

The New York City Museum School, an elite public high school established in 1994 that has 500 students, draws on the resources of the city’s science, art, and cultural museums.

Electronic media

Websites of museums and similar institutions, and those of protected areas, could easily provide links to each other, but they rarely do.

On the other hand, things made possible by advancing technology are being given more attention from museums, to the point where exhibits are becoming ever more distant from real nature. Such fashionable technology often fails to take into account visitors’ interests or needs. For instance, QR codes in exhibits often get near-zero downloads; the reason given by museum experts is information overload.

Web-based park directories could include natural history museums and similar institutions, but usually don’t. Examples of such directories are: Oh Ranger!, a GIS directory of parks in the United States available on the Web or as an app; and, an online guide to parks and trails in the northwestern part of the greater Los Angeles area. In both cases, the only museums listed are those within parks.

Promoting nature conservation and sustainability

Almost all of the institutions visited actively promote nature conservation in their regions, as well as sustainability more broadly. 

For example, Zoos Victoria in Australia, under the banner of “Love Your Locals,” is committed to helping save 20 local animals from extinction through captive breeding, reintroduction, research, and raising their profile locally and nationally.

The American Alliance of Museums, whose membership includes all the types of institutions mentioned in this report, has been active in promoting sustainability standards and best practices, for example, in its 2014 publication Museums, Environmental Sustainability and Our Future.

Many of the institutions visited include climate change messages in their exhibits and outreach. For example, the Field Museum has a Chicago Community Climate Action Toolkit in print and on its website. In London’s Science Museum, “Climate Changing Stories,” spread throughout the museum, focus on personal behavior.

Promoting good eating habits

Childhood obesity is a serious public health problem in the United States and many other countries. At some point in their school careers, almost all students will visit at least one of the kinds of institutions described in this report. Yet few of these institutions take this opportunity to offer healthy choices in their eating places. 

A pioneer in offering healthy food choices is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where the café operates with the slogan “Savor sustainability: We source our ingredients locally from farmers, ranchers, and fishermen who use sustainable practices.”

Museums and similar institutions could learn from an initiative of the Institute at the Golden Gate, Food for the Parks, which aims to expand availability of nutritious, local, organic, and fresh food in U.S. national parks.



PREHISTORY: Ancient rock engravings in Petroglyphs National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA (metropolitan population 900,000). [John Fowler CC BY 2.0]

Natural Neighbors was inspired by  recommendations in this volume, produced by InterEnvironment Institute for IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature:

Urban Protected Areas: Profiles and best practice guidelines. By Ted Trzyna, in collaboration with Joseph T. Edmiston, Glen Hyman, Jeffrey A. McNeely, Pedro da Cunha e Menezes, Brett Myrdal, Adrian Phillips, and other members of the IUCN WCPA Urban Specialist Group. IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, Best Practice Protected Area Guidelines Series No. 22. 124 pages. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, 2014.


English    French    Portuguese

LITERATURE: Literature evoking the spirit of the region is sometimes promoted in bookshops at natural history museums and similar institutions, and is often sold at visitor centers in protected areas. Here the gift shop at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, features the work of John Steinbeck, the Nobel Laureate in Literature who wrote about the Monterey area and its natural places in such novels as Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row. [Ted Trzyna]  

FOOD: The museum community has much to learn from the United States National Park Service, whose Food for the Parks program is emphasizing healthy, locally sourced food at eating places in its parks, as well as Fair Trade certified food and beverages and procurement of food produced using environmentally friendly and humane methods. At right, a poster in the café of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, whose Seafood Watch program promotes seafood caught or farmed in ways that support healthy oceans; many other aquariums in the U.S. have adopted it. [Institute for the Golden Gate; TT]

ENDANGERED SPECIES: Many zoos and aquariums emphasize protection of endangered species. The Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia highlights Australian endangered species and does this throughout its grounds, beginning with these large letters at its entrance.  [TT]

INDIGENOUS CULTURE: A reconstructed Chumash house at the Satwiwa Natural Area, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreational Area, Los Angeles. [NeoPrometheusX CC BY-SA 3.0]

  Background: Too many missed opportunities   

ART: Less common is displaying art alongside scientific exhibits. The Oakland Museum of California has separate galleries of California art, history, and natural science on each of three floors, but includes crossover displays such as this one on Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park. At left is a painting by Thomas Hill (1829-1908), Yosemite Valley  (El Capitan & Bridal Veil Falls); at right, a model of the valley's geology. [TT]

RELIGION: A kramat (shrine to an Islamic holy man) on the trail to Lion's Head in Table Mountain National Park, Cape Town, South Africa. Urban natural areas commonly include sites of religious and spiritual significance. [Mpaskevi CC SA 3.0]

HISTORY: Barracks at the Presidio of San Francisco in Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Presidio, established in 1776 when California was a Spanish colony,  remained a military post under Mexican rule and as a U.S. Army base until it became part of GGNRA in 1994. Many urban natural areas include former military installations. [USNPS]

CONSERVATION LEADERSHIP: The Chicago Zoological Society, which manages the Brookfield Zoo, has made inspiring conservation leadership a priority. [TT]

HOME GARDENS: Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History has a demonstration vegetable garden on its grounds. Botanic gardens often sell species of plants native to their location. [TT]

CLIMATE CHANGE:  "Atmosphere: Exploring Climate Science," a major permanent exhibit hall at London's Science Center, is an example of what many natural history museums and similar institutions are doing to educate the public about climate change. [SC]


SCHOOL VISITS: A group of school children learns about indigenous plants at the Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden in Cape Town, South Africa. [TT]

CONSERVATION SCIENCE: Institutions with scientific expertise frequently provide advice to land managers and others responsible for natural resource conservation. The Biodiversity Assessment Handbook for New York City was produced by the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. [AMNH]

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