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Sir Neil Chalmers


Sir Neil Chalmers is one of this country's most influential scientists and public figures. As Director of the Natural History Museum, he has responsibility for an institution which a very high and distinctive profile in British public life. It also happens to be the finest collection of animal specimens in the world, and a global centre for taxonomy.

It can be hard to keep such institutions alive and versatile without causing disappointment and offence. Ironically, the work of conserving or keeping things as they are, which is at the centre of the Natural History Museum's mission, can only be guaranteed by a willingness to embrace and foster change.

At school in Wimbledon, Neil Chalmers' ambition to become a doctor led him to a concentrate on biology, which was the subject he studied at the University of Oxford from 1960 to 1963. It was here that he developed an interest in what was to become the focus of his research over a number of years, the evolution of the social behaviour of primates. This led him in turn to graduate research in Cambridge, where he completed his PhD in 1967, and then to Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda, then part of the University of East Africa, to study the behaviour of young primates. He has spoken of the sense of opportunity and opening of perspectives that he gained from working, as a youngish primate himself, in a new country.

After a year as director of the National Primate Research Centre in Nairobi, he returned from Africa to take up a teaching position at the Open University in 1970. This was not a new country, but a new university in a very old one. Sir Neil was one of the first wave of appointments to a university founded just the year before in 1969, where he remained for 18 years, eventually becoming Dean of Science. While at the OU he played football on the left wing: my sources describe him as fast and able to put the ball on a sixpence. It is also alleged that he was a supporter of the non-League club Darwen (spelled with an 'e'), but here my credulity begins to creak.

His experience at the Open University had given him the awareness of the need to find ways to bring subjects close to students rather than expecting students to come to them. The fact that he had developed an appetite for and understanding of the exhibitionism that must be a part of all education made the move into the world of public exhibition perhaps a natural one. When he was appointed as Director of the Natural History Museum in 1988, he came to an institution which had grown massively since its establishment around the core collection of 3 or 4 thousand specimens of fish, amphibians and crustacea donated by Sir Hans Sloane in 1753. 

'Natural history' is a somewhat loose and even a rather antique phrase, but it has a particular aptness in the case of the Natural History Museum. For this truly represents not just the range of natural forms and species, but the vast history of their evolution, from the turbid, grinding beginnings of the Earth itself. The Natural History Museum is historical in another sense, for its collections are themselves an evolving record of the efforts of naturalists from Sir Hans Sloane onwards to collect, preserve, analyse and understand the natural world. The collection contains parrot fish and pipe fish caught by Charles Darwin on his Voyage on the Beagle, specimens collected by Joseph Banks at Botany Bay in 1770, moths and butterflies collected by Arthur Russel Wallace, an elephant's tusk donated by David Livingstone and remains of the first kangaroo seen in Europe, said to have been presented by Captain Cook. The plant collections contain specimens from the Herbarium which George Clifford developed in the 1740s, and which were studied by Carl Linnaeus.

Even in the early eighteenth century, the growth of the collection had presented problems: indeed one of Sir Neil's predecessors used to keep it in bounds by subjecting it to annual culling, by bonfire or surreptitious burial in the grounds. Faced with the 60 million or so specimens he had inherited, Neil Chalmers took the opposite view, and began instead to look for ways of opening the collections out rather than squirreling them away. His most recent and spectacular achievement has been the seeing through to opening of the first phase of the Darwin Project. The new building, which opened to the public in October of this year, provides new storage facilities for the collections, new laboratories for Museum scientists and widened access for visitors. It houses the animal collection: some 20 million specimens mainly of soft-bodied animals such as fish, reptiles, amphibians, worms and their relatives. Visitors can see an iguana caught by Darwin himself in the Galapagos. Previously, visitors have been able to see only a tiny slice of this collection. Just as important is the fact that the Darwin Centre also opens out to the public the work of the 350 scientists employed by the Natural History Museum. The objective which the Darwin Centre embodies is the integration of display, research and communication. Visitors who sign up for the Darwin Centre tour have behind-the-scenes access to the museum’s scientists at work, and can ask questions about the research on a personal level. There are also regular live online broadcasts of presentations.

The second phase, which is scheduled to be completed in 2007, will give visitors physical and electronic access to almost 80 per cent of the Museum’s collections. The Museum’s Botany and Entomology departments will be rehoused, safeguarding the collections of 28 million insects and six million plants. A new building, designed by Scandinavian architects CF Møller, will link phase one with the west side of the famous Victorian building, designed by Sir Alfred Waterhouse.

Caring for the collections and looking outwards to the public turn out to be closely interdependent. Maintaining a collection of the size and importance of the Natural History Museum is an expensive endeavour. Sir Neil has been a tigerish defender and promoter of the museum's work, recognising that the security and continuity of the Natural History Museum are a function of its success in communicating its work widely and achieving broad understanding of its aims. Beyond even this, there is the role of the Natural History Museum in the wider project of mapping, managing and sustaining the diversity of species in the world at a time when they are subject to the threat of catastrophic shrinkage. It is fitting that the Natural History Museum should be making such strenuous efforts to adapt itself to the culture of information; after all, the study of life has become, through the investigation of DNA, the study of information itself. The Natural History Museum is a kind of library of life. 

Sir Neil is a strong advocate of scientists making the effort to make themselves understood to wider publics. He sees the risk of dumbing down as much to be preferred to the risks attached to exclusion and withdrawal from the public sphere. Recently, he was one of nine experts involved in producing the Learning and Skills Council's book Learning to Last, in which scientists and policy-makers considered the contribution that education has to make to communicating the idea of living with sustainable resources to the current and coming generations. This interest in the broad educational function of the Natural History Museum maintains the instinct for outreach he developed during his 18 years at the Open University. The two worlds of exhibition and education have come together recently in a number of courses taught jointly between Birkbeck's Faculty of Continuing Education and The Natural History Museum’s adult education programme. Courses like Geological History of the British Isles; Fossils and What They Tell Us, Invertebrate Fossils and The Power Within enable students to take advantage of the incomparable collections of the Museum.

Sir Neil is President of the Marine Biological Association and a Fellow of the Institute of Biology, the Linnean Society, the Royal Geographical Society and the Zoological Society of London. He is trustee of the EMF Biological Research Trust, the GreenCard Trust and St Andrews Prize for the Environment. A month after the Guardian apologised for knighting him by mistake in an article in May 2001, always a good omen, he was knighted in earnest in the Queen's Birthday Honours List. He is among the most dynamic and most conspicuously successful of a generation of museum directors who have been ensuring that museums remain, and look for new ways of becoming, truly public institutions in the twenty-first century. For a life dedicated to showing and telling, and to building the future of the past, we honour him today: I am delighted to welcome him as a Fellow of Birkbeck College.