Posted by: DmitriLogunov | February 8, 2010

Why do museums have natural history collections?

Natural history collections include specimens from the subject areas of zoology, botany, entomology, palaeontology and mineralogy as well as the documentation associated with them. Recent estimates suggest that the number of natural history specimens in UK museums exceeds 100 million. Worldwide, there are more than three billion! Large collections, like those of the Manchester Museum, are mostly kept behind the scenes. They are stored carefully because of their role as a resource for research, education and the general public.

A drawer with tropical butterflies (Manchester Museum)

Collections as Biological libraries

Natural history collections act as ‘biological libraries’. They are an irreplaceable resource for taxonomic and biodiversity research. Such research aims to answer three fundamental questions:

what is the organism under study,
where is it found in the nature,
why is it found there.

Specimens used in research are preserved in museums to ensure that they are available for future study. As repositories of reference material, they reduce the need for costly and time-consuming fieldwork, saving both time and money.

 A specimen of gloworm (Manchester Museum)

The scientific value of a natural history collection is often measured by a number of type specimens it contains. A type specimen is a reference specimen selected by a scientist during the description of a new species. Type specimens serve as the primary and unique references for species names. The Manchester Museum has more than 22,000 type specimens, representing 8,000 species names.

 A new entomological cabinet (Manchester Museum)

Conservation and environmental studies

Conservation programmes, particularly those aimed at mapping priority areas for protection or conservation purposes, require a knowledge of the distribution of species. One way this information is collected is by examining specimen labels and databases in museums. These contain essential information about where (locality and habitat), when (an exact date) and by whom the specimens were collected.

Natural history museum collections offer a unique perspective, providing data over a vast time span ranging from millions of years ago (in geological collections) to the present day. Specimens may have been collected over many decades and so record changing environmental conditions and their consequences. In some circumstances museum specimens are the only record of species that are extinct (e.g. the Manchester Moth).

 A reconstruction of the Manchester Moth

Education and cultural value

Natural history museums play an important role in education via their exhibits, and through outreach programmes which use specimens. Specimens are also commonly used as a basis for the illustrations in natural history books. They are often also used by artists who draw inspiration from the remarkable variety of form and colour present.

Natural history collections are directly related to social history through their links to people and places. The labels assigned to specimens and the documentation associated with them are commonly used in biographical and historical studies. They provide an outstanding and unique resource for a wide variety of client groups.

 Calcite (Manchester Museum)

By DV Logunov and D Green (based on various sources)

Advertisements

Responses

  1. […] Natural history collections include specimens from the subject areas of zoology, botany, entomology, palaeontology and mineralogy as well as the documentation associated with them. Recent estimates suggest that the number of natural history specimens in UK museums exceeds 100 million. Worldwide, there are more than three billion! Large collections, like those of the Manchester Museum, are mostly kept behind the scenes. They are stored carefully because of their role as a resource for research, education and the general public. You find the original post here naturemanchester.wor … | DmitriLogunov […]

  2. What a fantastic place and the twinned calcite crystal – beautiful. you would find me lost in there forever.

  3. It’s awesome to visit this web page and reading
    the views of all friends concerning this piece of writing, while I am also keen of getting know-how.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: