The Value of Scientific Collections

Scientific collections are key not only to understanding the past and the present but to unlocking discoveries in the future.

The American Museum of Natural History’s more than 34 million specimens and artifacts are a record of 4.5 billion years of change in Earth’s geology and climate, the 3.5-billion-year history of life on Earth, and the remarkable achievements of human cultures.

These artifacts, specimens, and data form one of the most important scientific collections in the world.

Why are collections important to science and society?

Collections provide the evidence from which scientists derive scientific knowledge, including knowledge that is directly applied to critical issues facing our society, such as:

  • documenting biological and cultural diversity in a time of unprecedented environmental destruction
  • developing a baseline understanding of the effects of climate change and other environmental threats
  • tracking host and parasite species responsible for infectious disease
  • determining the actual and potential impact of invasive pests on crop plants
  • discovering biomedicines
  • monitoring the changes in marine resources, such as fisheries
  • examining complex histories of human innovation, trade, technology, and material culture
  • understanding how human changes to Earth's chemical cycles affect sustainability

Collections allow us to study such questions as: 

  • How do planets form?
  • How do the Earth's interacting physical, chemical, and biological processes work? 
  • What are the species on Earth?
  • How do new species form?
  • How do genes influence the structure and function of organisms?
  • What is the origin of the human species?
  • How do languages and other features of human societies emerge and diversify?
  • How is the climate changing, and how is it affecting species, including humans?
  • What do mass extinction events and climates of the past tell us about our current environmental crisis?

As libraries of biodiversity, collections also help establish species' identities. When a new animal is discovered, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature requires that the representative specimen for that species—the type specimen—is deposited in an accredited museum.

How a species is defined affects legislation for its protection, and almost all species of plants and animals are defined on the basis of museum specimens, including specimens held in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History.

How and why did natural history collections begin?

Modern museum collections date to the 1600s in Europe, where they were formed as “cabinets of curiosity” that included small displays of objects and specimens. They evolved into something of far greater significance. The collection and organization of biological specimens allowed early naturalists to study the characteristics of and relationships among living organisms and to establish the foundation for modern biological science. The study of cultural objects allowed the development of a detailed understanding of human similarities and differences, their archaeological histories, and transformative processes.

The American Museum of Natural History and many other natural history museums in the United States were established in the mid-19th century as institutions devoted to the housing and care of major collections for scientific research and education of the public. These institutions fostered major expeditions, which brought back renowned collections that formed the basis for new scientific discoveries and exhibitions. Many expeditions included detailed documentation, including permits. Some of these expeditions resulted in the great dinosaur collections and the first comprehensive collections of animals and plants from some of the world’s most important centers of biological diversity, such as the Amazon rainforest. Archaeological and ethnographic collections from across the globe established the Museum as a world-renowned research institution in the study of human cultures. The Museum also became a repository for scientifically significant collections that were made privately or could not be maintained by other academic institutions.  

Museum collections and collecting institutions are, by their nature, products of specific times and cultures, and are embedded within complex political and social histories, including broader histories of Western imperialism. The collecting practices of the past may raise complicated ethical questions today, including those involving questionable provenances and exploitative collection practices rooted in power imbalances and racism. Such histories expose a compelling need for acknowledgement, ongoing reflection and discussion, and action, including public education about past injustices that were carried out in the name of exploration and scientific inquiry.

Today, the Museum’s historical collections are treated according to established protocols, where available, evolving best practices, and, in some cases, specific agreements with descendant communities. For example, in accordance with the U.S. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990, the Museum has completed inventories for all Native American human remains and associated funerary objects. It also initiated consultation with all federally recognized Tribes in the United States by providing them with summaries of potential unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony within its collections. Since NAGPRA’s passage, consultation with and repatriation of human remains and cultural items to recognized Tribes and lineal descendants has been an ongoing process. 

While NAGPRA provides a process under Federal law for addressing Native American human remains and cultural items, the Museum continues to evaluate and respond to requests from international communities consistent with its institutional policies and practices.

Why do museums serve as repositories for collections?

The American Museum of Natural History is part of a global community of natural history museums with distinct histories and strengths, which collectively house more than a billion specimens that record the history of life, Earth, and the solar system.

The American Museum of Natural History was founded 150 years ago, in 1869, for the purpose of discovering, interpreting, and disseminating, through scientific research and education, knowledge about the natural world, human cultures, and the universe. The mid-19th-century world was much less populated and certainly less transformed by humans. The Museum's scientific enterprise has been carried out over a period of unprecedented human impact on the planet, a period now often identified as the Anthropocene. During this time, scientists recorded not only the extraordinary richness and diversity of life but have also documented and estimated that biological species and human cultures are at risk in the face of drastic environmental change.

Since its establishment, it has been a primary goal of the American Museum of Natural History to provide a secure, professionally managed home for collections. Today, these collections are available to scientists, educators, students, and the global community of scholars, Indigenous peoples, and other descendant communities. 

It is vitally important to steward these irreplaceable scientific and educational resources. More than 100 staff members are devoted to ensuring that the scientific collections that come to the Museum meet the highest standards of curation and care. The Museum has undertaken major renovations and upgrades of storage, including multi-story buildings for expanding collections, and Museum staff have digitized records for millions of specimens and artifacts.

With respect to ethnographic and archaeological collections, the Museum's anthropologists work to the highest professional standards as stewards of significant human legacy. The Museum recognizes that the Indigenous and other descendant communities from which cultural objects are acquired have invaluable insight into the management, interpretation, and disposition of collections. The Division of Anthropology strives to foster collaborative working relationships with these communities and welcomes recommendations for the care and management of culturally sensitive material. Such dialogues are vital and continue to be a priority as the Museum confronts the challenges of respectful research, curation, and exhibition.

Who uses scientific collections, and why?

In addition to being available to Museum researchers and students, the scientific collections of the American Museum of Natural History are made available for study onsite to a global community of more than 1,400 visiting researchers annually. Each year, tens of thousands of specimens are on loan to scholars at other institutions. 

The Museum's collections also invite study and use by educators, historians, naturalists, artists, and Indigenous peoples and other descendant communities from around the world. For descendant communities, collections, including ethnographic collections, may serve as a vital resource for researching and sometimes recovering traditional culture, practices, and history of their peoples.

The Museum’s frozen tissue collection is a repository for genomic and other biomolecular research that serves scientists worldwide. 

The collections are also the source of the Museum’s spectacular exhibits and pioneering educational programs that inform and inspire our millions of annual visitors onsite and online.

Why are physical collections necessary?

Every specimen is an ultimate source of original evidence, not only for past and current investigations but for future discoveries. 

Biological and geological collections are not just the source of data on the natural world, they are the real elements of the natural world. Scientists can investigate these collections again and again, applying new technologies, exploring new questions, and finding new answers. For example, DNA sequences now can be extracted from modern and centuries-old specimens, and even from some fossils, providing evidence for understanding the relationships among and changes in populations of current and extinct species. The power of collections to provide such new evidence was only first recognized in the last decade of the 20th century. 

Furthermore, physical reference specimens remain necessary to facilitate scientific research and discovery. Type specimens—the standards by which species are named and identified—continue to be used by scientists to recognize, verify, and document species. Other information included in collections, such as photographs and sound recordings, can often be valuable as a supplement but is not sufficient without the physical specimen or object.

Physical collections are not only an irreplaceable record of what the world has; in many cases, they are also the only record of what the world has lost. Many specimens collected decades ago are irreplaceable because the locality and habitats from which they were collected have disappeared, or a species they represent has gone extinct. Ethnographic collections may include material objects that are no longer part of contemporary cultural practice but remain important as historical records or serve as models for artisans and others from descendant communities engaged in the work of cultural revitalization. 

How has collections research changed?

Major innovations in imaging, high-speed computation, digital data capture, genomics, chemical microanalysis, laser spectroscopy, and many other areas have unlocked physical collections in ways that were never imagined just a few years ago:

  • tissues extracted from field samples now can be sampled for biomolecules 
  • new techniques now allow the retrieval of gene and other molecular information even from specimens in the Museum’s historic collections, including fossil specimens
  • isotope signatures recorded in corals, meteorites, and other specimens can reveal much about such topics as changing climates and oceanic currents, water's role in plate tectonics, or the age of the solar system
  • specks collected from the tails of comets provide unique data on composition
  • x-ray CT scanning allows for non-destructive imaging 
  • analytical chemistry of artifacts identifies ancient sources of materials and trade routes 
  • enhanced absolute dating of archaeological artifacts establishes more refined sequences

Another outcome of the technology revolution is researchers' ability to render virtual representations—through techniques like photogrammetry, CT and synchrotron analysis, and 3D printing—of original materials with incredible accuracy and detail. Many of these objects can be printed in 3D for use in education, outreach, and research. Massive virtual collections of astrophysical data now allow Museum scientists to determine the age of stars or identify the atmospheric composition on distant exoplanets.

Future technology will yield rich new information and insights from objects and specimens not yet anticipated. In this way, museum collections become even more informative and scientifically important over time and, therefore, are even more crucial to preserve now.

Why is continued collecting needed?

Despite the broad scope of our collections, continued collecting is not only scientifically important—it is urgently needed.

We still face the enormous challenge of producing a full accounting of life’s diversity:

  • Some 1.8 million species have been formally named, but this is far short of the actual diversity of species living today, estimated, with the inclusion of microorganisms, to be more than 10 million species.
  • Only about 20% of the estimated 5 million species of insects are known, and our relative knowledge is even more incomplete when it comes to some other groups of animals, fungi, and microorganisms so essential to the health of ecosystems.
  • New birds and mammals, which are intensively studied groups, and even major new branches of life, continue to be discovered.
  • The challenge of assembling a much better accounting of life’s diversity is compounded by the disappearance of species as a result of habitat loss and degradation, pollution, climate change, and other drivers. Many of these species will doubtless become extinct before scientists have a chance to identify them.

How is modern collecting conducted?

Modern expeditions and collections follow professional protocols and are designed to promote sustainable stewardship. 

Many regions now targeted for collecting are currently poorly understood in terms of standard taxonomic surveys and are under threat from habitat destruction and other pressures. Modern collecting often adopts a synthetic approach, where specialists from different disciplines collaborate to focus on a central objective.

Collecting also follows best practices, regulations, and guidelines at many levels. National, regional, and local permits are required for collecting specimens and objects and formally adding them to museum collections.

International expeditions are conducted under protocols established by the Museum with partner institutions and scientists in the host country. Science is collaborative, now more than ever before, and projects are conceived and conducted as close partnerships.

In some instances, the nation of origin retains ownership of biological, paleontological, archaeological, or ethnographic materials even when materials are brought to the American Museum of Natural History for preparation and study as part of collaborative research projects between Museum scientists and colleagues around the world.

Our scientists train and sponsor international researchers and students, providing capacity building and enhanced learning and research opportunities to local scholars from countries with limited resources for collections-based science. Some field projects support local efforts to protect biological and geological resources.

What is the future of collections?

The collections and science of the American Museum of Natural History provide an irreplaceable record of natural history—the evolution of Earth and its life, the origins of the planets, stars, and the universe, and the histories of human cultures.

As stewards of these scientific collections, museums continue to draw on them for scientific research, the development of biodiversity conservation programs, and for exhibitions and educational programs that reveal the natural world, human cultural similarities and differences, and the processes of scientific discovery to millions of people around the world. 

The Museum’s collections-based science has been transformed through discoveries and technologies in ways wholly unexpected a few years ago, and the future will undoubtedly bring additional discoveries from these vital collections.