The Museum's collections have a core purpose of reflecting the diversity of the natural world - animals, plants, fossils, minerals and other materials. The collection is structured and used in the main to reflect this goal, so insects will be grouped in terms of beetles, flies, moths, bugs and others, for example.
The collection is continually reorganised and developed as understanding of natural diversity changes - so the evolutionary relationships of groups will be changed, for example, when new DNA data are gathered. This results in additions to collections, databases and specimens and a reorganisation of knowledget that goes with the collection.
However, the collection also reflects the historical development of human ideas - understanding of evolution, geographical understanding of distribution, histories of exploration and contact between societies, developments in how collections are assembled, collaboration between scientists. As such the Museum holds specimens and documents from major initiatives in exploration and scientific enterprise from the past 300 or so years and is of great interest beyond the core of natural scientists in biology and earth sciences.
In addition to the formal knowledge recorded with the collection, institutions such as the Museum have huge informal resources of knowledge and experience that are held by staff and developed throught their careers. It's not often apparent to the scientists themselves what will be of interest to the world at large, but this value is being increasingly recognised.
The Museum has set up a new Centre for Arts and Humanities Research (CAHR) to foster the use of our collections (books, manuscripts, field notebooks, maps, specimen data labels, etc) by academic researchers in the humanities and arts. Its development has been based on an AHRC ( the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council) funded research project to Kingston University/NHM called ‘New Perspectives’ which revealed the rich resource of humanities research material in our collections.
The centre has raised new external funds for collaborative research with UK and foreign universities, including some staffing costs from Kingston University. An advisory board of external and internal experts have had their first formal meeting and the Centre will be formally launched on 11 July 2011. The Centre manager is Mrs Julie Harvey (Library and Information Systems) firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the first major meetings fostered by the CAHR is Science Voices being held at the Royal Society 12-13 May 2011. This meeting will include a keynote address on an AHRC-funded project to record the oral history of the NHM by Prof Brian Cathcart (Kingston University). The project, Museum Lives, has involved interviewing and recording the experience and insight of scientists and will provide a resource for research by oral historians in the future.