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Why collect? Do we need more? Why keep such large collections?  What is the relevance to modern science? Having a collection of around 70 million objects that has been growing since 1753 means that we get asked these questions from time to time.

 

In essence, the reason is that science relies upon physical evidence: we want to see for ourselves. Scientists are trained to be sceptical: to question ideas; to measure and re-examine data; to look at what is known through new eyes; and to pursue what is not yet known. This is fundamentally what natural history is about. The “natural” in natural history is not a direct reference to our modern ideas of nature, although it includes living things and the geological.  Instead it refers to what is real, physical, observable, measurable. The “history” means investigation, or account—so natural history is about investigating real things.

 

That’s why we collect—this and other massive collections represent natural diversity—a resource that has been developed by thousands of people all over the world for three hundred years. So we are developing an intellectual and scientific capital, a bank of evidence and ideas that connect to what has been found out through science in the past and that can be re-examined and questioned.

 

Crucially, although they were developed usually to investigate the diversity of species, the collections can also be used to ask new questions about issues of new concern.  There is huge current interest in natural diversity and how organisms enable ecosystems to function, but what about issues such as climate change? A group of scientists in the Museum have been looking again at the collections to assess their value in understanding how the biosphere—the totality of living things—responds to climate change. 

 

They have just produced a paper in BioScience (Johnson et al. 2011) that outlines the value of collections and points to new directions for scientific collaboration and collections development to answer climate change questions and predict future trends in the impacts on living things.

 

In particular, there is interest in our collection in terms of:

 

  • Investigating how geographical distribution changed in the past as climate changed, using location and dates of collection;
  • Understanding how extinction of species and populations has happened in the past as climate changed—so mammoths were reduced to small populations that clung on in some locations for long periods even after climate had reduced their range of distribution;
  • Looking at how flowering times have changed over time—plants are collected as they flower in many cases and the dates of flowering with respect to temperature can be tracked;
  • Examining changes in diet as climate changes—different diets leave traces in bone and other tissue. Changes in food sources may reduce survival.
  • Understanding changes in genetic diversity from DNA as populations respond to environmental change

 

There are many other possibilities and the challenge for the Museum is to enable its own and collaborating scientists to work effectively with the collection in new ways to answer these questions. We also need to think about what is collected now, and how it is stored; and think about how information on collections is best stored on databases to allow research to take place. This is an opportunity for a wide network of museums that will also need to work with other scientific collections to provide the evidence to understand the future.

 

Kenneth G. Johnson, Stephen J. Brooks, Phillip B. Fenberg, Adrian G. Glover, Karen E. James, Adrian M. Lister, Ellinor Michel, Mark Spencer, Jonathan A. Todd, Eugenia Valsami-Jones, Jeremy R. Young, John R. Stewart Climate Change and Biosphere Response: Unlocking the Collections Vault (pp. 147-153) DOI: 10.1525/bio.2011.61.2.10 Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/bio.2011.61.2.10