Archives Catalogue: FAQ

We hope you find our database clear and easy to use. Here are some questions that may help you.

If you have a query about searching, please choose the option ‘Help’ from the main menu. If you require further assistance, please contact archives


  1. I have found a record, and I want to know more about its context. Can I do that?
  2. I know the Museum has information on things I am interested in but cannot find the records I am looking for. Why not?
  3. I want to find out about specimens held at the Museum. Can I do that using the Archives catalogue?
  4. Why can’t I read documents and see photographs online?
  5. I want to find historical images to use in my publication. Are there any on your catalogue?
  6. How do I find information on a particular person?
  7. Can I print out records that I have found, or email them?
  8. I have found something I want to see. What do I do now?
  9. I would like copies of material. What do I do?

I have found a record, and I want to know more about its context. Can I do that?

Archive catalogues are arranged hierarchically. This means that a catalogue contains a description of the whole collection, followed by a description of each of its parts (correspondence, diaries, research papers, family papers etc), followed by descriptions of individual items (such as a single letter), or files (such as a folder of letters, a volume or a notebook).


Looking at how a record relates to others in the collection can help you better understand the work of an individual, a department or the Museum, and will give you ideas for your research.


Choose the option ‘Ref No’ to see how the record relates to those around it and other parts of the collection.


I know the Museum has information on things I am interested in but cannot find the records I am looking for. Why not?

There are a number of reasons you may not find what you are looking for in the online catalogue:


1. The Museum Archives hold records relating to the organisation, administration and history of the Natural History Museum. If you are looking for archives or manuscripts about people who did not work for the Museum, their papers may be in the Museum libraries. The Library catalogue has descriptions of many of the manuscript holdings. Some collections that have a connection to the Museum, but which have come to us from outside the Museum by gift, bequest or purchase may also be held in the Museum libraries. For example, the papers of Richard Owen are held in the General Library.


2. The finding aids to the records you want may have not yet been converted. There is a programme of conversion of existing lists and indexes to the Museum Archives. Contact us for more information.


3. Most of the information in the Museum Archives dates from the move of the Museum to South Kensington in 1881. There is only a small amount of scientific correspondence from the early 19th century, and a few administrative records that predate the move. The Museum was administered by the same Board of Trustees as the British Museum in Bloomsbury, and the Museum Archives hold copies of their minutes from 1753. If you are looking for material from before the 19th century, it is possible that the British Museum Central Archives or the British Library Department of Manuscripts may be able to help you.


I want to find out about specimens held at the Museum. Can I do that using the Archives catalogue?

The Museum Archives contain records such as correspondence, diaries, notebooks, registers etc. You may be able to find supporting information about how a specimen came to the Museum from these materials, particularly if you know the name of the collector or donor. However, you should first contact the relevant Science Department as they hold information about the specimens in their care. Contact Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Palaeontology , or Zoology


Why can’t I read documents and see photographs online?

The catalogue contains descriptions of records; it does not contain images or transcriptions of the records themselves. It is a tool to enable you to identify records that you might wish to see, or which could help you in your research. There are approximately 4 million items in the Museum Archives and descriptions of them are being added all the time. In the future we hope to add links to images of some of our most important documents.


I want to find historical images to use in my publication. Are there any on your catalogue?

The catalogue includes descriptions of photographs in the Museum Archives, not the images themselves. Many historical images can be viewed in the Museum’s Picture Library. You should check the Picture Library catalogue in the first instance, but if you find something on our Archives catalogue that is not available on the Picture Library, contact us and we can give you further advice.


If you are interested in scientific artworks, which are held in the libraries, you can browse digitised materials in our Online Exhibitions. These include the First Fleet Collection, the Endeavour Botanical Illustrations and the MacGillivray Art Collection. The Museum Library is currently developing its digital library resources.


How do I find information on a particular person?

You can find out some biographical information on people in the catalogue by using the ‘Search People’ option, or by clicking on ‘View’ against a name when you find one in the catalogue. This takes you to a name authority, which is an agreed way for the name to appear in the indexes. The name authority will sometimes give some brief information, such as dates and occupation. More complex authorities will include a great deal of biographical and background information on people.


Please note that not all records have been indexed, and names remain to be added to the catalogue. You can contact us for more advice.


For further information on searching for people, see ‘Help’.


Can I print out records that I have found, or email them?

You can print out records using the ‘Printer friendly output’ option. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the ability to email them.


I have found something I want to see. What do I do now?

Details about visiting the Museum Archives are on our website. Archives are consulted in the General Library reading room and you will need to book an appointment in advance.


I want copies of material. What do I do?

Photocopies of some items can be supplied, depending on their condition (fragile material and bound volumes can’t be photocopied). Microfilm alternatives can be made available where possible. You will have to complete an order form, which contains a copyright statement. Copies can only be ordered for the purpose of private study or non-commercial research. You can order copies by post or in the General Library reading room. Copy request forms are available on-line.


If you are visiting the General Library, you can use a digital camera but permission needs to be obtained from Archives staff. Again, copyright provisions apply, and you will have to fill in a declaration form.

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