A tray of a few dozen birds with black bodies and red chests in a museum collection.

The global natural history collections can help us answer questions about evolution, biodiversity, climate change and health. 

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Natural history museums around the globe contain over 1.1 billion objects

Natural history museums are an incredible catalogue of the natural world. But there is no place that records all the specimens that are found in collections around the world.

A new study is attempting to change that. It has mapped the collections of 73 of the world's largest natural history museums showing that they hold 1.1 billion objects between them.

The specimens and objects held in museums around the world represent an astonishing resource.

These collections are a record of life, death, evolution and extinction on a changing planet over billions of years. They reveal how plants and animals have responded to catastrophic climate change in the past and can give us clues as to how they will cope in the future.  

These specimens hold information on health and disease, giving us hints as to where and when the next pandemic might spill over. Their genetics could even hold the answers to breakthrough medicines that we can't even comprehend yet.

But little is actually known of the depth and breadth of these collections. Amassed and catalogued independently in every corner of the globe, there has been surprisingly little work to bring them all together to give a better idea of the bigger picture.  

Now, a team of scientists organised by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and the Natural History Museum in London have made a start.

They have looked at the collections held in 73 museums found in 28 countries and discovered that collectively these institutions hold some 1,147,934,687 objects. The findings are published in the journal Science.

A picture of a museum collections space, showing multple drawers and cabinets open displaying all the multitude of specimens within.

Natural history museums contain and astonishing wealth of information about the life that has evolved on this planet ©Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution

Dr Vince Smith, the Head of Digital, Data and Informatics at the Natural History Museum, says, 'This is the first time the world's biggest natural science collections have been surveyed together.'

'It provides a picture of what is in those collections and a set of recommendations to improve our ability to use this global collection to guide decision-making on some of the most pressing issues facing society.'

'Whether it is climate change, pandemics, biodiversity loss or food security, this global collection provides critical data on a host of topics.'

The team hope that this will now help focus natural history museums to fill geographic and taxonomic gaps in the collections, and help provide a new starting point for researchers wanting to answer bigger questions about biodiversity, climate and health. 

While this new research represents a massive step in the right direction, it also puts global historic biases of natural history collections into stark relief.

Out of the 73 institutions assessed, only three are found on the African continent, five in Asia, six in South America and seven in Oceania. The rest are divided between North America and Europe.

The authors of the paper recognise that this concentration is a barrier to knowledge-sharing and perpetuates power imbalances rooted in the colonial history of museum science, and acknowledge that it is critical for global collections to better reflect and support museums in these massively underrepresented regions. 

A top down picture of multiple clutched of eggs of many different colours.

Eggs in museum collections were key in discovering that the common pesticide DDT was causing the decline of raptor species ©John Bates/Field Museum

Three centuries of collecting

Over the past 300 years, people have collected animals, plants, fungi and rocks and placed them in natural history collections around the globe. These objects are the basis for our understanding of the natural world, from the animals that once roamed the cycad forests 100 million years ago to the origin of our own species.  

There are now thought to be over 1,000 natural history museums and herbaria spread all around the world, and the information that they house is invaluable.

For example, most recently nine institutions across Europe have been using their bat collections to look at whether they are potential reservoir hosts for future pandemics. The museums contain over 20,000 bat specimens from over 100 years of collecting, and will be providing new information on novel and ancestral viruses, as well as overviews on bat behaviour, ecology and distribution which could help to predict potential future outbreaks.

A picture in a herbarium showing plant specimens and seeds out on tables as curators look through them.

The specimens in these collections contain a wealth of information, and could be critical in the development of new medicines ©Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution

The data associated with natural history specimens can also give an incredible picture of the changing planet, providing a baseline of what was living when and where dating back hundreds of years. This can in turn feed in to our understanding of how species ranges and biodiversity have been increasingly altered by human activity, and provide a route to which we can improve, protect and preserve it. 

Michael Novacek, curator in the Division of Paleontology and former provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History, says, 'Natural history collections are the evidence from which scientists derive knowledge, including knowledge that can be applied to critical issues facing our planet today. This has never been more urgent than today, as global biodiversity loss and climate change are accelerating.'

Yet despite their significant value, natural history collections are at risk. The study found that the 1.1 billion objects in 73 museums were cared for by just 4,500 science staff and 4,000 volunteers. To put this into context, Google alone employs roughly 140,000 people.

The lack of investment in natural history collections not only puts the specimens at risk of damage through fire, natural disasters, war and crumbling infrastructure, but can also cause a loss of expertise. The authors note that while there are encouraging signs with younger researchers entering the field, they remain underfunded, while improving opportunities for training could also help to redress colonial biases.

The study has allowed researchers to look at where the biggest gaps in the global collections are. They found that, for example, the polar, marine and tropical regions are typically underrepresented, while arthropod and microbial diversity specimens are lacking. This could therefore provide a framework through which to focus future collecting patterns.

A selection of beetles showing a huge range of colours, sizes and shapes.

The huge diversity of specimens in museums can give us an unrivaled understanding of the biodiversity on this planet. 

It also highlights how the majority of items in museums are 'dark' specimens. This refers to the fact that only around 16% of the 1.1 billion objects are digitally discoverable, meaning that they are available for study by anyone, anywhere in the world.

While this study was global, zooming in on the UK there are more than 130 million specimens are held in over 90 institutions.

The UK Natural Science Collection Community, coordinated by the Natural History Museum, London, and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, are leading a national programme of digitisation called DiSSCo UK to unlock this valuable national resource to the world. This new approach builds on these efforts with an ambition to form a global collection comprised of all the collections of all the world’s museums.

It is hoped that this study will be just a first step towards better understanding and managing to world's natural history. By coming together and understanding what is where, scientists and researchers will be better able to guide the future of the planet.