Collections management

Four colleted eggs with brown specs at one end against a white background

H.W. Holben Egg Collection at Tring © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

What is collections management?

Collections management describes how museums manage and care for their collections to meet standards and legislation relating to museums and collections. 

This includes safeguarding the preservation of the collections through appropriate conservation, handling, storage and display methods. It also includes encouraging research and public engagement by making available up-to-date essential information about our collections and ensuring the Museum develops and uses its collections in line with legislation and Museum policy. 

The Museum holds more than 80 million items within its collections, ranging in size from microbes to whales.

The Earth and Life science collections cover virtually all groups of animals, plants, rocks, meteorites, minerals and fossils, and have more type specimens than any other natural history collection.

These collections are complemented by the collections of the Museum’s Library and Archives, which is the world’s largest collection of natural history literature, original primary material and art, ranging from 1469 to the present day. 

While it is not possible to display the entirety of the Museum’s collections at South Kensington or Tring, the material that is not on display is available for study and use by researchers.

If you would like information on how to study or borrow from the collections please see the accessing the collections and loans pages.

If you wish to learn more information about the specific collections or to contact relevant curatorial staff please see our collections pages, or for more information about the important work our conservation teams do please see the conservation centre page.

You can also access additional information about our preventive conservation, sample preparation and imaging services.

The majority of the Museum’s collections are based at South Kensington and South London, while the Natural History Museum at Tring in Hertfordshire is home to the world-class research and collections of the Museum’s bird group.

Frequently asked questions

Do you have a question about donating to the Museum? See below.

Accessing the collections

For information on visiting the collections or borrowing specimens.


Explore the Museum's collections

Want to donate material?

If you are considering donating or leaving a bequest to the Museum please contact the Registry team who will direct your generous offer to the relevant curatorial staff.

  • Governance

    The Museum manages its collections through a Collections Policy framework consisting of five policies. These help to ensure that the Museum is managing its collections to Museum standards alongside ensuring compliance with national and international legislation and regulations.

    The Museum must ensure that it complies with essential export and import legislation throughout its activities, including collections development (acquisitions) and collections access (loans for research or exhibition). This will ensure specimens are legally exported from their country of origin and imported legally to the UK. 

    Two significant international natural history conventions which the Museum has obligations to comply with are: 

    • the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) 1975, and
    • the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) 1992 & the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilisation (ABS) to the Convention on Biological Diversity 2010. 


    The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) 1975 helps to ensure that those species involved in international trade are not exploited unsustainably. It establishes an international legal framework for the strictest control of trade for those species which are most at risk from the threat of extinction and manages a restricted legal trade for others. Species subject to CITES are divided into three appendices based on their level of threat, with the strictest controls on those species in appendix 1.

    How does CITES affect the Museum?

    The Museum has been granted licences which permit the commercial use of CITES listed material within its collections for scientific research and engagement. When the Museum moves its collections to international venues for research or display additional permits are required to allow the export and return of CITES listed specimens.

    The Museum will not acquire CITES listed material without additional due diligence checks to ensure that this material has not been illegally removed from its country of origin or imported into the UK illegally. Date of collection, country of origin and permits for removal are essential. 

    Additional resources on CITES can be found on the CITES website

    Access & Benefit Sharing (Convention on Biological Diversity and Nagoya Protocol)

    The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) 1992 and the Nagoya Protocol (ABS) 2010 both aim to support countries to promote the conservation and sustainable use of their biological diversity and promote the fair and equitable sharing of benefits resulting from this. The Nagoya Protocol specifically assists governments in the adoption of measures to govern access and benefit sharing in their countries.

    How do the CBD and ABS impact the Museum? 

    Both the CBD and ABS can impact the work the Museum undertakes by placing restrictions on what genetic resources might be accessed or used by our Scientists and whether this material can be retained in the collections long term. However, in practice the Museum has been able to work collaboratively with countries of origin to collect, receive, hold and use material subject to ABS under agreed non-commercial terms. 

    The Museum, like any other collector and user of material subject to the CBD and ABS, must ensure that any terms agreed with the country of origin are fulfilled and the use and benefits reported on. Provision of original documentation such as permits, agreements, PIC and MAT (‘prior informed consent’ and ‘mutually agreed terms’) is essential, and any potential donors will be asked for this paperwork if the intended donation falls under this legislation. 

    The Museum will not accept on to its sites or into its collections any material which has been removed from a country of origin without appropriate consent or agreed terms.

    Additional resources on the CBD and ABS can be found on the Convention on Biological Diversity website

  • Collections development (acquisitions and disposals)

    The Natural History Museum is home to one of the largest and most important scientific natural history collections in the world. The collection, which represents diversity of the natural world, past and present has been gathered over the last 400 years. The Museum is committed to sustaining and improving its collections within the framework of the British Museum Act 1963, other legislation and international laws and conventions as ratified by the United Kingdom, for the benefit of all users. 

    Sources of material

    The Museum’s collections have developed and continue to develop through the following means:

    • Donations and bequests
    • Acceptance in Lieu and Cultural Gifts Scheme allocations
    • Staff collections (Fieldwork)
    • Exchanges and transfers
    • Purchases in a limited number of instances
    • In exceptional circumstances from relevant law enforcement agencies 

    The Museum acts as a custodian of its collections for the nation and the international scientific community. This is a great responsibility and staff must carefully consider any item before it is accepted for the collection. In each instance the responsible curator will assess the potential acquisition against the Museum’s Collections Development Policy themes and priorities for future collecting and limitations on collecting. Considerations will include:

    • Can the Museum acquire valid title to the item(s)?
    • Does the material fit the Museum’s priorities for development?
    • Does the Museum have the resource to be able to manage and care for this item/collection?

    In each case the Museum will only acquire items if it reasonably believes:

    • the donor or collector legally entered the Providing Country/Country of origin; and
    • the item was collected legally in the Providing Country/Country of origin (e.g. permits were in place); and
    • the item was legally removed from the Providing Country/Country of origin (e.g. export and import documents were in place). 

    If there are any uncertainties relating to provenance the curatorial staff or registrars will consult with colleagues and using their professional judgement make an assessment as to whether the item should be acquired.

    Once the items have been acquired by the Museum they may be registered into the Museum’s permanent science collections, where their disposal is then bound by the terms of the British Museum Act 1963 (see ‘Disposal ’).

    Title and Copyright

    Title is held by the legal owner of an item. The Museum will exercise due diligence and make every effort to only acquire where the Trustees or the responsible member of collections staff are satisfied that the Museum can acquire a valid title to the item in question. We will also formally agree any copyright terms as needed. Once it has been confirmed that the donor has valid title and any rights are agreed, this will be transferred to the Museum using legal paperwork relevant to the method of acquisition.

    Donations and bequests

    Donations are where the transfer of ownership to the Museum occurs during the donor’s lifetime. The Donor will need to warrant that they are the legal owner of the specimens they intend to donate and have full power to transfer ownership, the legal title, to the Museum. 

    Bequests are when the transfer of ownership to the Museum occurs by will after the death of the donor. The Museum will consider bequests against the same criteria as donations so if you are considering leaving your collections to the Museum after your death please contact the relevant curatorial staff or contact our patrons and planned giving colleagues to discuss this process further. Please note we cannot accept gifts automatically. 

    Please do not send specimens or bring specimens directly to the Museum without prior notification and confirmation from the relevant curator.

    Acceptance in Lieu and Cultural Gifts Scheme allocations

    If you are interested in donating to the Museum using the Acceptance in Lieu or Cultural Gifts scheme please contact the Arts Council who manage these schemes and will be able to advise. 

    Staff collection (fieldwork)

    Staff collection is where the Museum’s scientists enhance the collection from the field and is achieved predominantly through active research programmes and consultancy contracts. The collection of natural history items from the field is fundamental to the development of the Museum’s collections and to the science undertaken in the Museum. Staff are responsible for ensuring that any necessary permits required for the purposes of undertaking fieldwork and collection are in place ahead of the collection in line with national and international legislation.  

    Exchanges and transfers

    Exchanges involve the reciprocal transfer of specimens between institutions, but where the exchange may not be explicitly reciprocal this is a transfer (into or from the Museum). Paperwork is required for both removing and adding to the collection with the same checks on provenance as required with donations, bequests, and fieldwork.

    Registration numbers for publication 

    The Museum understands the scientific community requires the provision of registration numbers for publication, often ahead of delivery of the material. However, to ensure that the Museum is not providing numbers without certainty of receipt the requestee will need to sign legally binding donation and loan documentation. A minimum of two months notification is necessary to ensure the Museum can process this. Please contact the relevant curator to discuss this further.


    Within the framework of the British Museum Act 1963 the Museum is also able to rationalise and dispose of collections, particularly by exchange, transfer or gift, which is a vital part of collections development.

    As a national collection of scientific significance, the Museum regularly disposes of duplicate specimens to peer institutions to benefit ongoing scientific collaboration and research.

    For natural history collections the destructive and invasive sampling of material is also a vital part of this work; in those instances where this results in complete destruction of the material this is considered and managed as a disposal.

    For these reasons the Museum does not accept gifts which include obligations to retain within the collections indefinitely. 

  • Collections development FAQs

    Who can donate collections or specimens to the Museum?

    The Museum may accept donations from members of the public, other scientists and other organisations. However, the items offered will need to meet the Museum’s collection development needs and must have been collected and exported/imported legally. Please see the ‘Donations’  section above and the following FAQs which explain this further. 

    What kind of information do you want to know about my donation?

    In order for our curatorial staff to assess your potential donation they will need to know what species/type of material you are looking to donate, how many items there are, where they are from, when they were collected and how they came to be in your possession. We will also ask if your collection has an index or finding aid (where relevant) and how the material is preserved. Images are very helpful to pass along. They will also ask for any accompanying paperwork you might have (see ‘what kind of paperwork will I need to provide with my donation’).

    What kind of paperwork will I need to provide with my donation?

    The Museum will require any evidence you have that could confirm that the material was collected, exported and imported legally and that you hold valid title to the items. This could include permits, receipts, letters, photographs, bills of sale, correspondence, but our curatorial staff will be able to help advise on this when discussing your donation.

    Why am I asked to provide paperwork with my donation?

    Documentation (like the items listed above) helps the Museum to remain compliant with national and international legislation and conventions, and abide by our governing legislation. If evidence is not forthcoming our staff may decide not to accept the donation.

    What paperwork will I need to sign as part of my donation?

    If you are donating to the Museum you will need to sign our Material Transfer Agreement to warrant that you hold title to the material you are donating, and that it was collected, exported and imported legally. This will need to be submitted in conjunction with supporting evidence (see ‘what kind of paperwork do I need to provide with my donation’)

    How do I bequeath my collections to the Museum?

    Please see the section entitled ‘Donations and bequests’  and for more information contact our Development team.

    Will the Museum display my donation?

    The Museum cannot guarantee that your donation will be displayed, but the value of your generous gift extends beyond public display. All items added to the collection will be available for the Natural History Museum and international researchers to use in science and engagement and will also be made available online through our data portal or library & archives discovery layer

    Will the Museum keep my donation in the collections forever?

    Once your donation becomes a part of the Museum’s collections the Museum will manage it under its collections policies. Our curators may decide to retain it in the permanent collection by registering it or share it with another institution through an exchange or transfer. It is also possible the material will be destructively sampled to produce new data and/or new material, meaning it may change its form. If the Museum decides to remove it from the collection this will be thoroughly considered and the decision recorded for posterity. See the ‘Disposal’ section above for additional information.

    Will the Museum purchase my objects?

    As a registered charity the Museum relies on donations and fieldwork to enhance its collections. As budgets are strictly limited the Museum is unlikely to be able to purchase your objects.

    Can I place a restriction on my donation?

    As a general rule the Museum does not accept donations with restrictions (such as permanent retention or a requirement for display). In most instances restrictions can hinder the work the Museum does and so the Museum may take the decision not to accept the donation if the restrictions impede our mission. 

    Will the Museum identify my objects?

    The Museum’s scientists do not offer a general identification service, nor do they provide identification services for the purpose of sale. However, the Angela Marmot Centre offer an Identification and Advisory service for material found in the British Isles. 

    What are CITES and ABS, and why do I need to know about them?

    These are important international conventions supported by legislation which govern how the Museum can manage and use certain wild flora and fauna (CITES) and genetic resources (CBD & ABS). You may be asked to provide additional paperwork if you are looking to donate material which falls under the remit of this legislation, but our curatorial staff will be able to advise where this might be relevant. Please see the sections above  for more information.

    What is Due Diligence, and why is it important?

    Due diligence is the process by which the Museum establishes where an item came from, when and how it left its country of origin and whether the Museum has permission to use the item as it wishes. It helps to ensure that the Museum has undertaken its legal and ethical checks before the items enter the Museum. Staff at the Museum will do this by assessing any information and documentation you might provide when considering your kind offer, see ‘what kind of paperwork will I need to provide, why am I asked to provide paperwork, and what kind of information do you want to know about my donation’ above.

    Where can I find out more about the Museum’s Collections Policies?

    The Museum has a framework of five collections policies which enable it to manage the collections: Introduction and Governance, Collections Development, Collections Access and Information, Collections Care and Human Remains. These can be found on the Museum’s Governance page with more information about Governance available in the section above. 

  • Immunity from seizure

    Part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 provides immunity from seizure for cultural objects which are loaned from overseas to temporary public exhibitions in approved museums or galleries in the UK where conditions are met when the object enters the UK.

    The conditions are:

    • the object is usually kept outside the UK
    • the object is not owned by a person who is resident in UK
    • the import of the object does not contravene any law
    • the object is brought into UK for purpose of a temporary public exhibition at an approved museum or gallery
    • the museum or gallery has published information about the object.

    For further information, please refer directly to the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 or the DCMS.

    Provenance information has been published, requesting immunity from seizure for objects in the following exhibitions:

    • no cover currently required.

    For further information please contact

    The Head of Registry
    The Natural History Museum
    SW7 5BD