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.