Moths from the Natural History Museum's Wallace collections © Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

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UK Natural History Institutions join Global Initiative to Unite More Than a Billion Specimens - to Form a Groundbreaking Database to Tackle the Planetary Emergency

A group of natural history organisations, coordinated by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, the American Museum of Natural History Museum in New York City, and the Natural History Museum in London, has mapped the total collections from 73 of the world’s largest natural history museums in 28 countries. This is the first step of an ambitious effort to inventory global holdings that can help scientists and decisionmakers find solutions to urgent, wide-ranging issues such as climate change, food security, human health, pandemic preparedness, and wildlife conservation.

Beyond the walls of their iconic public galleries and gardens, the world’s natural history institutions serve as the guardians of an unprecedented archive of the history of our planet and solar system. These scientific collections provide a unique window into the planet’s past, and they are increasingly being used to make actionable forecasts to chart our future.

Leading UK organisations such as the Natural History Museum and RBG Kew have a long track record in collaboration and sharing their collections. The NHM has made great strides in digitising its collection of 80 million specimens, with 5.5 million specimens openly available on the Museum’s Data Portal for anyone in the world to use. These data have seen 35 billion records downloaded in over 600,000 download events and have resulted in groundbreaking research with over 2,400 scientific papers on topics from human health, to invasive species and climate change, citing the Museum’s digital collection. RBG Kew have launched an ambitious project to digitise Kew’s entire collection of more than 8 million plant and fungal specimens, this treasure trove of information will help scientists understand and protect the natural world.

Throughout the UK there are more than 130 million specimens 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.To better understand this immense, untapped resource, leading scientists from a dozen large natural history museums created an innovative but simple framework to rapidly evaluate the size and composition of natural history museum collections globally. The findings are published today in Science magazine in the paper, “A Global Approach for Natural History Museum Collections.” The Science paper can be found online at the Science press package here.

Doug Gurr, Director of the Natural History Museum says:This global view of natural science collections emphasises their combined potential to help us act in response to the planetary crisis.  It also demonstrates an ongoing commitment and responsibility to build equitable international collaboration and capacity with partners from all countries, harnessing the latest technological advances to further scientific understanding and make data available for all. This vast and progressively united infrastructure of collections and expertise represents a crucial resource in scientific understanding and prediction of global change, supporting action to avoid disaster.”

Richard Deverell, Director of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew said: “This research, based on unprecedented global collaboration, sets out in stark terms the vital importance of natural history collections.  These collections embody knowledge that will help us solve the existential crises facing biodiversity and our climate and it is therefore essential that they are digitised, accessible and protected as an invaluable resource for humanity.”

Dr David Harris, Herbarium Curator, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh added: “The RBGE Herbarium Collection covers over 300 years of biodiversity and supports research across the world. The collection comprises approximately three million specimens and our major digitisation programme, which has already imaged more than 700,000 specimens, is key to providing open access to this crucial data to all scientists – wherever they are based.”

NHM Collections & NHM Unlocked

Sir Paul Nurse explicitly recognises the NHM’s collection as an “invaluable” national asset in the recently published Independent Review of the UK’s Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) Organisational Landscape. The report also noted there is inadequate support for collections-based research. Independent research conducted by Frontier Economics Ltd has found there is immense societal value in releasing the data contained in collections from global advancements in medicine discovery to minerals exploration. The estimated economic value of research enabled by digitisation of natural history collections was in excess of £2 billion – together these benefits make a compelling argument for further investment in this.  

The NHM is undertaking an ambitious programme, NHM Unlocked, to secure the future of its irreplaceable collections (which amount to more than 80 million objects), accelerate scientific research and innovation, and enhance its public offer. Underpinned by a £201 million government investment, the NHM will build a sustainable new centre at Thames Valley Science Park, equipped with purpose-built collections storage and laboratories for 160 Museum scientists.

The centre will bring together 28 million invertebrate, mammal and molecular specimens spanning the deep past through to the present, alongside innovative digital, analytical and genomic technologies and facilities. It will enable Museum scientists, visiting researchers, partners and collaborators to address urgent questions and develop new solutions to global challenges; from tracking genetic responses to climate change, to the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. Through the acceleration of digitisation, global access to the collections will be enhanced, transforming research capability and impact.

Global Collections Survey Methodology

The survey organisers created a methodology that could rapidly survey collection holdings across museums by creating a common vocabulary of 19 collection types spanning the entirety of biological, geological, paleontological, and anthropological collections and 16 terrestrial and marine regions that cover the entirety of the Earth.

We wanted to find a fast way to estimate the size and composition of the global collection so that we could begin to build a collective strategy for the future,” said lead author Kirk Johnson, Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Johnson co-led the effort along with Ian F. P. Owens (formerly at the Natural History Museum in London and now the Executive Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology) in collaboration with more than 150 museum directors and scientists representing 73 natural history museums and herbaria.

The survey confirmed an aggregate collection of more than 1.1 billion objects, managed by more than 4,500 science staff and nearly 4,000 volunteers. While the aggregate collection is vast, the survey showed that there are conspicuous gaps across museum collections in areas including tropic and polar regions, marine systems, and undiscovered arthropod and microbial diversity. These gaps could provide a roadmap for coordinated collecting efforts going forward.

The report is a significant summary, but it is only the first step in surveying the global collection and tapping its enormous potential. Natural history collections are uniquely positioned to inform responses to today’s interlocking crises, but due to lack of funding and coordination, the information embedded in museum collections remains largely inaccessible. With strategic coordination, a global collection has the potential to guide decisions that will shape the future of humanity and biodiversity.

By creating this framework and survey, project organisers aim to create a foundation for the global museum network to work together to support future global sustainability, biodiversity, and climate frameworks using knowledge gained from museum collections. This will enable all museums to be more strategic as they plan their collection efforts in the future.

The paper considers applications of collection-based research, focusing on case studies that explore how museum natural history collections can be used to study pandemic preparedness, global change, biodiversity, invasive species, colonial heritage, and study of DNA from museum specimens). Case study examples of each of the above applications are available here.

As the authors write, “The long-term security and value of natural history collections depends on developing global and local partnerships that demonstrate not only their relevance for specific scientific, societal, and conservation challenges, but also for the benefits that apply to every person on the planet.”

The full Global Collections dashboard is available here.

Images that address some of the issues raised in the paper can be found here.

The full list of participating institutions and authors can be found here.



Natural History Media contact: Tel: 0779 969 0151 Email:
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew contact: 07976 908962 Email:

Notes to Editors

About the Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited indoor attraction in the UK. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.  

It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens accessed by researchers from all over the world both in person and via over 30 billion digital data downloads to date. The Museum’s 350 scientists are finding solutions to the planetary emergency from biodiversity loss through to the sustainable extraction of natural resources. 

The Museum uses its global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome millions of visitors through our doors each year, our website has had 17 million visits in the last year and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 20 million people in the last 10 years. 

About Kew Science
Kew Science is the driving force behind RBG Kew’s mission to understand and protect plants and fungi, for the well-being of people and the future of all life on Earth. Over 400 Kew scientists work with partners in more than 100 countries worldwide to halt biodiversity loss, uncover secrets of the natural world, and to conserve and restore the extraordinary diversity of plants and fungi. Kew’s Science Strategy 2021–2025 lays out five scientific priorities to aid these goals: research into the protection of biodiversity through Ecosystem Stewardship, understanding the variety and evolution of traits in plants and fungi through Trait Diversity and Function; digitising and sharing tools to analyse Kew’s scientific collections through Digital Revolution; using new technologies to speed up the naming and characterisation of plants through Accelerated Taxonomy; and cultivating new scientific and commercial partnerships in the UK and globally through Enhanced Partnerships. One of Kew’s greatest international collaborations is the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, which has to date stored more than 2.4 billion seeds of over 40,000 wild species of plants across the globe. In 2020, Kew scientists estimated in the State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report that 2 in 5 plants globally are threatened with extinction. Find out more about Digitising Kew's Collections.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is a leading international research organisation delivering knowledge, education, and plant conservation action around the world. The organisation’s focus is on accelerating species discovery and proving a knowledge resource, identifying species at imminent risk of extinction, those of particular importance to humankind and diversity in poorly known and threated areas of the world. In Scotland, its four Gardens in Edinburgh, Benmore in Argyll, Logan in Dumfries & Galloway and Dawyck in the Scottish Borders attract more than a million visitors each year. Each Garden is different in topography, soils and climate, enabling an exceptionally wide range of plants to be grown. Together, they constitute one of the largest and richest plant collections on Earth. RBGE operates as a Non Departmental Public Body established under the National Heritage (Scotland) Act 1985, principally funded by the Scottish Government. It is also a registered charity, managed by a Board of Trustees appointed by Ministers. Its mission is “To explore, conserve and explain the world of plants for a better future.” Learn more: