Museum Collections – What For?

As a kid, my favorite museums were always the ones with the dinosaurs. Those big, ancient, strange looking things thrilled my imagination – to think that something like that had walked on the same planet as me, maybe even on the same exact same dirt! My fascination with fossil exhibits in museums has grown over time to include basically any exhibit in any museum ever (even the stuffiest, most boring museum can lull me into a trance these days – something about being in the presence of old things, maybe the musty smell? Mmm), but I still hold a special place in my heart for natural history museums. And, lucky for me, I get to conduct the majority of my thesis analysis at the American Museum of Natural History, one of the coolest natural history museums in the world! As I’ve written a little bit about before, the fish I collect in Fiji will be brought back to the US to be stored in the vast vertebrate collections at AMNH. But what exactly happens in these behind-the-scenes collections? What do people do with all those dead things? And why are they even important?  These are questions I think the vast majority of people might ask, questions I myself asked once I first discovered that many museums are actually research institutions in addition to places for public educations and enjoyment.

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Tiger shark jaw in AMNH’s ichthyology collections
Amy making eyes at a coelocanth baby, which had been found in an XRay of the mother's uterus and proved that these elusive fish have live birth!
Amy making eyes at a coelocanth baby, which had been found in an XRay of the mother’s uterus and proved that these elusive fish have live birth!

First and foremost, museum collections provide important snapshots of what things were like in the past. The fossil collections are the most obvious example of this, but collections made by explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries are amazing resources as well, enabling us to see what the natural world may have looked like in a specific place up to four hundred years ago. Identifying the biological baselines in an area – how they looked before any sort of human disturbance – is essential to the protection or rehabilitation of that area’s ecosystems. There is some debate over whether we should even be aiming to “return” ecosystems to their pre-human states at all (it’s now widely accepted that humans have been changing this planet for much longer than we initially thought) – but that’s a different discussion for a different time. 🙂

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An AMNH technician processing recent samples collected from the Solomon IslandsDSCN2200
A goby treated with enzymes to make internal anatomy more visible – one enzyme to stain the bones red, and one enzyme to make all other body parts transparant! So cool!

Museum collections also provide scientists with a way to get their hands on a large sample of whatever organism they’re studying relatively cheaply and quickly. As you all know, science isn’t the most well-funded endeavor these days, so for a researcher, it is essential to try to obtain quality data in an affordable manner. And museums enable just that! Many scientists look at the genetic information of museum specimens to conduct their research, some look at morphological characteristics, and still some look at the overall diversity present in a specific place over time. New species have even been discovered through the examination of museum collections, showing how brand new discoveries are often hiding right in front of our faces! (check out this article for a specific example of how museums led to the discovery of a new olinguito species!)

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Processed samples waiting to be moved to their new home in the Ichthyology stacks

There are truly countless ways that scientists benefit from museum collections to answer cool and interesting questions. It’s important that people understand the value of these amazing resources, especially as budgets get tighter and program cuts become more numerous – losing these amazing repositories of knowledge would be a tragedy not just for scientists, but for the future of our natural world.

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