The Future of Natural History Collections

The primary responsibility of a museum is simply to keep, identify, and show things as a kind of act of faith, to preserve continuity for its own sake—without attempting to force the objects into or out of any context, except perhaps the simplest historical or geographical order, which would be the reflection of at least one sort of truth.

~Anne Hollander, 1972

The grand corridors of the Smithsonian were packed. It was nearing the holiday season, and Arthur had to scramble to make headway. But the crowds did not bother him. To the contrary, he was delighted to see so many members of the public sharing his fascination with the natural world. Turning left into a crammed gallery, he had reached the showcase exhibit he had specifically come to see. This was probably Arthur’s last opportunity to catch the temporary installation before returning home from his first semester at the city university. He spent several hours meandering through the displays, before leaving in a very good mood. Unbeknownst to all, museums worldwide will soon be shutting their doors to the public, and those same bustling corridors will sit in empty, eerie silence. Exhibits will idle in the gloom.

Having grown up in London, I am often asked for recommendations from my American colleagues planning trips to Europe. As a biologist, I cannot help but advocate the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, where I spent many an afternoon as a child. The opulent windowless hallways, teeming with fossils, pelts and gemstones, were the perfect place to distract myself from the infamous English weather – out of sight, out of mind. Of course they did nothing to distract me from my country’s abhorrent colonial history, quite the opposite in fact, and thus I feel obliged to make some alternative tour highlights for those that would rather not spend the day perusing various spoils of the British Empire.

When I try to be less biased with my assessment of my home town, I routinely turn to the art galleries as some of the greatest treasures London has to offer. The National Gallery and the Tate Modern in particular, are spellbinding. From JWM Turner, whose colorful masterpieces initiated a revolution in the world of painting, to Damien Hirst, whose formaldehyde cow slices have to be seen to be believed, the exhibits move me in ways that words are hopeless to convey. That’s the point of art after all. Attempting to analyse such great works, despite how fervently the critics opine, is like trying to catch the wind.

Yet as with the natural history museum, not everyone shares my love of such places. In the 1972 book, Museums in Crisis, institutions were accused of being out of touch with the public, out of touch with the artists, and out of touch with themselves. 20th-century art has rendered the museum obsolete the authors concluded, galleries were stagnating, and financial prospects were becoming grimmer by the day. Ultimately, the future of such institutions will be dependent on more support from the state than is currently afforded, but dwindling public support strongly disincentivizes the allocation of more government funding. If the future was bleak in 1972, it’s not exactly rosy now.

It needs to be more widely understood, amongst politicians and the public alike, that museums are not supposed to make money. Collections are expensive, and become increasingly so as they grow (and that is what collections do). The upkeep cost of biological material in natural history collections is particularly high. But like libraries and hospitals, the benefits to society these resources provide are great enough that we should support them regardless of their economic viability. The cost of natural history collections is growing, but so too is their value. Mass digitization is making museum data accessible from anywhere in the world, and new technologies are revitalizing old collections. Cryogenic facilities, seed banks, CT scanners – it is not an exaggeration to say that natural history museums are amidst a revolution. Unlike art galleries they are rapidly evolving to stay relevant, but they know their future is far from certain; with survival hanging in the balance, they’re going for broke.

Although novelty is always exciting, we must make sure not to lose the old. Monolithic treatise on a specific group of organisms that made the likes of Darwin famous are becoming harder and harder to write in a clickbait era demanding instant gratification. The fields of taxonomy and systematics are not particularly in vogue, yet these are the bedrock of the biological sciences and impossible without museum collections. Scientific collecting has fallen out of favor with the public. The killing of animals to stuff in museum draws that are already overflowing seems, at best, nonsensical to the casual observer. But such endeavors are crucial to generate long time-series of data that allow us to ask and answer some of the biggest questions concerning the natural world. The effects of climate change or industrialization for example, would not be nearly so apparent without this kind of continuous collecting. New species cannot be described without enough specimens to accurately quantify the variation within species. The museum revolution we are witnessing will fizzle out very quickly if collecting does not continue in the 21st century. Again, all of this requires considerably more money than museums are currently afforded.

Many museums in the United States charge people to get in, and whilst this helps to generate revenue independent of state funding, it also helps to perpetuate the notion that culture is something that should be reserved for the upper echelons of society. Entrance fees do nothing but foster the anti-intellectualism that is already rife in most western nations. The elitism and snobbery salient in modern art circles is well known, but scientists are not much better. Pomposity does nothing to curry favor with the masses and should be avoided at all cost. Sadly, the loss of revenue brought on by the pandemic, coupled with America’s deep-seated fear of socialist policies, makes this altogether unlikely. Indeed the tremendous financial blow dealt to museums forced to close their doors in the wake of COVID19, make it more likely that they will charge more money for entry upon reopening. Let us hope not.

Clearly, crisis-mode for museums began long before the pandemic of 2020, and natural history museums, unlike the rather stagnant galleries, have been trying every trick in the book to retain their value to society through the 20th and 21st centuries. The public face of museums, particularly their role in education, has seen the most remarkable changes in recent years, but it is precisely this aspect of museums that has been most strongly impacted by the pandemic. As something of a Luddite, I am not in the best position to comment on museum outreach in the digital age, but from what I can gather, there appears to be more than a glimmer of hope. In contrast to art galleries, natural history museums have reinvented themselves so dramatically they are hardly recognizable from what they once were even a few decades past. It seems likely that in a few decades hence, perhaps even sooner, natural history collections will again be unrecognizable.

Museums are fascinating. Cultural libraries; treasure troves of wonder.  They have a dark and chequered history, dominated by imperialism, and yet they have provided educational and cultural value untold. I hope that natural history collections will continue to act as the foundation of scientific discovery. Our understanding of the natural world remains in its infancy. Ultimately, we must maintain the public’s interest in biodiversity if we are to save natural history collections. In the modern era many people are up in arms over statues and flags, but I have seen few protests concerning the plight of the museum. Whilst there are exciting programs in the works, we must remember to exercise humility in the preservation of these treasured objects. The very least we can do is take care of the stuff we nicked.


Never stop learning because life never stops teaching.


Professor Warren Allmon identified two pillars of modern natural history museums: research values and public values. Research values include documenting biotas no longer available and present and past biogeographic distributions, housing type, voucher specimens, and (perhaps most importantly) serving as fertile places for scientific discovery and inspiration. Public values in contrast include serving as resources for identification of unknown specimens, hands-on education and the support of systematics, and (perhaps most importantly) as the depository for the final physical evidence for the history and diversity of life on Earth. Finding a balance between these two pillars is easier said than done.

Owing to the financial burden of caring for aging collections, many new “museums” outside of academia are really science centers, containing no collections of actual specimens. These modern institutions provide tremendous educational value but completely fall down with regards to the research pillar. Most of the pressing crowds that visit big museums have no idea of the distinction. Growing up in London, I spent many an hour in South Kensington wandering through the grand corridors, in awe of the giant ground sloth skeleton and Mary Anning’s ichthyosaurs mounted on the walls. These formative experiences are likely why I am a biologist, but at that time I had no idea what a museum really was – what goes on behind closed doors, the rows and rows of identical specimens and the CT scanners humming away somewhere in a dingy basement. I was either unaware of such activities or unsure of their purpose. But this is where the research value of a museum lies!  Collections that most people never see have been used to track the shifting phenologies of flowering plants in response to climate change, document the thinning of egg shells with increasing pesticide exposure, and reveal the build-up of soot in bird feathers following industrialization. If science centers are to be successful museums, they require real holdings in a collection and more research personnel to pursue scientific inquiries. This will ultimately require more funding.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, many collections housed at universities are solely concerned with research endeavors to the point that they have no public face. Without a public face, university collections have no real means of generating their own income. This is a considerable problem, especially given the ruthlessly economic business model of higher education in western society. University deans are decreasingly tolerant of providing resources for orphaned collections unless they can be justified on the grounds of providing experiential learning opportunities. Course offerings specifically teaching curation techniques and preparing students for roles in the museum sector have been developed at a handful of universities, but most small holdings do not have the money allocated for permanent staff to implement such programs. In the same way that schools with smaller class sizes always outperform schools with fewer teachers, museums with numerous staff will provide considerably more educational value than those institutions run by only a handful of employees. With adequate funding, collections on campus could flourish. Without funding, they will topple in the absence of the public values pillar and under the weight of mounting upkeep costs.

Public museums may have had to close their doors in the wake of coronavirus, but technology allows museums to strive for a much broader public reach than ever possible. Most big institutions have dedicated twitter accounts that achieve science communication beyond the museum’s walls. Podcasts, lecture series, and blog posts are now all par for the course. Museum data is rapidly being digitized and made freely available online. It is a great tragedy that we live amidst something of a revolution in the field of natural history museums, but we may not have to resources or the wherewithal to capitalize.

Providing educational value was not a priority for early Cabinets of Curiosities. The shift of natural history collections towards more formal educational settings is a rather recent development. Indeed universities still have some way to go in providing public values from collections housed on campus. Even public museums spent most of their history in the entertainment business; as a matter of course, dioramas were often sensationalized to draw in the crowds. In the 21st century we should leave the dramatics to Disney and the people that make Jurassic Park. Natural history museums have carved out a new niche, and now many are beginning to resemble classrooms, but we must never lose sight of the research value that proper collections provide. However upsetting, a key role of natural history collections in the modern age is to help document the 6th mass extinction in real time. From toddlers to undergraduates, museums represent many people’s first introduction to the natural world. The only way that future generations will do better than us is if we help them learn.


Archiving the Exponential

The importance of keeping past works accessible, whether or not they are attractive to crowds or palatable to current taste, ought certainly to be the first concern of any museum, as it is of a library. Everything must be available, or it is as good as dead.

~Anne Hollander, 1972

Old museum tags are some of the most fantastical things I have ever seen. It is hard to describe the feeling to gaze upon a yellow-stained scrap of paper from the 1800s – the immaculate calligraphy, impossibly small, with a charming description of the weather on that particular morning of trapping. The tag is tied to the hind leg of an ermine (stoat), snow white in its winter colors. To ponder on the life of the animal and the collector both is all in all a delight.

More than a joy to behold, this information concerning the date the animal was collected, the location, the weather conditions, etc., are perhaps more valuable than the physical specimen itself. Modern collections that cover centuries of collecting provide an unparalleled opportunity to understand the spatial distribution of animals and how that changes through time. Particularly in recent years, now that tag data is being digitized and hosted on public online repositories, research with museum data is flourishing. In the 21st century, tag data has been used to describe range shifts in response to climate change and accurately track the spread of invasive species across the globe.

Digitization is also good simply for posterity’s sake. As witnessed in tragic news scenes, physical collections are all too at risk of being lost to fire or flood, and thus many museums are pushing to digitize specimen data without further incentives. Museums have not been in the digital data management game long, and as you might expect from such a burgeoning field, the competition is hot and things are a tad messy. Much like the early days of social media, companies are vying for poll position, offering basically the same service under a different logo. The ALA, GBIF, IDiGBIO, VertNet, SeitNet, SIB, BISON. They are all hosting sites, digital repositories for museum data of various types and specificities. Conglomerates are starting to form; Arnie will come back from the future before too long. I am not particularly one for cut throat capitalism, but the standardization a monopoly would bring seems appealing and necessary in this instance.

In the digital age, many specimens can be tied to more than just the tag. Recordings of bird calls, or videos of an animal’s behavior in its natural environment, are commonplace in the 21st century. One-off multi-million dollar grants have been used to procure expensive CT scanners, and efforts are underway at the University of Florida to digitize the tree of life. Some of the results of soft tissue scanning are truly spectacular. The scans also reveal stomach contents, various parasites, and past injuries. The aspects of a specimen’s broader natural history that can be revealed using these methods we would consider a characterization of the extended phenotype, and all of this must be cataloged and curated along with the physical specimen.

Digital data is fabulously interesting and valuable, but ruinously expensive to curate. Who’s responsible for this new financial burden? Whose job is it to make sure the subsidiary data stays associated with the original specimen? Server space is not free. Data management is time consuming. Museums have been chronically underfunded and understaffed for at least 50 years. The deficit between required and allocated funds grows with each passing year. Museums are in the hole; they need a bailout like the banks if they are to perform their duties. With so much data from natural history museums being digitized, some will argue original collections will have been rendered obsolete, and ultimately less funding should be allocated to curation of physical specimens. But more money is needed! Collections are continually being added to – that is the nature of collections, and the data we can obtain from specimens increases with each advance in research techniques. Archiving the exponential is not cheap.

In the last century, natural history museums have been concerned with the challenges of preserving a specimen’s genotype. Whilst natural history collections are new kids on the block as far as museums are concerned, they have still been around a lot longer than we have known about DNA. How do you minimize DNA degradation before you’ve discovered DNA? What could’ve been done differently in the 1700s to better prepare specimens for modern isotope analyses? Mistakes are unavoidable. The genetic material of many specimens collected over the 20th century has been lost as a result of fixation in formalin. Entire collections of fish, frogs, and salamanders – DNA-less. The potential harm we are doing to specimens is impossible to quantify or predict. Common sense leads us to minimize a specimen’s exposure to chemicals or extremes in temperature, but in other instances we store seeds and animal tissue at sub-zero temperatures in cryogenic facilities. Time will tell if we acted with due prudence.

Curators are extreme hoarders, never throwing anything away, yet constantly adding to their collections. Many modern collections are overflowing, becoming increasingly expensive to maintain with each acquisition. Despite their need for more money, funding for natural history museums has been cut. Staffing issues are salient in the 21st century, and many collections are falling into disrepair. This tragedy is juxtaposed with the scientific advances in sequencing methods and CT scanning that has added untold value to specimens housed in collections. We have known for a long time that the objects in natural history museums are more than the physical objects. We must take the same exacting approach to the storage and preservation of digital materials as we do our physical collections. Archiving living things provides literally unimaginable rewards, but also presents the greatest challenge to the museum curator. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. A bird in the natural history collection is worth at least a hundred, so long as it still has its tag.

The Perils of Posterity

Formaldehyde spill response kit
Formaldehyde spill response kit
Rot your lungs, make you choke,
See that pension go up in smoke,
but the boss don’t give a shit
Formaldehyde spill response kit

Natural history collections are treasure troves, cabinets of curiosity containing a world of magical delights. But museums have a dark side. Rickety ladders, broken glass, and hazardous chemicals; these are the perils of posterity.

As a rule, natural history collections should be housed in windowless basements. This prevents solar damage to specimens, reduces temperature fluctuations, and minimizes the available entrances for insect pests. Such an environment however, poses many innumerable threats to the safety of curators and museum staff. Here we have the crux of the issue, namely the safety of the collection cannot always be reconciled with the safety of the employees. Historically to solve this conundrum, spaces were designed solely with the safety of the collection in mind…

In modern practices, more of a balance is struck. For example, reptiles and amphibians are typically stored in fluid. Formaldehyde is by far the better preservative, but the fumes of ethanol are not nearly as toxic. Hence it is common to ‘fix’ a specimen first using formalin, before transferring it into ethanol for long term storage. As I write, the vast majority of fluid collections are now housed in ethanol. Confined spaces and vast quantities of alcohol however, is a disaster waiting to happen. Indeed, with the increasing strictness of modern health and safety policies, particularly with regard to fire, many older collections are no longer up to code. Add crumbling infrastructure to this volatile mixture and disasters are almost inevitable. Small natural history collections exist in a catch-22 situation, whereby they rely on public support to stay afloat, but too much publicity could spell disaster if it attracts the attention of the wrong people.

So much for the fluid collections, what about the dry stuff?

Insects pose one of the greatest threats to bird and mammal skins. To deter would be pests, many older specimens are laced with arsenic. Arsenic does a great job but the practice has stopped for obvious reasons. Much like in agriculture, as we strip back the use of chemicals, insect infestations become more common. If caught early, insect pests can be dealt with by heat treating or freezing specimens. Fumigation is still employed in extreme cases. As is often the case however, prevention is the best approach; cabinets with tighter seals and more formalized pest management plans can be as effective as a cocktail of deadly reagents. It can be considerably more expensive (again like organic farming), but that is price we pay for health.

Moths and dermestid beetles are top of the museum’s most wanted list. Both can eat their way through an entire collection in a staggeringly short amount of time. Moths will destroy a wolf pelt quicker than your favorite sweater and the beetles will munch down a carcass to the bone like something out of a cartoon. Ironically in the case of the beetles, most dermestid outbreaks originate from the museums themselves; curators often maintain their own dermestid colonies precisely because of their voracious appetites. The beetles work wonders to clean skeletal material and prepare specimens before they are accessioned into the collection. From personal experience however, I can say with great confidence that dermestid colonies should be housed in a separate building to the main collection. In hindsight that seems rather obvious.

Every preservation technique or restoration procedure has the potential to destroy biological information, thereby reducing the utility of the object for future scientific enquiry. Every preservation technique also has the potential to jeopardize the health of collections managers and curators. The balance is still being sought to make institutions as safe as possible whilst also being effective in the preservation of housed materials. For the safety of staff and specimens alike, we must err on the side of caution with our preservation techniques. Natural history collections are young enough that such techniques are still improving and methods are constantly being developed. Without public support and constant funding sources however, many museums are falling behind, with staff and specimens suffering as a result.

At present, natural history collections are more hazardous working environments than they ought to be. Money is really the only thing that would improve the situation. Unfortunately, the public side of museums, the main revenue source, has been hit hard by COVID19; it seems likely that funds to manage and maintain these invaluable collections must be sought from somewhere else. Even before the pandemic money was tight; many small collections have no full time staff and large collections are often afforded only one or two curators to oversee millions of fragile specimens. If we do not address our financial problems, the situation will only get worse – existing perils will be exacerbated and new perils will emerge.

Formaldehyde spill response kit
Formaldehyde spill response kit
Or a bag of sawdust and an oven mitt,
Don’t budge on the budget, the budget’s plenty,
We’ve only got so much for 2020,
Ask for more and they throw a fit,
If not now, then maybe in a bit.
Formaldehyde spill response kit

The History of Natural History Collections

Hypotheses about past events are not susceptible to scientific proofs, and the historian can never hope to have a hypothesis certified as anything better than reasonable. They must lope along where scientists fear to tread.

~Alfred Crosby, 1972

Museums are fascinating. Cultural libraries; treasure troves of wonder.  They have a dark and checkered history, dominated by imperialism, and yet they have provided educational and cultural value untold. Since the pharaohs, important cultural artifacts have been collected and displayed, and since the pharaohs, access to such institutions has been largely restricted to high society. The Greeks loved a museum. That’s where we get the word. ‘House of the Muses’ is the literal translation. History, astronomy, dance, music, sacred poetry, epic poetry, love poetry, comedy, and tragedy. Sounds like my kind of place.

Education empowers people, and museums, like libraries, prevent the covering up of history. Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. The Christians knew this, and hence tried to put a stop to museums. The only history worth knowing was the Word. Desecrating cultural objects is a classic move of religious fanatics, and this is a testament of the power these objects hold, and the threat museums pose to authoritarian rule. As DuBois notes, there is always an element of revolution in education. An afternoon in a museum can be more revealing than a decade’s worth of schooling, but before we start fawning over these things, we should spare a thought for how museum collections typically arise.

In the awkwardly named ‘Age of Discovery’ indigenous histories were eradicated as a matter of course. A lot of theft was going on too. Artifacts were pillaged from all over the world and hoarded in private collections. Cabinets of curiosities emerged across Europe during the renaissance and flourished for centuries. Oxford University holds apocryphal claims to the first public museum; the collection of Elias Ashmole was donated to the institution and put on display in 1683. As I write, the collection is alive and well, receiving almost a million visitors a year. European expansionism went unabated throughout the ensuing centuries; during the enlightenment period vast holdings began to be amassed in public and museums and private collections across Europe. With the advent of the 19th century, colonialism ushered in a new era of collecting, and only now do natural history museums enter the fray.

Natural history collections are comparatively young simply because preservation of organic material is far more challenging than the preservation of paintings or sculptures. Preservation techniques have only blossomed in the last few centuries, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that advances coincide with European overseas expansion. Necessity is the mother of invention after all. We have been fermenting alcohol since ancient Mesopotamia, but concentrates specifically distilled to preserve animals have much more recent origins. William Croone of the Royal Society pickled two puppies in 1662 to demonstrate proof of concept. Formaldehyde did not emerge as a commercial preserving agent until the 1890s. Modern methods typically dictate that the specimen is first fixed in formaldehyde, before a step up procedure to gradually transfer to stronger ethanol dilutions, but best practices regarding storage environments, dilution strengths, and buffer solutions are still being argued. Moreover, best practices will likely be context specific: delicate specimens, like fish eggs or frog tadpoles are permanently kept in formalin because it is the better preservative, whereas tissue samples that will be used for genetic analyses are placed directly into ethanol because formalin would degrade the DNA.

Reptiles are much easier to preserve than either fish fry or amphibian larvae. In a time when circumnavigating the globe took months, the ability of reptiles to go long periods without water proved extremely useful. As a result, reptile collections housed in museums are often extensive. Lizards in particular are a seafaring bunch.  Anoles and geckos now have pan global distributions because they make such good stowaways. Museum collections of anoles from various islands have helped to reveal some of the foundational principles of evolutionary theory and shape the laws of biogeography.

Giant tortoises in contrast, proved too delicious to survive long journeys at sea. Hapless individuals stored on their backs provided fresh meat for homeward bound voyages. Indeed it took several trips before even a shell survived the journey to be formally accessioned into a collection. Giant tortoises used to occur on many more islands than the Galapagos, and over-harvesting is largely implicated in their decline. With predicted sea level rise, giant tortoise may one day be driven to extinction in the wild, and specimens housed in collections will be all that remains. Let us hope that history proves me wrong.

History is very important. It tells us that we are not always the good guys. Libraries have been burned, and cultural collections have been ransacked, but sometimes this is matched by the vicious means by which such collections are amassed. Although museums have suffered with a PR problem for time immemorial, their value is incalculable and grows exponentially. These institutions hold immense educational power, but we must acknowledge their roots, and understand the public stake in museum collections. Natural history collections are the foundation of the biological sciences. Darwin’s and Wallace’s generation was the age of exploration, and therefore the age of collecting. Good old fashioned `smash and grab` imperialism. We have assembled these tremendous collections largely by force, the very least we can do is take care of the stuff we nicked.

Curators in Crisis

Welcome to the blog series Plight of the Museum!

Without natural history museums, the biological sciences would still be in their infancy. With the help of museum collections, we have identified and described 1 million of the potential 10 million species on Earth, laying the foundations for all subsequent scientific inquiry.

Dwindling public support and chronic under-funding however, make the future of museums far from certain. If we are to safeguard these precious institutions, we must extol the incalculable value of such collections and the myriad wonders they harbor.

In this series of essays, we will explore the history of natural history collections, threats to their continued survival, and the drastic measures that some have taken to stay current in the modern world.

As always, strap in!