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In Defense of Natural History Museums

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What becomes of species that no longer exist, or bygone narratives of human history? Where do scientists go for answers when our questions span continents and centuries? For the answer to these questions and so many more, we need museums. Natural history museums in particular serve as the nexus between research and people, spanning numerous disciplines and piecing together our planet’s past, present and future.

The predecessor to modern day natural history museums, Cabinets of Curiosities (or wunderkammer in German), arose in the 17th century and were curated to reflect wealth, glamour and intelligence in European homes. As science advanced, so too did the systematic organization and accessibility of these early collections to the public. It’s important to note that while modern day museums have adapted over time to serve scientific and societal needs, many of the collections and the histories they are curated to convey remain rooted in European colonialism and the slave trade

Today, approximately 759 natural history museums exist in the United States, and these museums contain over one billion specimens. However, only a small fraction of these specimens are displayed publicly. In national museums like the Smithsonian, over 90% of specimens are maintained in countless drawers, jars, shelves and warehouses, away from the public eye. Smaller collections, such as those housed within universities, may lack public displays entirely. Regardless of their notoriety, these collections share the same struggle: they are underfunded, under-documented, and vulnerable to human conflict and natural disasters

Why should we care?

In the current climate of skepticism towards science, museums remain heralded as trusted sources of information. Furthermore, our ability to use natural history museum specimens to answer emerging scientific questions has dramatically increased with technological advances. 

Researchers can use long dead specimens to understand population dynamics, emerging pathogens, adaptation to climate change, and the genetic makeup of extinct species like the wooly mammoth. Imaging technology like MRI, X-ray, and CT have even been used to non-destructively study body morphometry and anatomy, helping with the conservation of rare or cryptic species like the spectacled porpoise

One particularly interesting use of museum specimens involves analyzing preserved blue whale earplugs dating back to the 1950s to quantify whales’ chemical exposure and stress over time. Without the foresight of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to store hundreds of earwax plugs, scientists today would never be able to reconstruct such detailed life histories of this endangered species.     

Museums in the digital age 

According to a report from 2005, two-thirds of the US institutions that store specimens have experienced damage to their collections owing to improper storage conditions. To make matters worse, the digitization of these collections for better public access is lagging and remains especially challenging for material stored in jars, like spirit specimens. Digitization of specimens is a crucial step toward making collections accessible outside of the physical location of a museum; this is particularly noteworthy as we navigate social distancing and restricted travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While collections were initially stocked by natural historians and scientists cataloguing biodiversity, the future of collecting looks vastly different. For starters, there has been a noticeable shift away from the submission of physical specimens and toward digital record-keeping of species occurrences via citizen science platforms like iNaturalist and eBird. Social media has also become widely used to document new natural history information and human-wildlife interactions. Remote sensing technology, such as drones, offer additional options for non-invasive exploration, especially in remote areas.

Drone image of the southern tip of St. Catherines Island (facing North). Image Credit: Daniel Harris. Used with permission.

Embracing the growing availability of both physical and digital data and specimens, researchers are proposing efforts like the “Extended Specimen Network” and “Next-Generation Collections”  designed to synthesize all available genomic, ecological, and environmental information contained within biodiversity collections and databases. Such efforts could pave the way for interdisciplinary research programs to address complex socio-ecological issues like mass extinction and food security

The Georgia Museum of Natural History 

Here on the UGA campus, researchers benefit from a partnership between the university and the State of Georgia Museum of Natural History (GMNH). Its own history stretching back to the early 1800s, GMNH currently houses at least eight million specimens and one of the largest marine mammal collections in North America. Dr. John Wares was recently appointed as the genomic and aquatic invertebrates curator and is currently working to catalogue the Grace Thomas Invertebrates Collection.

Photograph of the marine mammal collection housed in the GMNH Annex. Image Credit: John Wares. Used with permission.

Despite its extensive collection, GMNH is reliant on donations from private citizens, extramural grants, and project specific research funding. 

“The difficult part in all of this is still scrounging for resources; the museum is not given much of an operating budget, and we struggle to keep our valuable staff,” notes Wares, whose curatorial position is unfunded despite the considerable effort involved. 

Ranking among the top 10 of university maintained natural history museums in terms of its collection size, GMNH serves several primary roles

“A museum like this is certainly valuable to the public, but at GMNH we try to think separately about what it means for people to visit the museum gallery…and what it means to have an active research collection that is so massive – there are many research dissertations lying in wait in those specimens, whether it is looking at the skeletal abnormalities in our massive collection of marine mammals (some of them related to human bone diseases), the genomic data to be gathered from ethanol-stored collections, the change in size or weight with time as climate change progresses, or more.” 

Photographs of the invertebrate collection housed in the GMNH Annex. Image Credit: John Wares. Used with permission. 

Spiraling through time 

The importance of our natural history museum collections is not just a passing thought for me, it’s also become a personal passion. As a PhD student studying salt marsh snails, I’m interested in how environmental temperature influences individual traits like shell size and morphology. To study this, I’m using not only a field survey of snails currently inhabiting marshes along the Atlantic US coast, but also museum specimens dating back to the early 1900s. These museum collections act like a time capsule for researchers like me who want to better understand how organisms dynamically respond to their changing environment. 

Photograph of museum lots of Littoraria irrorata snails on loan from the Smithsonian (upper) and Florida Museum of Natural History (lower). Image Credit: Rebecca Atkins. Used with permission.

So what might the future look like for natural history museums and their role in scientific discovery? The potential for researchers to unlock new information from previously collected specimens necessitates the protection and digitization of our current collections. While many of us can now contribute valuable natural history data using cell phone and desktop apps like iNaturalist, we must be mindful to also support the ongoing efforts of our local and national museums. Ultimately, our success will stem from a synergy between existing physical specimens, emerging technologies, and collaborative databases to organize our growing science networks.

About the Author

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Rebecca Atkins is a Ph.D. student in the Odum School of Ecology studying. She is passionate about coastal ecology and is currently studying the effects of temperature on snail populations across Atlantic US salt marshes. In her spare time, she pursues art, weight lifting and drinking copious cups of local coffee. You can email her at Atkinsr@uga.edu or follower her @RL_Atkins

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