Natural History Collections in the 21st Century

The first step in wisdom is to know the things themselves” -Linnaeus (1735) quoted from Judith Winston’s book Describing Species (1999)

The word museum has its origins in the Greek mouseion, meaning “the place of the Muses”. In natural history museums the Muses take the shape of the stunning diversity of the natural world. Since the very origins of mankind’s cultural development we have collected objects of natural history. For nearly three centuries we have erected these “places of the Muses” to study and publicly display these collections. Here is where the Muses of nature, Linnaeus’ “the things themselves”, reside and their secrets unlocked by generations of dedicated, and perhaps slightly mad, scientists and natural historians. Natural history museums and their collections have been at the heart of numerous scientific discoveries that have shaped our understanding of the world and our place in it.

What does the public think of natural history collections?

But, in the public imagination a natural history museum is often thought of as a stuffy place with old bones, rocks and stuffed animal skins, some of which are shown off to the public to satisfy an afternoon’s curiosity. I think an anachronistic view of a natural history museum prevails, a view where natural history collections are viewed with the mild curiosity we typically have for any esoteric pursuit. As a curator who happily tours the public through the collections at my home institution I get, “Why are there hundreds of dead mice in this drawer?” or “What use does anyone possibly have for jars of dead toads?”. It is as if they have walked onto an episode of A&E’s Hoarders except that instead of rooms consisting of disorganized piles of clothes populated by semi-feral cats they are surrounded by cabinets filled with the various remains of dead plants and animals (with maybe some fungi thrown in for good measure). It completely baffles most people as to why anyone would want to have piles upon piles of dead plants and animals. Their first thought tends to be surely there must be money in it. These things must be rare and carry some monetary value. When they are told that for most specimens they can’t be bought and sold in the marketplace and therefore really have no economic value they are really puzzled. “All this junk and it isn’t worth anything? You can’t sell it?” Well, yes and no, some things there is a market for, shell, fossil and insect collections for example, but for others, bird specimens, trade is mostly illegal. Suffice it to say that value in natural history collections is not measured on a monetary scale as say an art collection would be, a fact that frustrates insurance adjusters looking to tag a value on a natural hisotry collection in the only way we have seemed to value anything. I think it is way easier for people to wrap their heads around an art museum than a natural history museum precisely because of this clear monetary value placed on works of art. So, why do we have natural history collections and the museums that house them?

What is a modern natural history collection?

Natural history museums are based around two concepts that we think of as being entirely modern. Natural museums are the original bioinformatics facilities, exactly like the massive international online gene and protein databases that over the past 25 years have revolutionized the life sciences. Also, natural history museums are based on an open source ethos, at term typically reserved for computer software rather than drawers full of pinned beetle carcasses. These two very modern concepts, bioinformatics and an open source rubric, have been at the heart of the natural history museum long before the terms were coined to describe modern biology and computing.

Natural history collections are bioinformatics collections

Bioinformatics is simply what the name suggests, the interface of biology and information science. In molecular biology the advent of DNA sequencing and other laboratory technologies has resulted in an explosion of information about the genes, proteins and other molecules that constitute the whole of the living world. Indeed the progress in the lab has often outstripped our ability to make sense of the data making the life sciences increasingly dependent on advances in computing to organize, collate, sort and analyze mountains of digital data. Public data repositories including the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) in the United States and partner institutions in Japan (DNA Data Bank of Japan or DDBJ) and the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in Cambridge, UK have sprung up over the past 30 years to manage this torrent of biological information flowing from molecular biology laboratories around the world. Natural history museums however have played this role in the life sciences long before the advent of GenBank (NCBI’s DNA sequence database) and indeed long before our knowledge of the molecular basis for biology. Instead of the digital protein or DNA sequence file the 19th century bioinformatics facility had the pickled fish, mammal skeleton or pinned butterfly. Instead of the computer database the 19th century bioinformatics facility had the paper catalog recording the ancillary data of time, place and collector, data that gave the specimen its true scientific value.

Today 19th century bioinformatics and 21st century bioinformatics meet head on in the modern natural history museum. Paper catalogs are digitized, often with digital images of specimens, and made available online in collaborative, centralized databases where researchers can search the data in the world’s museums without leaving their desktop computer. Georeferencing has incorporated geographic information system (GIS) computing tools in the digitization and analysis of museum specimens providing novel ways to analyze the fluctuating distributions of populations, both living and extinct. Also, natural history museums have embraced molecular biology and expanded the inherit value and data content of their specimens in ways 19th century curators and other museum researchers could have never imagined. Frozen tissue collections provide a primary source of molecules used in molecular based research. These tissues are supported by traditional specimen material (skins, bones, etc.) that vouch for their origin and provide a link between genes, proteins and the readily visible characters of size, shape and color of the organisms. Analysis of these molecules has given us an unparalleled view of life’s diversity with a precision not possible in the pre-molecular world. Emerging initiatives in genome sequencing rely on frozen tissue collections to provide the raw material to feed the next generation of DNA sequencers. The interface between the molecular data derived from vouchered tissue collections and the associated georeference data has allowed us to see the changing face of genetic diversity over time and space and infer the influence of a changing environment on that diversity. These new advances have only become feasible through the interoperability between the 19th century collection and the modern tools of the molecular lab, the global positioning system (GPS) and the digital computer.

Natural history collections are open source

How do you make a digital encyclopedia? Maybe acquire the rights to existing print encyclopedias, hire an editorial staff of content experts and sell the whole thing for a profit, maybe bundling it with existing software or selling content access online for an annual fee. Microsoft tackled this problem in precisely this manner with Encarta. A very straightforward, reasonable business approach to end in a profit for the company. But, is Encarta what people use today to get information? I think it would be safe to say, no. Here is Wikipedia’s approach. Let virtually everyone edit the content and give it away for free. This open source ethos has been at the heart of many advances in the information age. From Linux to Wikipedia open source has democratized information, but, like bioinformatics, the open source ethos is no new territory for natural history museums.

In natural history museums the encyclopedia is the encyclopedia of the living world, written in Linnaeus’ “things themselves”,  an ever evolving wiki of real objects written in real structures from real organisms and their associated data, rather than words alone. Certainly there is a history of some curators jealously guarding their specimens, the academic war between American paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh is legendary. Bone wars not withstanding, in general, natural history museums have encouraged the sharing of information and open access to collections among researchers. Also museums have strived to make their collections accessible to the public, creating the public face of the museum visitors are familiar with today. Exhibit access to publicly supported museums like the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution is free as is entry to the majority of exhibits at the Natural History Museum in the UK. Access to collections by researchers is also free as are most museum specimen loans to qualified researchers at other museums and most colleges and universities. This view of the natural history collection as a freely available resource for the expansion of human knowledge is absolutely essential to the mission of a natural history museum. As such the open source ethos was embraced in the natural history museum long before the advent of Linux and Wikipedia.

The ability for the modern natural history museum to make its collections openly accessible has never been greater, and, in a time of eroding scientific literacy and growing biodiversity challenges, the need to make these collections accessible has never been greater. Led by bioinformatics advances, online natural history databases like those of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), the Encyclopedia of Life (EoL) and VertNet open the back doors of the museum to all. Unlike Encarta, these resources are entirely open with no annual fee for access, supported through a mix of public support and private philanthropy. Ongoing public efforts continue to grow these computing tools and increase access among researcher and the public. The University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute’s Specify Project and Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology's VertNet are greatly contributing to the open access of museum collections and access will undoubtedly grow in step with the penetration of the internet to any variety of devices. Imagine if Linnaeus could access the EoL while in the field through a smartphone connected to a 4G network? Surely the founders of the modern natural history collection would be amazed by these tools but they would also find them consistent with some very familiar themes. Themes in which knowledge is based around organized repositories of the “things themselves” that are shared broadly and openly.

Where is the natural history museum going?

I wish I had an answer to this one. Naturally I see great relevance of natural history collections to our modern world and far from being stuffy, antiquated curiosity cabinets, natural history museums have readily incorporated technological tools from molecular biology to computing. Indeed, natural history collections have embraced bioinformatics and the open source ethos long before our modern notions of these constructs in reference to molecular biology and computing. The question is not will museum professionals adapt to a changing technological landscape, they clearly have been preadapted by a nearly 300 year history of bioinformatics and open source sharing, nor is it a question of will we need natural history collections or will the questions asked by natural history museum researchers be relevant. In a world with a dwindling biodiversity, natural history collections and the basic questions curators and other museum researchers ask are more important than ever (see Joshua Drew’s Conservation Biology paper The Role of natural History Institutions and Bioinformatics in Conservation Biology). However, dwindling public support and an increasingly corporate mindset among many politicians and museum administrators will pull focus away from the long view of the museum collection and move increasingly towards short-term financial gain. Let’s hope that decisions are made that will preserve the trajectory of museum collections and create a legacy worthy of Linnaeus and the generations of museum researchers who have dedicated their careers and on some occasions risked their lives so that our knowledge of the natural world is firmly based on “the things themselves”.