The Collection Connection: Natural History Museums and Libraries

A Brief History of Museum Collections

By the close of the 16th century, "cabinets of curiosities" had been gathered in Europe for entertainment and aesthetic reasons. These collections of plant and animal specimens were the prototypes for the private museums of natural history that flourished in the mid-17th century.

Image courtesy Cabinets de curiosites, Gilles Thibault, McGill University



The historical surveying of new U.S. territories by explorers such as Lewis and Clark included the inventorying and collecting of organisms the explorers encountered. However, it wasn't until 1879 that the United States National Natural History Museum was established to curate the collections of these survey expeditions.

The historical role of collecting, documenting, and preserving physical specimens of plants and animals continues as one of the missions of natural history museums.

Missions of Natural History Museums

All museums of natural history have slightly different missions. Read the mission statement of the Natural History Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. On your worksheet write down the three missions of this museum (Question #1).

The Importance of Museum Collections

Natural History collections document the world's biota (plant and animal life) in space and time. Collections of non-living specimens, e.g., geological specimens, fossils, and human artifacts are also collected by natural history museums. By studying the biotic (living) and non-biotic components of the environment, scientists can begin to understand how ecosystems function and living diversity is maintained.

Extinct species can best be studied through the remains preserved in natural history museums. As scientists begin to use molecular and genetic technologies, museum specimens can be used to reexamine and redefine evolutionary relationships between species.

Due to advances in computer and communication technologies, scientists are able to retrieve and analyze specimen data from many museum collections. Because scientists can access a broader amount of information from these collections, they are provided with a clearer picture of species populations and migrations than if they just looked at the data from only one museum collection.

Types of Collections in Natural History Museums

Visit one of these natural history museums and explore the collections they have. On your worksheet, write down the name of the natural history museum you visited and describe four collections you found (Question #2).

Methods of Collecting Specimens

Historically, scientists took specimens back to the museum and preserved them to use in research studies, education, and exhibits. Currently, scientists leave some organisms in their habitat, and instead take very detailed pictures of the organism, take a DNA sample (from any part of the plant or animal), or both. These two techniques keep the museum from contributing to population declines in species.

Methods of Documenting Specimens

Once specimens are collected, researchers record: 1) the species name, 2) where and when the specimen was collected, 3) the collector's name, and often 4) certain physical measurements of the environment and/or the specimen itself. Each specimen receives a unique accession (identification) number. As computers became more accessible, scientists have gone from recording all of this data in handwritten ledgers to entering it into electronic databases.

Specimen Record (Activity)

On your worksheet, you will find a specimen record from the Florida Museum of Natural History. Fill in the information you can extract from the record (Question #3). You will note that the museum record contains a genus species, or scientific name. The common name for this specimen is Alligator gar.

Searching in the Databases 
of the Florida Museum of Natural History

Although scientists use only scientific names, some databases allow us to search by common name for Florida species. Let's search for amphibians and reptiles that were found in the Florida county where you go to school. Follow the instructions on your activity worksheet (Question #4).

Research Activities carried out by Museums

It is important to keep in mind that the museum specimens at the Florida Museum of Natural History do not represent a cross section of all organisms in Florida, but a sampling of what has been found whenever collectors are in the field in Florida.

It would take hundreds of scientists in the field all the time to record every plant and animal species in every locale across Florida.

Research projects are enhanced by access 
to museum specimens and their records include:

Systematics, or the study of the evolutionary relationships between organisms, is dependent on comparing related species. For decades, the physical inspection of museum specimens was the basis for these comparisons. Now scientists are using genetic techniques with museum specimens as well.

Documenting what endangered, threatened, or unique species have been found in an area helps scientists determine what environmental impact studies should be completed and helps the government decide where to create parks and sanctuaries. Clusters of species may also indicate areas rich in biodiversity.

Floral (plant) and faunal (animal) restoration studies are often carried out based on knowledge of what specimens were collected from an area in the past.

The Connection to Libraries

Museum researchers consult the scientific literature as they study specimens. In many cases, detailed photographs or scientific illustrations are carefully compared against the specimen in hand. Similarities and differences are noted. Eventually, scientists share their knowledge by presenting research findings at conferences and submitting papers to journals for publication. Libraries around the world acquire these publications as part of their collections so that anyone who visits the library can have access to the research. Thus, the library becomes a permanent storehouse of published information relating to the organisms in museum collections.

Connecting Scientific Literature to Museum Specimens

Museum specimen records contain the following types of information: catalog number, scientific name, collector, date collected, country, state, county, named place, river basin (for fish) and sometimes physical attributes of the specimen or habitat. Libraries also contain information about the organisms that museums collect, but it is the published account of the specimen.

The connecting link between the specimen and the literature about the specimen is its name. Because researchers use the scientific name and non-researchers use common names, it can be difficult to find all the information available. The scientist talks about Atractosteus spatula you and I talk about the Alligator gar. Same fish, different name. The Name Matrix helps us find common names for Florida mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, and mollusks. A portion of the table is listed below.

Name Matrix

click here

Corals, Crustaceans, Fishes and Mollusks

click here

Arachnids, Insects and Plants

click here

Amphibians and Fossil amphibians, Reptiles and fossil reptiles, Birds and Fossil birds, Mammals and Fossil mammals

We can find the literature related to species of interest by searching the Florida Environments Online (FEOL) Database.

Use the Linking Florida's Natural Heritage website to finish your worksheet activities (Questions #5 and #6).


Read about "Cabinets of Curiosities" at Cabinets & Pods. [The first section gives the history of cabinets]

"Cabinets de Curiosities" (in French) compiled by Dr. Gilles Thibault, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.>

Click here for Glossary