Global museums initiative builds groundbreaking database key to addressing 21st-century challenges

Effort connects more than a billion objects in scientific collections across 73 museums in 28 countries

Study: A global approach for natural history museum collections

Global Collections dashboard
Participating institutions and authors

Over the past 300 years, people have collected objects and specimens to place in natural history museums throughout the world-but they aren’t simply static collections of specimens for people to view.

Researchers have recognized the value in these collections to help scientists and decision-makers to find solutions to urgent, wide-ranging issues such as climate change, food insecurity, human health, pandemic preparedness and wildlife conservation.

Now, in the first step of an ambitious effort to inventory global holdings, a group of natural history museums has mapped the total collections from 73 of the world’s largest natural history museums in 28 countries, including the collections from four University of Michigan museums.

To better understand this immense, underutilized resource, lead scientists from natural history museums worldwide created an innovative but simple framework to rapidly evaluate the size and composition of natural history museum collections globally.

"The University of Michigan Herbarium, the Museum of Zoology, the Museum of Paleontology and the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology together have something like 17 million specimens and artifacts. We have some of the finest natural history collections on the planet,” said Hernán López-Fernández, associate chair for collections at the Museum of Zoology and Herbarium, curator of fishes and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

"These natural history collections serve not just as a cabinet of curiosities for people to go look at, but actually they are fundamental for us to understand biodiversity and how it’s changing with all the things that we’re doing to the planet.”

Beyond the walls of their public galleries, the world’s natural history museums serve as the guardians of an unprecedented archive of the history of our planet and solar system, López-Fernández says. These natural history collections provide a unique window into the planet’s past, and they are increasingly being used to make actionable predictions relative to charting our future.

Museums have traditionally acted as independent organizations, but this new approach imagines a global collection composed of all the collections of all the world’s museums, he says.

The survey organizers created a methodology that could rapidly survey collection holdings across museums by creating a common vocabulary of 19 collection types spanning the entirety of biological, geological, paleontological and anthropological collections and 16 terrestrial and marine regions that cover the entirety of Earth.

The information provided in these natural history collections goes beyond the specimen itself: it’s all the biological information associated with that specimen, López-Fernández says.

"We can use the chemistry of the specimens to understand how nutrients flow through the ecosystem, and how that flow has changed over time. We can sequence the genomes of this organism to understand how their genetic composition might have changed,” he said. "Having that information allows us a point of comparison with the same type of information today. Maybe a species of fish we collected a hundred years ago is in a completely different environment today-maybe it is now a parking lot.”

The survey confirmed an aggregate collection of more than 1.1 billion objects, managed by more than 4,500 science staff and nearly 4,000 volunteers. While the collection is vast, the survey showed that there are conspicuous gaps across museum collections in areas including tropic and polar regions, marine systems, and undiscovered arthropod and microbial diversity. These gaps could provide a roadmap for future, coordinated collecting efforts.

"This study represents a remarkable survey of the world’s principal collections, which include the U-M research museums among their ranks. It points out where there are gaps in the global collection in terms of the kinds of objects represented and where they are from, as well as the geographical inequities in where those objects are housed,” said Matt Friedman, director of the Museum of Paleontology and associate professor of earth and environmental sciences.

"Visitors to the public exhibits at the Museum of Natural History will see many fossils of ancient plants and animals from the Museum of Paleontology’s collection. But these represent a tiny fraction of the roughly 4 million fossil specimens we maintain and study behind the scenes-that’s roughly a fossil for each and every person in the Detroit metro area.”

Friedman, along with research museum collection manager Adam Rountrey, worked to provide estimates of the holdings of the U-M Museum of Paleontology in terms of numbers of specimens, the kinds of fossils they represent and the regions of the world from which they were collected. The group’s report is a significant summary, but it is only the first step in surveying the global collection and tapping its enormous potential.

Natural history collections are uniquely positioned to inform responses to today’s interlocking crises, but due to lack of funding and coordination, the information embedded in museum collections is largely inaccessible, the researchers say. With strategic coordination, a global collection has the potential to guide decisions that will shape the future of humanity and biodiversity.

"The global collections study demonstrates that biological and cultural collections can and should be considered together. We know that as traditional cultural systems are lost, so too are biological systems, and vice versa,” said Michael Galaty, director of the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology and a professor of anthropology and classical studies.

"Museums provide archives of these losses, and can suggest ways to reverse them. I should emphasize that none of this work would be possible without the expertise of our excellent collections staff, who are stewards of these archives.”

By creating this framework and survey, project organizers aim to create a foundation for the global museum network to work together to support future global sustainability, biodiversity and climate frameworks using knowledge gained from museum collections. Knowledge of the existing global collection with all museums to be more strategic as they plan their collection efforts for the 21st century.

The study’s authors also recognize that the historic concentration of large museums in North America and Europe can be a barrier to knowledge-sharing and perpetuates power imbalances rooted in the colonial history of museum science. In the future, it is crucial that the global collection also reflect and support museums elsewhere in the world.

Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, co-led the effort along with Ian Owens, formerly at the Natural History Museum in London and now executive director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, in collaboration with more than 150 museum directors and scientists representing 73 natural history museums and herbaria.

Research Museums Center

The Research Museums Center houses approximately 17 million specimens across the collections of the museums of Anthropological Archaeology, the Herbarium, the Museum of Paleontology and the Museum of Zoology.

Museum of Anthropological Archaeology

The U-M Museum of Anthropological Archaeology was founded in 1922. Twelve curators and six staff members, including two collections managers, care for approximately 3 million archaeological and ethnographic artifacts from 150 countries and all 50 states.

University of Michigan Herbarium

The University of Michigan Herbarium, founded in 1921, includes more than 1.75 million specimens in five collections: algae, fungi, bryophytes, lichens and vascular plants. The herbarium includes two curators, two collections managers and one research technician.

Museum of Paleontology

The Museum of Paleontology, founded in 1926, houses approximately 4 million specimens from all continents except Antarctica. Four curators and seven staff, including collections managers, oversee its three collection divisions: vertebrates, invertebrates and paleobotany.

Museum of Zoology

The Museum of Zoology was founded in 1913. Seven curators and four collections managers oversee its approximately 14 million specimens in seven collections: insects, mollusks, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.