Access to Museum Collections – online
Professor Dimbledare of Warthogs University is a geneticist working on the evolution of parasites in insects. This is important because bee populations are currently declining partly due to being attacked by increasing numbers of parasites; this threatens human food production, as bees are the most important pollinators of many fruits and vegetables. Professor Dimbledare wants to find out whether there is historic evidence for temporary increases in parasite attacks on bees. He wants to look at museum collections worldwide and extract DNA from specimens. Where does he start looking for suitable collections?
Can you help me find...
This is a hypothetical scenario, but a typical example of the sort of enquiries frequently received by museum curators. Museums are being approached either through the mailing lists of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (which has a worldwide reach), the Natural Sciences Collections Association (UK), or – and this is really hard work – individually, one by one. When (15 long years ago) I undertook the research for my PhD I wrote to more than 20 individual botanic gardens around the world to ask if they had any clippings of a wonderful little fern-like plant called whisk fern (Psilotum nudum).
Museums are vast repositories of nature, and there are thousands of them. They document life on Earth (past and present) by housing specimens and associated data. Not all museums contain everything, but combined they represent a brilliant account of the natural history of a country and even our planet (see the Distributed National Collection article below).
Museum specimens are being sought for research projects, exhibitions in other museums, and by school teachers and university lecturers for education inside and out of the classroom. Museums are usually very happy to let people look at, study, and even borrow specimens. But finding an example of an animal, plant, fossil or mineral in a museum collection can be extremely difficult. The chances are you have some specimens in a museum near you – how do you find out where?
Internet data bases
Both the scope and quality of databases vary. Some only list basic collections information and contact details of staff (e.g. Index Herbariorum and Registry of Biological Repositories). Others contain information about individual specimens, both living and fossil (e.g. GBIF, Geological Collections of Estonia); these types of data bases are created specifically for researchers. Others again try to capture the culture, history and natural history of an individual country (People’s Collection Wales), aimed for use by the general public. The number of records in these data bases is huge, reaching into the billions.
There is, however, a discussion amongst scientists how much information we want to make available publicly. Sometimes it is not a good idea, for example, to publish information of where to find species that are endangered. Museums do have a responsibility to care for not only their collections, but also the conservation of living species. It would not be a good idea to alert everyone and their dog to the occurrence of species listed as threatened or endangered by CITES;because nobody would want to drive them closer to extinction through overcollecting.
So, where does this leave Professor Dimbledare? Increasingly there are attempts to include global information in data bases, so he should find it easier in the future to locate the specimens for his research. Some data bases are merging, e.g. Index Herbariorum and Registry of Biological Repositories. And in Wales, the People’s Collection is currently being redeveloped to make it more user-friendly; in the near future it will be easier to upload and search for information on museum collections, including natural science collections. With increasing digitisation it gets easier all the time to locate museum specimens.