[Eds. Stansfield, G., Mathias, J. & Reid, G. (1994) London:HMSO pp.xviii+306 ISBN: 0-11-290531-7]

Chapter 6 - Using the Collections

Charles Pettitt, Manchester Museum,

The University, Manchester, M13 9PL

6.1 Introduction

It is axiomatic that curators need to be aware of the uses to which their collections can be put. This knowledge should underlie all aspects of curation as ultimately the true worth of our collections will be judged by their demonstrated use to society (Pettitt,1989). This value to society is enormous, but is poorly understood by the public and by politicians (Howie, 1986; Ingrouille, 1989; McAllister, 1991). Too often people say of large collections 'but what good are they if we can't see them?'; these people fail to understand the value large research collections have as objective data banks with an irreplaceable historical dimension. The gradual loss of interest in the world of nature by the scientific community and the public during the first part of this century has progressively downgraded the resources devoted to natural history in museums. We must ask ourselves why society considers spending several million pounds for a painting is a public benefit, while a few thousand pounds to maintain a natural history collection is seen as a drain on the public purse (Edwards, 1985).

Natural history collections have a major role to play in many aspects of life today; they can and do contribute significantly towards defeating disease, combating environmental pollution, understanding the 'greenhouse effect', and to other scientific studies vital to human society and to life on planet Earth (Pettitt,1991). In 1985 Oldfield estimated that by the end of the 20th century between a half and one million species would become extinct. For some groups and parts of the world museum collections will soon represent the only record of biodiversity.

The next two sections give an overview of the range of uses of natural history collections. Section 6.2 details various ways museum material is used in scientific research, while section 6.3 demonstrates some of the applications of the research, particularly taxonomy, in everyday life; this is, of course, an artificial division leading to some repetition. Hopefully, however, the information presented will serve as a stimulus to curators in increasing the use of the collections in their charge, and as a resource for curators pressed to justify the costs of keeping or extending those collections.

The final section (6.4) looks at developing collection use, and at the new sorts of collections we should be acquiring now for the benefit of future research. Lastly the importance of regarding individual collections as part of a larger, national or supra-national resource is discussed.

6.2 Scientific Research

Natural history collections are an irreplaceable database of information on species diversity and habitat changes. Hounsome (1984) points out that the basis of all science is that observations by one worker can be verified by others. With taxonomic, distributional and ecological observations verification is usually only possible of the relevant specimens have been deposited in an accessible and suitable museum collection. He indicated the difficulties in verification that arise for sensitive groups, such as birds, where it is illegal or unethical to collect 'voucher' material. Hounsome also makes the point that curators should be encouraged to spend some time researching the collections in their charge as this is without doubt the best way to achieve the thorough knowledge of the collections which is essential to the proper stewardship of the material. It has been argued that museum curators can demand the right to deal with research problems of their own choosing in return for their services as efficient curators and teachers (Parr, 1958). If taxonomic research is undertaken, however, then a substantial library investment is needed.

Current level of use

McAlpine (1986) examined 1350 papers in 12 natural history journals and found 12.7% used collections and no less than 44.4% made collections in the course of the work. For taxonomic or systematic studies authors either consulted collections, made collections, or did both in 90.4% of the papers. However, Cato (1988) analyzed the contents of ten similar journals for 1985-86, and found only 24 articles related to natural history collections (119 pages in 15510 = 0.8%). In six museum journals he found there were 34 articles (302 pages in 3166 = 9.5%) on natural history. Steve Garland (1990, in litt.) checked three major entomological journals for 1989 & 1990, and found that, ignoring small notes, of 251 papers 105 (42%) used collections in some way in arriving at their results.

Basis of Systematics

Natural history collections are the foundation upon which the science of systematics is built, and systematics is the alpha and the omega of biological science, from the first naming of newly discovered variation, to the incorporation of all knowledge into a system (Ingrouille,1989). 'When a group of [organisms] interests a student so much that he decides to do taxonomic work upon it, his first inclination is to collect, to amass examples of the available kinds, to preserve them in the accustomed way, and to use this collection in his studies. Next he will try to identify these species, to establish their identity with previously known species ...' (Blackwelder, 1967).

The following definitions may help to clarify what systematics covers:

What is indisputable is that type specimens are important as the once and future arbiters of what an author meant when proposing a new species. As such, type specimens should be given priority in all curatorial processes. Type specimens are useless to science if their location is unknown or if they are inaccessible, so they should be the first specimens in a collection to be documented, and every effort made to make them readily available for consultation.

The containers of type specimens should be clearly marked, with a coloured spot or label, for example. It is best to keep type specimens in a special series separate from the main collection. which also improves security, and makes evacuation of the types easier in an emergency; they are also likely to be the specimens most frequently requested on loan, so having them segregated reduces disturbance to the rest of the collection. Nowadays only primary types are recognized by taxonomists (see Nash and Ross, 1978), but as many curators are not trained in the science of taxonomy, any material that is even suspected of being of type status should be segregated and listed. This will enable a taxonomist later to review and decide the status of the specimens.

The importance of systematics. The Smith (1979) report stressed the importance of taxonomy, although the report was somewhat limited in scope (Hounsome, 1981). Unfortunately taxonomy is so fundamental it often escapes notice (Hawksworth, 1986) or is even disparaged (Clifford, et al, 1990). Not long ago a university vice-chancellor (a biologist himself) pronounced: 'Taxonomy has had its day; hard number biology is what is needed now.' It is dangerous to accept such dismissive statements about any branch of science. Taxonomy is not stale or worked out; time and again it has been revitalised: by new data from genetics and chemotaxonomy, new concepts of mathematical analysis such as numerical and multivariate analysis, and by cladistics and molecular biology, to mention only some recent developments (Ingrouille, 1989). Taxonomy is an essential supporting discipline for the science of ecology (Clark, 1976). Classical taxonomy based on collections is also alive and well. During the 1980s, for example, several new species of hoverfly have been described following the critical re-examination of museum collections (Stubbs, 1990). Many people and organisations have recently begun to defend the role of taxonomy and systematics (Milner, 1988; West et al, 1990; House of Lords, 1991). Knutson and Murphy (1988) give an extensive bibliography on the relevance of systematics.

Non-biologists and administrators often fail to appreciate the necessity for obtaining accurate identification of biological material, or the difficulties of so doing without access to good reference collections. The strange fact is that, even as the demand for assistance with identifications threatens to submerge those able to provide the service, research funders still regard taxonomic work with a jaundiced eye (Brinkhurst, 1985).

The independence, accumulated expertise, and resources in public museums are valuable. In North America a number of commercial biological laboratories have begun offering taxonomic services, but an independent test, submitting the same specimens for identification to several such laboratories, gave results that were inconsistent (Edwards,1985). Since it is likely these labs do not have comprehensive reference collections available, this result was perhaps predictable.

It is important to remember that keys can mislead: 'it is not A or B so it must be C' is usually how they are used; but this presupposes that all the possible species are in the key, while 'it' might actually be species D! It is important always to confirm identification against a reputable reference collection (Heppell, 1979). More than one PhD student has faced rewriting a thesis after belatedly using a museum reference collection to identify correctly the organism studied (J.Franks, 1990, pers. comm.).

Environmental Studies

Many studies in the fields of ecology, evolution, pollution and climatic changes require museum specimens. Provided selective collecting is allowed for, museum collections are logical places for life history studies. Using existing collections for such studies often enables large amounts of data to be accumulated in a short time on such things as fecundity/mortality patterns, host-parasite relationships, estimates of breeding seasons, diurnal/tidal micro-growth increments, food pests, life-cycle duration, larval growth pattern, migration (museum collections have been used to locate locust outbreak sites and to track traditional migration patterns), species that mimic other animals, and other polymorphisms, plant fecundity, flowering and fruiting dates, periods of dormancy, and correlations of plant growing sites with rainfall or altitude (Allen and Cannings, 1985). Brakefield (1987) used a collection assembled in 1905 to establish that small temperature changes during development can regulate the form of the adult butterfly Melanitis leda. Systematics collections provide a wealth of historical information on habitat composition, and on biogeography, that is invaluable to those predicting ecological shifts due to global climate change (ASC, 1989). Gates (1990) detects signs that in the UK plants and animals are already adapting to a new, warmer climate. Svensson (1978) used clutches of the chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs, to establish that the egg-laying period is now four days earlier than in 1900, correlating this with climatic change. Local ecological adaptations can also be studied using museum collections. Pettitt (1977), studying a snail endemic to a small North Atlantic island, showed that living organisms can be sensitive indicators of micro-climatic change. Herbarium specimens, accumulated over the past centuries (the earliest extant herbarium dates from 1523 (Ogilvie, 1985)) remain the most readily available source of information on structural variation and geographical distribution of plants. Seel (1984) used museum collections extensively to map the distribution of the cuckoo, Cuculus canorus. Voucher material can be important in genetic polymorphism studies (Pettitt, 1971). The tent markings on venerid bivalves and on olive and volute mollusc specimens have been used to develop hypotheses about the mechanism for switching the mantle edge pigment cells on and off (Cowe, 1971).

Nature Conservation The collection of research specimens may appear to conflict with the conservation ethic, but does not. Museum curators as a profession are deeply committed to conservation, and in many instances are the only experts on particular groups, and most are able to advise regulatory or conservation agencies on measures and actions required to preserve species and ecosystems. Often the information to define conservation programmes can only be obtained from collections (Ouellet, 1985). The use of existing collections can reduce 'collection pressure' on the environment (Abbott, 1990). Data from survey collections can be used to predict what is likely to be on other, similar, sites; one can feed in the physical data of the new site, see what 'ought' to be there and then it needs only a single visit to confirm. This technique applies particularly to marine sites, which makes this method is valuable because marine sites contain some of the most threatened ecosystems (David Erwin, 1990, pers. comm.).

Field biology increasingly reflects the growing demand for information and prediction in support of ecological management decisions (Brinkhurst, 1985), but such work needs the objective backing of voucher specimens. Mapping the distribution patterns of animals and plants, essential to protect the environment, and for the adequate assessment of planning applications, also needs natural history collections; maps of rare and critical species can be reliably prepared only from museum (voucher) specimens. Reliable maps of common species need voucher specimens - particularly for islands. Many erroneous records are found, made by distinguished visitors who record what they expect to see rather than what is there. Vouchers are especially important for introduced species or those from limited habitats, and for ecological surveys (Perring, 1977). Steve Garland (1990, pers. comm.) found that the Military Orchid was recorded in old flora's as occurring in Kent, but most modern flora's dismissed these records as misidentified Lady Orchids; however, there is a Kentish specimen of the Military Orchid in the Bolton Museum collection! Checking identifications and distribution data against museum collections is essential for groups that present difficulty in identification, such as the pea mussels Pisidium (Kuiper, et al, 1989). Lee et al (1982) gives a valuable overview of the need for, selection and preparation of, and costs of acquisition of voucher material.

Unfortunately some important recent publications on local authority nature conservation have failed to remark the importance of voucher specimens and reference collections, and have totally ignored the wealth of dedicated nature conservation expertise in local authority museums, and the biological recording initiatives currently active in those museums in practically every county (GMC, 1985; Tydesley, 1986). However, the recent Nature Conservancy Council report on nature conservation states: 'some provincial museums and universities ... collections also continue to be an important source of reference and data supporting survey and other research'. Two large, and expensive, surveys, one the San Francisco Bay Project (Lee, 1979), and one for an oil company (Derek Rushton, 1987, pers. comm.), failed to preserve voucher material in a permanent collection. Both surveys were carried out by recent graduates with little taxonomic experience, and their findings have since been successfully challenged; without the voucher material these surveys were largely a waste of money. But accessioning and maintaining voucher collections costs money, and, as is now generally the case in America, such costs should be built into survey funding (Lee, et al, 1982).

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) discourages the use of bird mounts in public displays. One museum which put on a display to celebrate the recent centenary of the RSPB readily agreed to use a model of an Avocet prepared by an RSPB recommended modeller, in place of a mount; a short time later the modeller 'phoned the museum to request the loan of a mounted Avocet to enable him to make an accurate model (Steve Garland, in litt.,1991). Often it is only by studying bird mounts and eggs from museum collections that artists are able to paint the colour plates in the plethora of bird identification guides used by bird lovers; such artists still account for a large number of loans from the major bird collections.

Biochemistry and the historical dimension

As technology develops, specimens can contain undiscovered or potential information, the need for which may not yet even have arisen. Natural history collections should be regarded as 'scientific data in waiting'. After nuclear devices were tested in the Pacific, there was much concern about radioactive contamination of the environment, especially of resident plants and animals. But how could anyone guess what were the levels in these organisms before the tests? Specimens in collections provided the answer (Cowan, 1969). The spread of radioactive strontium and caesium throughout the world can be monitored by analyzing bone tissue collected by museums since the first nuclear explosion (Challinor, 1983). Other researchers needed dated samples of earth for analysis of historical levels of heavy metals; the only source they could find was the earth adhering to herbarium specimens (Peter Davis, 1989, pers. comm.). The deleterious effect of pesticides such as DDT on the thickness of the shells of eggs of birds of prey was only shown because of the existence of well-documented egg collections (Klass, et al, 1979). With new techniques the DNA of long-dead specimens can be sequenced, such as that from the Quagga, from Mammoth remains, and from a 20 million-year old magnolia leaf. The Quagga results have led to an attempt to re-create this extinct zebra (the last specimen died in Amsterdam Zoo in 1883) by selective breeding from Plains Zebras (Anon, 1989). The chemistry of feathers has shown past levels of environmental mercury (Thompson, Furness & Walsh, 1991; Thompson, Hamer & Furness, 1991), and can also establish the probable origins of bird specimens. Current concern with tributyltin antifouling paint on boats required pre-1950 samples of the dogwhelk to study the long-term imposex effects (Bryan, et al, 1988). Research at Manchester Museum has shown that the shell of the common winkle can be used to establish an accurate measure of some critical levels of radioactivity in coastal waters. The work required dated and localised winkle shells from the past 50 years to establish historical levels; these shells were provided from museum collections in the region (Akbarian-Kalajahi, 1980). Very few objects have no data available to the informed eye (see section 6.4)(Wheatcroft, 1987). The importance of natural history collections has been recognized by the US Government: "Research collections, such as exist in museums, contain the only record readily available for study of life on earth before, during, and after events such as the industrialisation of society. The specimens found in museum collections provide the opportunity to refer back to a time and place in history. One cannot predict which specimens will ultimately be needed and when, but if preserved, they will be available when needed. Museums are the keepers of knowledge about the biota. They contain the biological inventories and the baseline ecological, historical and evolutionary information on which future studies must be based" [US Congress, House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology 1986 Chairman's Report, 99th Congress, 2nd session, Committee Print]

Evolution and behaviour.

The broad aspects of the study of evolution depend upon carefully assembled scientific collections for data, comparative analysis, and verification. The study of vertebrate phylogeny through comparative anatomy, for example, would be almost impossible without museum collections (Raikow, 1985). Classified museum specimens are essential for studying the relationship between different groups of animals, variation within a single species and between the sexes, variation with climate, latitude, and with isolation on islands, character displacement, niche-variation hypotheses, and predator-prey relationships. This last involves identifying dismembered and partly digested stomach contents, which cannot easily be done without reference collections with which to compare the remains (Fitzpatrick, 1985).

The study of museum specimens can suggest hypotheses which are later tested by field observation, for example, crest and facial markings of Stellar's Jays suggested an hypothesis about communication which was then tested and proved in the field. Alternatively field observations often need museum specimen follow up, for example, the elucidation of sonic communication in baleen whales required a study of the anatomy of their larynx using museum specimens (Miller, 1985). Other studies include Felidae skulls used to study brain evolution in carnivores; a host-parasite study using follicle-mites from pocket mouse specimens, and estimating litter-sizes from nipple number in small marsupials (Allen and Cannings, 1985). Mounted mammals have been used for identifying casts of footprints from game and nature reserves, and for establishing from photos that Himalayan 'Yeti' tracks were in fact made variously by the red bear, Ursus arctos isabellinus, or by the langur monkey, Prebytis entellus achilles (BMNH,1956).

Archaeology and Ethnology

Archaeologists need bone, shell and insect fragments from archaeological burials and excavations identified, to assist the correct interpretation of the site. Ethnologists also require bits and pieces of feather, fur, skin, bone, shells and botanical material such as gourds identified in human artifacts. These identifications would be impossible without extensive reference collections. In the study of the development of colonial cultures, older collections enable an understanding of the role of the undisturbed biota upon which the colonists depended and with which they contended (Cowan, 1969). Cultural changes and shifts of settlement sites in Predynastic Egypt have been linked to paleotemperatures established by studying the incremental growth structures on museum specimens of the Nile Perch, Lates niloticus (Brewer, 1991). At Liverpool Museum dried plant material from the 1st to 4th century AD has been used for fragrance research in the Egyptology department, using gas/liquid chromatography (Edmondson and Bienkowski,1991).

Historical studies

Collections can yield information of importance in historical studies. The collecting data attached to specimens collected during expeditions and campaigns have assisted in fixing other historical events in sequence. The history of anatomical preservation, and of taxidermy, can only be studied using museum specimens. The 'rather strange wombat' in the Hancock Museum on research turned out to be the first specimen to reach the UK in the 18th century (Wheatcroft, 1987). Biographers often require information about natural history material collected and deposited in museums by the subject of a biography (Norris, 1988; Derek Whiteley, 1990, in litt.). There is also a growing interest in the social history of natural history.

6.3 Service to society

This section gives examples of a number of ways in which the expertise of natural history curators is called upon in public life.

General enquiries

Well organised and adequately documented systematic collections are an essential reference tool if a museum curator is to be able to answer authoritatively the quarter of a million enquiries received each year from public bodies, companies, organisations and members of the public (Derek Whiteley, 1991, in litt.). A recent survey revealed that approximately 19% of enquiries were 'collection based'. This figure was remarkably constant across national, local authority, university and independent/society museums (Hayhow, 1989).


Museum exhibits, lectures and publications in natural history are popular, and fortunately they are also widely regarded as contributions to society valuable enough to justify the costs of museums. Unfortunately the delivery system (galleries and catalogues) attracts most of the support, while the creative source of the goods delivered (curatorial research) receives small encouragement. But without research only a partial and inaccurate interpretation of the specimens is possible (Edwards,1985). Nowadays most museums fulfil the education role with reasonable success; ecological displays help explain the diversity of the life forms that sustain us, show the major patterns of geographic dispersal, and demonstrate the interrelationships between organisms. Visitor surveys prove that these are the most popular displays in museums (Derek Whiteley, 1991, in litt.). British museums are the 'shopwindows' for nature conservation, but need more resources to enable them to respond quickly to new developments. The popularity of the innovative Natural History Centre at Liverpool Museum depends in part on the way it brings actual collections to the attention of the public (Greenwood, 1991). Natural history specimens are used for school loan services, and provide a range of specimens for identification in biology examinations at all levels. Natural history material has proved useful in demonstrating material science in the UK national curriculum (see Chap. 10). A numeracy centre used shells borrowed from a museum to illustrate to disadvantaged adults how the mathematics of spirals occur in nature (Heppell,1989, pers comm.).


A large reference collection is needed to assist the rapid identification of accidentally ingested toxic plant material, to enable the medical team involved to apply the appropriate, sometimes life-saving, treatment. Accurate identification of a poisonous animal is vital after a bite, as poisons (and therefore their antidotes) are usually specific to a given species (BMNH,1956). A dental professor, studying cleft palate in humans, made considerable use of crocodile skulls. The study of the cochlea areas of mammal skulls helped decide suitable species in a medical research programme (Genoways et al, 1976). A hospital found 'abnormal larvae' of the parasitic worm Ascaris lumbricoides in some pathological tissue; museum identification proved these to be the normal young from a harmless roundworm, which was then traced to the tank supplying the water to wash the specimens (BMNH, 1956). Near-Eastern hamster specimens were used in a medical study on toxoplasmosis. In America mammal collections have yielded information on Chaga's disease and haemorrhagic fever (Genoways et al, 1976). The control of other diseases such as bilharzia, bubonic plague, malaria and river blindness, all depend for cost effective treatment on very precise identification of the animals transmitting the disease, using reference collections. For example, the ticks Ixodes reduvius and I. hexagonus are superficially similar, but the former carries bovine piroplasmosis (red-water fever), the latter is harmless. With the easily confused mite species Trombicula akamushi and T. autumnalis, the former transmits 'rural typhus' or 'japanese river disease', the latter does not. The incorrect identification of the very similar looking freshwater snails of the genus Bulinus, only some of which carry bilharzia, can lead to futile and costly attempts at eradication (BMNH,1956). Museum identification is often needed to determine if the fungus causing skin lesions is ringworm, rather than psoriasis, impetigo or secondary syphilis. If ringworm it is then also important to distinguish between the various species of Microsporum that cause ringworm; some, from animal sources (M. canis, M. gypseum) are easily cured or may even disappear spontaneously, but other species, such as M. audouini, need X-ray therapy. Psychiatrists regularly use specimens of birds, bees, butterflies, small mammals and so on from museums for the treatment of phobias; by controlled gradual increased exposure to the specimens, patients learn to control their irrational fear of the living animals (Logsdail, 1987; David Erwin, 1990, pers. comm.; Calder, 1991). Human skulls in museums have been used for studying the history of 'trepanning' (Martin, 1989). Museum animal skulls have been used extensively in a standard work on variation and diseases in animal teeth (Colyer, 1936), currently under revision.

Half the worlds medicinal products are not synthesised but obtained directly from plants. Only a small fraction of plants have been screened for pharmaceutically useful compounds, and even fewer invertebrates, even though several species have yielded potent anti-cancer drugs (Oldfield,1965). With the accelerating extinction of species, material in museums will increase in importance for this work.

Local Authorities

Health. Another success story for natural history collections: environmental health officers with their mangled, cooked or partially digested animal remains - a snail in a can of peas, a slug in raspberry jam (author's experience), fish teeth in bread (BMNH,1956), or the cat bones in a tandoori curry (Mike Hounsome, 1990, pers. comm.) - all need careful identification plus expert opinion upon where the 'foreign body' entered the process, often with legal proceedings pending; usually such identifications can only be done using reference collections. These officers also rely heavily on their local museums for help identifying infestations. To enable the health risk to be assessed, curators have been asked to identify from traces the probable inhabitants of dens in urban areas; this could become more important in the UK should rabies ever become established.

Planning. Environmental impact statements made in response to local planning applications need the backing of voucher collections else they are likely to prove worthless at a public enquiry (John Matthias, 1991, pers. comm.). The defence of SSSI's and other sites of biological interest depends upon ecological information verified by voucher material (see Chap. 7). In the US national legislation now requires the evaluation of environmental consequences whenever major governmental projects are undertaken. This has resulted in heavy demands being placed on natural history museums for access to records and specimens that document environmental processes (Malaro,1991). Growing public concern could well result soon in similar european national and EEC legislation, increasing still more the importance of well documented local collections.

Weights and measures. Museums have identified canadian salmon being sold as european salmon, and mock halibut sold as halibut, to assist inspectors in prosecutions.

Law Enforcement

Police 'Aiding the police in their enquiries', museum reference collections can tell the age and race of an unearthed human skull, accurately identify hairs as evidence in prosecutions over badger hunting (Bowler, 1991), and identify biological materials for 'scene of crime' forensics, all of which can only be done with the authority of a reference collection. Examples include the museum identification of feather fragments helping to convict a wife-murderer who also killed her pet chicken (Alan Knox, 1990, pers. comm.) and museum identification of grass fragments from body orifices enabling the disputed scene of a rape to be determined (Shaun Edwards, 1991, pers. comm.). The museum identification of skulls of rare breed sheep was needed in a case of theft from a zoo. The bones of the fish Chirocentrotus doras in material submitted for museum identification indicated that a theft under investigation took place in the Indian Ocean region. When concrete was substituted for air-freighted gold bullion, the airport at which the exchange took place was pin-pointed by the museum identification of locally-characteristic shell fragments in the concrete (BMNH,1956).

Import controls Collections also help customs officers detect illegal animal and plant imports: horn or ivory objects, or pelts and leathers - often as made up goods. It was estimated recently that there were only 15,000 rhino's left in the world (Martin,1985), which underlines the importance of stopping the illegal import of rhino horn. But identifying rhino horn, especially if powdered, and other suspect objects with the authority needed for legal proof is often not simple. Sometimes only a tuft of feather or hair, or a small piece of skin is available, and without considerable expertise backed by extensive reference collections the task of positive identification would be impossible. The public is usually quite unaware of this activity. Without it, the legislators could legislate about the control of export or import of animals and plants until they were blue in the face - but to little effect. Again, effective application of quarantine regulations sometimes requires museum identification of organisms, for example the human flea (Pulex irritans) is relatively harmless, but the very similar plague flea (Xenopsylla cheapis) can carry a lethal plague (BMNH,1956). Several similar-looking species of Giant African landsnails (Achatina) are imported for food now, but one species, A. fulica, is a pest and forbidden; museum malacologists occasionally have to check suspect animals.


Advertising agencies and television companies borrow material for use in the background of 'shots',and, as mentioned above, many of the highly popular colour-plate nature books are almost entirely illustrated using museum specimens. Stores have required bone and ivory chessmen to be authenticated by curators (Genoways et al, 1976). Natural history specimens have inspired architects. Perhaps the best known example is the Crystal Palace in London, whose architect Paxton used the Giant Waterlily, Victoria amazonica, as inspiration and guide (Bird, 1976). Another unusual commercial use of the biological collection was illustrated by the college of textiles students who used patterns occurring on shells as inspiration for designing a cloth, which won a prize (D.Heppell, 1989, pers. comm.). Then there were the industrial design students who used armadillo skeletons as the inspiration for 'comfort chairs', and the top yacht designer who spent much time studying tunnyfish specimens as an aid to designing faster yachts (J.Peake, 1989, pers. comm.). The next generation of airliners will have less drag because the designers studied preserved shark skin, and have copied the surface structure that makes the shark such an efficient swimmer (Gavaghan,1987). A lecturer in a university engineering department routinely instructs students who need to solve a novel engineering problem to go and find an animal which has already solved it; the museum collection often provides the answer (David Erwin, 1990, pers. comm.). Such use of collections is not new, J.G. Wood wrote a book about it in 1877, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel is said to have gained inspiration for designing the tunnelling shield from examining museum specimens of the shipworm Teredo. Following planes hitting birds, airlines have required feather fragments from aeroengines identified by museums to determine the species responsible (A.Knox, 1990, pers. comm.). Herbarium specimens are used in researching new fragrances (John Edmondson, 1991, pers. comm.).

Agriculture and Fisheries

Insect pests, and suspicious weeds and seeds, all need the collection for reliable identification. Museums have been asked by farmers to identify chicken coop raiders from hair tufts (Genoways et al, 1976). Crop pests can be studied in part by examining pest-damaged material in herbaria (galls, etc); potential control organisms for weeds can be identified by studying 'habitat' details of insects as recorded on museum labels. The prickly pear invasion in Australia was successfully controlled following a study of this kind (Williams, 1987, App.II). Phytogeographic information from herbaria can give a good indication of the climatic potential of an area for agriculture and sylviculture. Such information can also help to determine the environmental range of introduced weeds, and allow predictions of how the plant will spread. The harmless grasshopper, Gastromargus nigericus, is only distinguishable from the migratory locust, Locusta migratoria, by critical examination and reference material. It lives in the same habitats, eats the same food, but is non-gregarious and non-swarming, so it does not need the same degree of control as Locusta. Otolith collections give information on the historical age distribution of populations of fish, as can the 'earplugs' of whales, and the results can demonstrate whether the stocks are declining. A pre-1920s collection of fish tumours, rescued by Liverpool Museum, have been re-assessed in a recent study funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, which has thrown new light upon the effect of modern pollution (Heron, 1989). Museum identification of planktonic plants has been very important in managing food fish stocks in the Great Lakes of East Africa (BMNH,1956). 'Pure research' on the African cichlid fish Tilapsia (sensu lato) and Haplochromis (sensu lato) have greatly benefitted African fisheries officers in developing these genera as a food source (Peake, 1986). Genes from wild relatives of domesticated animals and crop plants are constantly used for improving the strains, and museum material will become an important source for genetic recombinant research (Oldfield, 1985).


A student photographer recently based her dissertation imaginative photos of various scorpion and centipede specimens in Manchester Museum, and the extensive shell displays are in almost daily use for inspiration by students from Colleges of Art and Graphic Design; a number of loans are made to these organisations every year. Similar usage has been reported to me by fellow curators in other museums. A Swiss researcher required shell material for a study of the history of art (Gordon Reid, 1991, pers. comm.).

6.4 Developing Collection Use

The ICOM Code of Ethics for natural history states that 'the collections should be at the heart of the natural history museum, and each museum's obligation to its collection is of paramount importance'. It is vitally important that natural history collections should be used, and be seen to be used by managers and funding bodies. Even other museum staff may be unaware of the depth of expertise provided from the knowledge base of the collections, because like managers and committees they see only part of the service spectrum (McAllister, 1991). Science knows no boundaries; collections are not national possessions but assets of the entire scientific world. The UK holds a significant percentage of the type specimens from other countries, particularly the ex-colonies. In addition those countries rely on us for access to material collected during times past, and we as a nation owe a duty to those countries to treat their material professionally. To discharge this duty we must curate the collections adequately, publicise them and allow efficient access to them; access includes loaning material. Curators must demonstrate that natural history collections are a major strength to the institution, and a valuable resource to society. So, what can be done to bring all this about?

Building up the collection

Natural history collections should not be static; newly available material should be actively sought, even if the existing collections need further curation. Provided the existing material is adequately conserved then it can be curated later, but if the new material fails to reach a museum then it is probably lost to science forever. Unfortunately, Smith (1986), investigating the fate of research generated collections, found a clearly held belief that to pass a collection to a museum makes it more difficult for the worker to refer to the specimens later. This survey shows how important it is that we should be making our collections more accessible, thereby encouraging people to donate material. Significant collections are still being assembled by private collectors; curators should be encouraging such collectors to make appropriate future provision for their collections.

Field collecting should not be neglected; here the case should be made that field trips are the equivalent of purchasing art objects, and should be funded on the same basis. The funding should meet the full cost of acquiring the material, including the costs of accessioning (Lee et al, 1982). Even when detailed collecting permits are not required, a detailed written collecting programme should be prepared before every field trip, setting out the number of specimens needed, of which species and, where appropriate, listed by age, sex, locality etc. Adhering to such a programme will not only improve the 'field credibility' of curators, but also ensure that future collections should be better balanced and documented.

Improving access to the collections

Williams (1987) found that up to one and a half million biological specimens (including 16 large collection), presently scattered through the 'less active' museums, are unused by the scientific community. Nationally on average each zoology collection has 25 researcher visits per year, and botanical collections have ten visits. But only 8% of museums receive more than ten research visits a year, so most of these visits are concentrated on material in only a relatively small number of museums (Hayhow, 1989). This means that, as Williams (1987) indicated, a large number of specimens are being missed at present, so there is considerable scope for improving access.

Written access policy. Natural history material is fragile, and every handling exposes it to the risk of damage. Therefore access should not be unrestricted, nor should it be arbitrary; a written access policy should be drawn up, indicating who may be given access to the collection, and for what purposes. This access policy may vary for different collections, and even between different parts of the same collection.

The knowledge base. Access means not only physical access to the specimens, but also intellectual access for information about them. Therefore a very high priority must be given to documentation of specimen information (see chapter 4). Unless you know what is in your collections, you will not be able to assist enquirers; this information base is the key to increasing collection use. Ideally the specimen information should be computerised and printouts provided in advance to intending visitors, enabling them to choose what material they wish to see, It should be possible during a visit to interrogate the database close to the collection, as this could considerably reduce the unnecessary handling of specimens.

Publicity. Write up your collections in the professional press, including discipline oriented journals and newsletters. Try to cover a wide audience by writing for european, UK, US and fully international organs. Investigate the possibility of combining with other museums in the area to produce joint publicity (see Combining resources below).

Charging policy Although charging for entry to the museum is a management decision, curators may be able to influence charging for the use of collections. There would seem to be no point in charging other UK publicly funded museums. Such a policy merely makes jobs for administrators passing the money between museums, but brings no more money into the museum system to support the collections; indeed, the net result would probably be to starve collections of urgently needed money. However, it may be defensible, particularly for smaller museums, to re-charge overseas borrowers the costs incurred in providing a loan. When material is borrowed by organisations for use in profit making activities, the commercial rates should be charged. Try to make sure any money raised is used for improving the collections.

Combining resources. The curators of sizeable collections within a given discipline could consider joint publicity of their holdings. For example, Liverpool and Manchester Museums are collaborating on a leaflet detailing the extent of the invertebrate collections, and explaining how it is feasible for a London based overseas visitor, for example, to visit one or even both in a single day. If the collection data is computerised, and if a printout is requested, and returned with the specimens of interest marked the material requested can be got out prior to the visitor arriving. If arrangements could be made, given sufficient notice, for specimens of interest from several scattered museums in an area to be concentrated temporarily at the most central institution, overseas researchers especially could gain access to far more material than at present, and without having to risk the overseas mail for loans. This would be good for science and good for the smaller museums, who will be able to demonstrate higher usage levels for their collections with minimum cost and risk to the specimens.

Research visits. Williams (1987) found only 12% of museums had 'adequate' facilities for visiting workers. West (1989) has detailed some of the problems and difficulties met with by a researcher attempting to use museum collections; although his examples are ethnographic much applies equally to natural history collections. It is helpful to a visitor to have some basic background information on the museum, such as a brief history of the museum, how and when the collection was founded, the main acquisition periods, what type of documentation system is available, how close is it to the collection, and the names of past curators and their special interests (helps indicate the authority of the documentation), More precise information is needed on particular points, for example will the material be waiting, with documentation, or is the visitor expected to retrieve specimens from the store themselves? What actual time is available for research, i.e. overall access times to the collection, can they work through coffee/lunch/tea breaks; will they be constantly supervised and would the supervisor be able to answer questions about the material and its location? What facilities are available. such as working area, washing facilities etc.. and what equipment such as microscopes, lenses, dishes, and forceps etc; a list of available books related to the subject of the collection, or an indication of the extent of the library is useful. Local rules on handling the material should be spelt out, eg: original labels not to be marked or altered, no smoking or drinking in the store or work area. If a printout has been provided, it can be annotated by the visitor with any updating information which can be edited into the database later, and also serves as a security check on the material at the end of the visit.

Defending the collection

Monitoring use Every and all uses of a collection should be recorded, however trivial seeming. Some large mammal mounts were successfully defended on the grounds that they were sometimes borrowed for World Wildlife promotions (Norris, 1988). Waterbird mounts were borrowed by a parks department for display in a pond during a royal visit; this did little for the conservation of the specimens, but will provide ammunition for the future defence of the collection (Kathryn Berry, 1989, in litt.). Don't forget to record loan and visitor information; remember, if you don't write it down it didn't happen! Facts and figures are what impress directors, local councillors and the like; such numerical information provides irrefutable evidence of the 'value' of a collection. Derek Whiteley (1991, in litt.) provided a model example of good practice in recording the use of Sheffield Museum collections. During 1988/89, excluding 'staff references, display, special events and data-only enquiries', he records 15 scientific taxonomic enquiries, 13 ecological research, 7 education, 5 archaeology, 3 commercial, 3 art, 1 police and 1 biography enquiry, together with one taxidermy demonstration. Noteworthy were the use of the deep-frozen bird collection for research into sperm storage by female passerines, and of hair samples from moles and rodent skins for research on the growth of specific fungi in mammal nests.

For loans particularly, try hard to establish the use to which the material is being put; do not be afraid to quiz borrowers about this. If your material is mentioned in any publication, from schools handout through newspapers to learned journals, make sure the museum gets at least the reference, and ideally a copy, to file.

Prepare your defence It is useful to have ready a brief talk on the background and importance of your collection, together with a few suitable aids such as colourful charts showing breakdown of collection by group, size of major collection(s) relative to others in the region/country, photos/busts of major donors and any important (in this context this means rare or valuable) specimens. The information in sections 6.2 and 6.3 should give you plenty of general ammunition on the value of collections, but try to include at least a couple of local anecdotes; most museum managers are fairly parochial in outlook. Have all this material ready for instant deployment when any influential person drops in. A succinct handout for them to take away, such as the BCG 'Sunflower' leaflet, helps to drive the message home.

Involve the community Begin or increase efforts to get local nature groups to regard the museum as central to their aims; encourage them to deposit voucher specimens from surveys. Local museums often have local collections - aim to develop them as a 'local information resource'. Scan the local press, and send a rapid reply to any letters/articles relating to natural history collections or the environment (see also Chap. 2).. It may be advisable to obtain a blanket permission from management in advance; stress the benefits to the museum of having a higher profile on the side of the 'angels' in these matters of public concern. Such publicity could also lead to important fresh acquisitions or new voluntary workers.

Find out the names of the editors and science correspondents of the local papers and radio station. Keep their phone and fax numbers readily to hand. Be pro-active too, send press releases on matters of natural history involvement with the community (remember, if you can include a photo you have a better chance of getting your release published). Remember journalists are usually not natural historians; recently a sympathetic article in The Independent (Ward, 1988) described specimens as 'exhibits' throughout. Therefore always stress the phrases 'research collections' and 'scientifically valuable material', and never use the phrase 'reserve collections'.

Responding to change: new forms of collection

Historically the assembling of natural history collections has been dominated by 'typological bias', which meant that large series of a species were considered superfluous. The theoretical and technological base of biology has expanded dramatically in the last fifty years, but with few exceptions museum collections and more particularly acquisitions policies have remained rooted in the eighteenth century. Horie (1990) found the majority of natural history material in UK museums was collected before 1900; since then the total acquisitions per year have steadily fallen. As the twenty first century approaches we must begin to consider how we can, as a profession, expand the range of our natural history collections to try and meet the increased demands likely to be made on them in future. As Ouellet (1985) says 'An avian systematist has only to dream for a moment of the wealth of material that could be available for current studies if it had been possible to preserve avian tissue, or skeletons, for only 50% of the bird specimens collected since 1900!'.

Immature material. In the 'typological' collection, juveniles or embryos were irrelevant as they did not show adult taxonomic characters (Alberch, 1985). Immature specimens can be difficult to identify and are often awkward to store. But curators should be actively seeking such material, which is important for looking at heterochrony and ontogeny (Gould, 1982). Alberch (1985) details 35 studies of heterochrony, 16 papers of allometric studies and eight papers on functional allometry, published over a decade, that used immature material in museums, as well as giving numerous other references to the use of immature material. Such material can also give insights on gene activity in development, as Goldschmidt (1940) found when observing the parallel variation in wing markings between species of butterflies. Again, McDiarmid (1989) points out that little is known of tadpole diversity in tropical areas, and well documented and preserved collections of immature amphibians are extremely valuable. Growth series of molluscs are very helpful when identifying material.

Long series Even though most museums only hold fairly small lots of any given species, statistical analysis is still possible by assembling lots from various collections. Pettitt (1977) measured samples from several museums around the world of a snail endemic to a small North Atlantic island collected over a long span of time, and was able to prove statistically that from around 1900 the mean spire height decreased to a new, stable value, the change being accompanied by a temporary increase in variance of shell shape and linked to an alteration in microclimate. However, to make future statistical analysis simpler, larger samples of common species should be added to the collection whenever possible.

Raikow (1985) also makes the case that it is particularly important for museums to collect longer series of specimens; he was discussing vertebrates, but the arguments apply as well to invertebrates and plants. Curators should be alert to unexpected opportunities to acquire long series of organisms. The Christos Bitas oilspill in 1978 allowed the National Museum of Wales to accession 2000 seabirds, and research is revealing the age, sex, and origins of these populations, allowing the effect of the disaster on bird populations elsewhere to be assessed (Williams, 1987). This series will remain a powerful research resource for the future (Williams, 1987, App. V).

Molecular biology. In the last twenty years, molecular techniques have increasingly been used as tools by museum researchers in systematics. Barraclough (1985) reviews a number of techniques, and assesses the collecting methods that need to be adopted for them. He suggests that some general collecting to gather 'molecular samples' for future use is warranted, and that eventually the exchange of tissue and other samples for biochemical work will be as routine as the current loaning of standard museum specimens. Powell and Williams (1991) have examined the quality of DNA removed from mammalian tissue preserved by different museum procedures (see also Chap. 3). In theory there should be no limit on how old tissue can be for analysis (Connor, 1987). Diamond (1990) states that DNA in museum specimens does not alter with time, and that DNA can be extracted not only from dried leaves and dried skin, but also from hair, feathers and eggshells. The modern technique of polymerised chain reaction (PCR) means that a single strand of DNA extracted from a sample can yield up to a million strands within a couple of hours. DNA has also been obtained from reptile scales (A. Knox, 1990, pers. comm.). Thus 'old' specimens constitute a vast, irreplaceable source of material for directly determining historical changes in gene frequencies which are among the most important data in evolutionary biology (Diamond, 1990). Statistically significant series of specimens will be needed for such studies, emphasising the points made under long series. The DNA from the 20 million year old magnolia leaf recovered from a lake bed was very close to that of the modern Magnolia, indicating the longevity of the DNA molecule. However, formalin destroys DNA, although 70% alcohol does not. Mitochondrial DNA needs a fast freeze to at least -70C, blood samples need anti-coagulant, tissue samples can go in 70% alcohol. Material for chromosome studies or for gel electrophoresis of proteins also needs to be frozen at -70C. Already some gene banks are being assembled, for birds (Alan Knox, 1990, pers. comm.) and for some human populations (Vines, 1985).

Dirty specimens are more interesting. Do not clean skins and mounts, unless it is essential for display purposes, as you may wash away potential information such as environmental surface contaminants; leave dried blood on beaks and claws, and muck on eggs (perhaps with clutches half cleaned and half left in original condition). Mechanical cleaning can also destroy important taxonomic information such as feather barbs, and remove ectoparasite specimens from mammals and birds. Some species of feather lice are host-specific to the level of bird species, and can be used to examine the relationships of the birds (Zonfrillo, 1991). Do not use any chemicals on specimens if possible; use freezing for sterilization. Maintain full treatment records for all specimens conserved; such records are going to become increasingly important in the future.

Other specialist collections. These can include cultures of organisms, ecological assemblages (for later analysis when the need arises), lyophilised material, pollution/contamination samples, special preparations (for SEM etc.), and the stored gels or photographs from electrophoretic and other analytical methods. Because of the resource implications it would not seem sensible for every museum to attempt to encompass all of these new-style collections. Perhaps there should be regional, national and supra-national agreements on which museums hold which type of material, along the lines of the long-running library agreement where each participant concentrates on building a comprehensive collection in one subject area, and acts as a resource centre in that subject for the other libraries. There may be scope for european co-operation in this.

The 'consumable' collection There is no such thing as 'rubbish' in a natural history collections, only different grades of specimens requiring differing curatorial attention and with varying uses (Wheatcroft, 1987). Dangerous notions are found in the 'corridors of power': 'Central Government ... should ... allow the appropriate disposal of duplicate and other unwanted material [in local authority museums]' (Audit Commission, 1991). It cannot be emphasised too strongly that every natural history specimen is unique; there is no such thing as a duplicate natural history specimen. It is never safe to assume a specimen has no data; data can turn up in an unexpected way over a century after the acquisition of the specimen (Norris, 1988). All specimens have some data, if only in the mind of the curator: E.g. "This landsnail was in that collection of British shells when I took post in 1968"; such a specimen would be ideal for anyone wanting pre-1970 pulmonate shells for tests. A headless, legless bird 'mount' can still yield feathers for electron microscopy or biochemical analysis, and the investigation may only require identification to family or genus (Willard and Scott, 1990). Gordon Reid (1991, pers. comm.) had been about to incinerate a collection of 'greasy old bird specimens' when he received a request for samples from the legs of the birds for a study in environmental fluorides (Seel, et al, 1987; Seel, 1991). He now 'keeps everything'! A collection of fish tumours was rescued from its previous owners, where it lay neglected in a cleaners cupboard, by a FENSCORE member; later the collection proved scientifically valuable (see Fisheries above) (Ian Wallace, 1991, pers. comm.) These stories emphasises the importance of the MGC Standards (Paine,1991) on disposal, which suggest that even if they are unlabelled, unidentified or damaged, all specimens have potential use and should be retained, albeit un- or de-accessioned and at a lower level of care, but retaining any information that is available. Original containers should always be retained with such material; the shape and nature of these, or even the colour and quality of cotton wool used can sometimes enable the origin of the material to be traced at a later date. Specimens in the consumable collection can be stored in a compacted way (provided this does not jeopardise any inherent information) and given a low priority for conservation resources. This collection can provide material for destructive analysis and/or be used to develop techniques for use later on more valuable specimens (Diamond, 1990; Willard and Scott, 1990). Always remember, if the Venus de Milo had been a natural history specimen it would probably have been thrown away in the past; our damaged specimens are just as unique and irreplaceable and could well turn out to be even more valuable to mankind!

Collections research,, collections as a national resource

The natural history collections in British institutions represent a great national resource - a resource the vast extent of which is only now becoming apparent through the work of the Federation for Natural Sciences Collections Research [FENSCORE] (Pettitt, 1986). Some two-thirds of all natural history collections in Britain are housed outside London (Hancock and Morgan, 1980; House of Lords, 1991,p.138). It is only when scattered collections are considered as a unified whole that they 'become encyclopaedic with respect to organisms and geographical coverage (Williams, 1987, App.IV). Already the work of FENSCORE has lead to several 'orphan collections' (Wheatcroft, 1987) being transferred to museums with natural history curators. There is considerable scope for regional or local agreements, along the line of the Morton agreement between the BMNH and Kew to rationalise their collections (Cannon, 1986). In most museums certain groups are well represented, but other collections are small and fragmentary, and on their own offer little potential for research. Curatorial agreements, ratified by management, should be sought for each participating museum to receive the fragmentary material of one or more groups in return for a contract to provide material for display, etc., to the other participants as and when required. Such rationalisation improves the care collections can receive, allows curators to concentrate their special knowledge, and increases the material readily available for research.


I am grateful to David Heppell and Dr Michael Hounsome for their help, particularly with the section on systematics. I thank also my curatorial colleagues, in the UK and abroad, for all the useful information they have contributed.


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