Charles Pettitt, Manchester Museum

[publ. 1991 in &Mus. Journal 91 (8): 25-28]

The Under-valuation of Natural History Collections

'Why do we need all these bloody mice?' is a question once asked by the leader of a large local authority on a visit to the research collections of a major museum. In many ways this sums up the attitude of most politicians. The attitude of the public, on the other hand, is encapsulated in the words of a car sticker, 'Preserve wild life - Pickle a squirrel', which surely indicates that the public mistakenly view natural history museums as places haunted by necrophiliacs interested only in dead material. Even some naturalists nowadays fail to recognise the relevance of museum natural history collections.

The use to society of natural history collections is enormous, but too often their value is poorly understood by the public and by politicians. 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. Nowadays museum funding for natural history is significantly lower than that for the arts; even fairly insignificant art objects are far more cossetted than any natural history specimen ever is. So why does society considers spending several million pounds for a painting a public benefit, while a few thousand pounds to maintain a natural history collection is seen as a drain on the public purse? Too often people say of large collections 'but what good are they if we can't see them?'; these people fail to understand the enormous value large research collections have as objective data banks with an irreplaceable historical dimension.

The Value of Natural History Collections

We do need those bloody mice! Natural history collections still have a major role to play in many aspects of life today. Studying an outstanding painting or some fine porcelain may convince you that the species that can produce such beauty should be preserved, but it will not help one jot towards combating disease, environmental pollution, or the 'greenhouse effect'. Natural history collections can and do contribute significantly to these and other scientific studies vital to human society and to life on planet Earth.

Art objects tend to have high market values, which most natural history objects at present do not, although the Moa egg recently broken in a Tasmanian museum was valued at £600,000, a respectable figure even compared with current art object auction prices. If, however, one considers the cost of attempting to replace a natural history collection, then its monetary value would generally be astronomical.

Natural history curators are beginning to regard their collections as a unified whole - one collection with many homes. This approach is being fostered in the U.K. by the work of the Federation for Natural Sciences Collections Research [FENSCORE], aided by the increasing computerisation of collection data, and by the establishment of regional collecting policies by groups of curators. However, the full benefits to society of these efforts will be long delayed unless more funding is directed to natural history collection care.

The Biology Curators Group (BCG) is presently campaigning to raise awareness of the importance of the great national resource that the natural history collections in British institutions represent - a resource the vast extent of which is only now becoming apparent through the work of FENSCORE. A comment in the 1989 OAL report The cost of collecting: 'Analysis of the intellectual, social and economic benefits of museum collections must await another study, perhaps a companion study to this one' reveals the need to address the true value of these collections. Later, the report briefly assesses the value of (all) collections entirely in economic terms such as 'turnover of museums and galleries was estimated at £230m in 1985/86 with a value added of £141m' - which makes it sound as if we are running a chain of hamburger bars.

An international asset

Science knows no boundaries; collections are not national possessions but assets of the entire scientific world. The UK holds a significant percentage of the types 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. Although the long-standing under-funding of museum natural history has made adequate curation and publicity difficult, a hugh number of international loans of natural history material for research are already made from Britain. However, it is unacceptable that according to Biological Collections UK 300,000 foreign specimens held in Britain are not available for loan, mainly because of financial stringency.

Use of Natural History Collections in Research

Underpinning taxonomy.

Taxonomy is Mankind's oldest profession; it 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. Unfortunately taxonomy is so fundamental it often escapes notice or is even disparaged. 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 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.

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. Ironically, a few weeks after making his pronouncement the vice-chancellor mentioned above appeared in his university's herbarium clutching a handful of leaves from shrubs in the garden of his residence, asking for identification.

The attitudes 'we've done that bit' and 'we have all the identification keys we need, thanks' are prevalent. However, 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. More than one PhD student has faced a massive rewrite of their thesis after belatedly identifying correctly the organism studied using a museum reference collection.

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, micro-growth increments (many organisms show growth layers when sectioned, such as the 'rings' of a tree, and these can be used to study past environmental conditions), 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. Systematics collections provide a wealth of historical information on habitat composition, and on the distribution of plants and animals, that is invaluable to those predicting ecological shifts due to global climate change. For plants particularly, herbarium specimens, accumulated over the past 200 years, remain the most readily available source of information on structural variation and geographical distribution.

Nature Conservation

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) understandably 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. 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.

The mapping of distribution patterns of birds, animals, plants and so on, 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. 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. However, English Nature's recent major 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 for river valley authority in America and one for an oil company, 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.

Biochemistry and the historical dimension

Objects 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. Other researchers needed dated samples of earth for heavy metal analysis; the only source they could find was the earth adhering to herbarium specimens. The 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. With new techniques the DNA of long-dead specimens can be sequenced, such as that from the Quagga (an extinct horse), from Mammoth remains, and the DNA from a 20 million-year old magnolia leaf. The chemistry of feathers has shown past levels of environmental mercury, and can also establish the probable origins of bird specimens. Current concern with tri-butyl tin antifouling paint on boats required pre-1950 samples of the dogwhelk to study the long-term effects. 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.

The broad aspects of the study of evolution depend upon carefully assembled scientific collections for data, comparative analysis, and verification.

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 to compare the remains with.

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. Other studies include Felidae (cat family) skulls used to study brain evolution in carnivores; mounted mammals used for identifying casts of footprints from game and nature reserves; a host-parasite study using follicle-mites from pocket mouse specimens; estimating litter-sizes from nipple number in small marsupials.

Archaeology and Ethnology

Identification of bone, shell and insect fragments from archaeological burials and excavations, 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.

Historical studies

Collections can yield information of importance in historical studies. The collecting data attached to specimens collected during expeditions and campaigns has assisted in fixing other historical events in sequence. The history of anatomical preservation, and of taxidermy, can only be studied using museum specimens.

Use of Natural History Collections by Society


The museum's medium is the object; the object is the museum's message (pace McLuhan). 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. 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. Natural history specimens are used for school loan services, and provide a range of specimens for identification in biology examinations at all levels. A numeracy centre used shells borrowed from a museum to illustrate to disadvantaged adults how the mathematics of spirals occur in nature. The tent markings on venerid bivalves and olive and volute shells have been used in an artificial intelligence study.

Law Enforcement

'Aiding the police in their enquiries', museum reference collections can identify hair as human or non-human, can tell the age and race of an unearthed human skull, accurately identify hairs as evidence in prosecutions over badger hunting, and identify pollen grains or grass fragments for 'scene of crime' forensics, all of which can only be done with the authority of a reference collection. Collections also help customs officers keep our green and pleasant land unsullied by illegal animal and plant imports: powdered keratin from rhino horn, horn or ivory objects, or pelts and leathers - often as made up goods. 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.

Medicine and 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, or the cat bones in a tandoori curry - 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. 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.

A dental professor, studying cleft palate in humans, made considerable use of crocodile skulls. Another dental researcher used samples from the legs of dated water bird specimens in studying historical levels of fluoride. 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. The control of other diseases - bilharzia, bubonic plague, schistosomiasis, malaria and river blindness - all depend on very precise identification of the animals transmitting the disease, using reference collections. 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.


Advertising agencies and television companies borrow material for use in the background of 'shots',and, as mentioned above, most of the highly popular colour-plate nature books are almost entirely illustrated using museum specimens. Another unusual commercial use of the biological collection was illustrated by the college of textiles students who used shells as inspiration for designing a cloth, which won a prize. 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. 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. 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. 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. Herbarium specimens are used in researching new fragrances, and in the search for new drugs.

Agriculture and Fisheries

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. Insect pests, and suspicious weeds and seeds, all need the collection for reliable identification. Otolith (ear-stone) collections give information on the historical age distribution of populations of fish and whales, and the results can demonstrate whether the stocks are declining.


Every point made in this article is backed by a published reference or personal knowledge; over 150 relevant papers and reports, all published in the last fifteen years, have been abstracted while preparing the article, and much useful information has been provided by colleagues in the Biology Curators Group. Space precludes individual acknowledgment, but I thank all those upon whose work and knowledge I have drawn.


Charles Pettitt is Keeper of Invertebrate Zoology at Manchester University Museum. He is vice-chairman of FENSCORE, and a member of the MGC expert group on standards of care for biological collections. A committee member of BCG, Charles recently took over as editor of the Journal of Biological Curation.