Learning From Loss: The Value and Legacy of Natural History Museums

In the dwindling hours of September 2nd, a fire broke out in Brazil’s Museu Nacional, one of the largest natural history museums in the world. The disaster was international news; 90 percent of the museum’s collection (some 20 million items) was lost in the blaze. This included many anthropological items of critical importance, such as recordings of indigenous languages that no longer have native speakers.

The loss of the museum to scientific and cultural heritage is huge—both in terms of the value of the archeological, historical, and scientific artifacts in its collection, and in terms of educational opportunities for tourists and citizens alike.

Over the years, other notable institutions have lost parts of their collections. This includes a separate facility in São Paulo, Brazil, as well as natural history museums in India and England. Most often this has been due to fire, but a curious English case involves an avid fly-fisherman in the market for a new flute. Of these losses, however, that of Brazil’s Museu Nacional was the largest and most devastating.

The loss has been powerfully felt in the international scientific community. Collections such as the one in the Museo Nacional are used by local scientists as well as those across the globe, and it is very possible that researchers in your community have been impacted by the destruction of the September blaze.

But how, exactly, do scientists use natural history museums and collections? Why is the Museu Nacional being mourned by so many scientists, many of whom have never visited the institution?

The answer is held in museum storage. These spaces often hold vast collections that are not publicly visible. For example, the Field Museum in Chicago has over 500,000 preserved bird specimens, of which only a fraction is on view to the public. Of the 40 million items in the museum’s possession, only 1 percent are generally on display.

But the items behind the scenes are not sitting idly, waiting for display in their museum; when natural history specimens are collected, be they animals, plants, minerals, or otherwise, their purpose is not simply to be placed in a glass case for viewing and education. Along with their documentation (any information from the initial collection of a given specimen, such as date, location, the collector’s name, and any other relevant information), specimens are of huge value to the scientific community, and with the advent of novel scientific techniques, they become more valuable as time passes.

For example, consider the many plant and animal specimens collected by Charles Darwin during his famed voyage on the HMS Beagle. He collected many of these items to document species novel to western scientists (called “holotypes”), and these organisms were often sketched, measured, and preserved or dissected to document their anatomy. Though straightforward, these data shaped scientific thinking in the 19th century; the different dimensions of finch beaks in the Galápagos Islands were famously pivotal in Darwin’s development of evolutionary theory.

However, historical specimens (including Darwin’s famous finches, many of which are currently in the possession of the British Museum) can be used in the present day for much more than they were originally intended, because researchers can use modern technology to look at carefully preserved specimens in novel ways. This can include high-powered microscopes, photography, and even DNA taken from small skin samples. In fact, some colleagues of mine recently journeyed to the bird collection at the Field Museum in Chicago to collect a number of tiny skin samples order to sample the birds’ DNA. Their goal is to investigate species delineation—whether two groups of birds currently treated as separate species are actually a single group. As part of this, they also took old-fashioned measurements, just as the original collectors would have done—a marriage between old and new. Most of these samples came from birds collected over 100 years ago, well before the collectors had even heard of DNA.

Additionally, researchers can use bones, hair, soft tissue, and feathers for isotopic analysis. This technique can determine the movements and geographical ranges of organisms, even those collected centuries ago. You have probably heard of this technique before—it is one of the ways that researchers determine facts about the life and diet of our ancient ancestors, such as Ötzi the ice man. All of this information can be used to study evolution, the distributions of species over evolutionary timescales (known as historical biogeography), climate, disease patterns, and much more. In a world transformed by human activities, this information can be critical in conservation efforts.

Museum specimens may be the only records remaining in cases of extinction, just like the indigenous languages cataloged at the Museo Nacional. These are all the more precious, as getting new samples is impossible. There are no full specimens of the extinct dodo bird, for example, because the ones that existed were damaged and disposed of long ago, before the bird was known to be extinct. Even so, scientists have made a lot of headway with the partial dodo skeletons that are still around.

Scientific collections have many medical applications as well. The lost collection from São Paulo mentioned earlier in this article was primarily comprised of venomous animals used for medical research, and sharing collection information between institutions is considered a priority in the study of infectious diseases.

As the Museo Nacional reclaims what it can from the ashes, many are realizing that natural history museums do much, much more for us than merely arrange specimens to gather dust on shelves and in display cases. And my recommendation to the reader? Support science in your community. Cherish and visit your local (and regional) natural history museums. And remember—what you see is just the tip of the iceberg.