Museums around the world call for a global natural history collection

The information available to natural history collections is a very useful tool in dealing with the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity. Representatives of 73 museums and herbaria around the world call attention to the need to analyze these data and make them accessible in an article published this Thursday in the journal Science.

“Our assessment of natural history collections shows that it is urgent that we focus our efforts on analyzing, systematizing, protecting and sharing the information they contain,” says Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsoninan Institution, the museum of natural history in Washington DC. , which houses some of the most important collections in the world.

Only 16% of objects in the world’s largest museums are digitized

For this work, they investigated the situation of scientific infrastructure dedicated to natural history collections and found that more than 1,100 million objects are held in the 73 largest museums in the world. These collections are attended by a total of 4,500 people dedicated to research and 4,000 volunteers. Most of the information in these collections is either unavailable or unknown. In fact, only 16% of objects are digitized and only 0.2% have genetic records.

butterfly specimens

Butterfly Specimens at the American Museum of Natural History / D. Finnin

“The objective of this analysis was to quickly and accurately assess the content of any collection, the first step we must take to ensure that all collections function as a single collection before starting their digitization”, explains the Deputy Director of Collections at the Museum . of Natural Sciences (MNCN) Ignacio Doadrio.

“For this, we created a structure defined by a grid of 19 types of collections and 16 regions. In this way, any object from a collection can be defined within one of the 304 grid cells”, adds the researcher.

An urgent job that requires investment

“The set of natural history collections is the basis that sustains our knowledge about the planet, as well as the role that human beings play in nature”, says Rafael Zardoya, director of the MNCN. “Currently, we are going beyond planetary boundaries in issues as important as energy consumption, demand for food, deforestation or gas emissions that cause climate change”.

egg specimens

Egg collection at the Field Museum in Chicago (USA). / John Bates

“Given this set of interconnected problems, natural history collections are an essential source of information to address biodiversity conservation, obtaining mineral resources or the bioeconomy”, contextualizes Zardoya.

Natural history collections are the foundation of our knowledge of the planet

Rafael Zardoya, director of the National Museum of Natural Sciences

The authors also point out that, despite the enormous size of the collections, very little is known about areas such as the tropics, polar regions or marine systems, areas in which research efforts must be intensified.

They also recognize that the concentration of natural history museums in North America and Europe, due to the colonial past, is a barrier to knowledge sharing that perpetuates power imbalances. Going forward, it is crucial that this global collection reflect and support museums around the world.

The global north accumulates the most museums and collections due to its colonial past.

Despite its relevance, the information in the collections is not very accessible and is also at risk. Firstly, due to the lack of investment in infrastructure and specialized people to guard them, but also due to accidents such as the fires that destroyed museums such as the one in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) or New Delhi (India), or armed conflicts such as the one in Ukraine , where in October 2022 a missile hit the National Herbarium.

Currently, the impact of collections is limited by the difficulty of accessing them and the lack of personnel and infrastructure that allow global coordination.

“There are different initiatives such as GBIF, DISSCo or GRSciColl that are already working on the digitization and unification of collections, but this article is the first global approach to solve this deficiency”, analyzes Zardoya.

“It’s about giving natural history museums and their collections access to the knowledge they keep after three centuries of material collection. It would be a valuable contribution that would help solve the challenges we face,” he adds.

mosquito specimens

Mosquito specimens at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC (USA). /Paul Fetters

The director of the MNCN considers that “it is fundamental to obtain financing and international collaboration to advance in activities that allow us to take advantage of the data of the specimens that we preserve”.

To this end, the signatories of this article, more than 150 experts from thirty countries ranging from Kenya to Australia, passing through Brazil or Russia, propose the following recommendations:

1.- In the year 2100, decisions about the future will have to be made by analyzing the collections that are being compiled now, so we must accelerate the collection of materials that allow us to maintain a knowledge base about the collections.

2.- The data collected by hundreds of institutions over the last three centuries must be the basis on which ecosystem recovery plans are based. A new impetus must be given to the role of these scientific institutions.

3.- Both the collection of data and its sharing must be carried out while maintaining ethical criteria that take into account all the companies involved. Museums must engage local communities and integrate their perspectives and needs.

4.- It is essential to create a global infrastructure that also takes into account the regional collections, because they function as a bridge between the larger ones and provide a lot of information and local context.

Achieving the development of a global scientific infrastructure would be a huge support for finding solutions. “We present these recommendations as a roadmap for museums, foundations, governments, industries and companies to accelerate and coordinate their efforts to generate this global collection,” reflects Zardoya.

“This effort can serve to change the current trajectory of climate change and biodiversity loss in the coming decades”, he concludes.


KR Johnson et al. “A global approach to natural history museum collections in the 21st century” Science (2023).

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