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What's the Use of Museums?

Museums have historically been centers of research, education, and public outreach. While most people think of natural history museums as places for public entertainment, the importance of museum specimen collections for documenting historical and present-day patterns of biological diversity cannot be overstated.

In the MVZ, our collections house over 100 years of biological history and are used by researchers for a myriad of uses. Primarily, our collections document the presence of particular species at a particular place and time. This allows us to examine geographic and temporal changes in animal populations, species, and communities, and to track those patterns in relation to natural or human-induced changes in the environment (e.g., climate change, landscape alteration, etc.).

Museum specimens form the basis for research on evolution, speciation, and distribution, and also provide an important baseline for studies of conservation and emerging diseases (e.g., hantavirus, West Nile Virus). Specimens and associated data (e.g., field notes of habitat, recordings of song, reproductive and age information, etc.) also provide basic information on natural and life history traits of animals.

In addition to basic research studies, examples of past and present uses of the MVZ collections include:

  • Tracking historical changes in animal populations and communities in Yosemite National Park and elsewhere in California (“the Grinnell Project”)
  • Linking the effects of pesticides (DDT and DDE) to eggshell thinning in birds, thus causing reproductive failure and population declines in Brown Pelicans, Peregrine Falcons, and other species
  • Illustrating species’ and their distributions for field guides and other natural history books
  • Using tissue samples collected from rodents in the 1970’s to better understand the occurrence and distribution of hantavirus
  • Using historical museum skins to track the impact of avian malaria on Hawaiian birds
To read more on the Value of Natural History Museums, we have a Zotero Library of articles for sharing.
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