The Value of Natural History Museums

Natural History Museums are centers of research, education, and public outreach. While many people think of natural history museums as places for public entertainment, the importance of museum research collections for documenting historical and present-day patterns of biological diversity cannot be overstated.

In the MVZ, our collections house over 150 years of biological history and are used by researchers for a myriad of studies. Fundamentally, 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, chytridiomycosus, to name a few). Specimens and their associated data (e.g., field notes of habitat, recordings of song, reproductive and age information, etc.) also provide information on natural and life history traits of animals.

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 (Grinnell Resurvey Project)
  • Linking the effects of pesticides (DDT and DDE) to eggshell thinning in birds, which caused reproductive failure and population declines in Brown Pelicans, Peregrine Falcons, and other species. This led to banning these pesticides in the USA
  • 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
  • Tracking the global disease dynamics of chytridiomycosus in amphibians

For more information, see our bibliography on the Value of Natural History Museums, which is available as a Zotero Group library for sharing.