Importance of Collections

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Statement of Purpose

Our ability to understand the natural world depends on the collection, preservation, and ongoing study of natural history specimens. These collections are the physical record of Earth’s life forms and processes. The information included on this page can be used to communicate the importance of natural history collections to justify budgets for collections care and maintenance, to include in collection improvement grant applications, or to include in discussions with institutional leadership.


Breda Zimkus, Tiffany Adrain, and Paula Work. Some information was first included as an Appendix to the SPNHC Threatened Collections Toolkit (now available on the Threatened and Orphaned Collections page.

Collections and their Impact

The following information is taken from the SPNHC Website:

Economy and trade

Many regulatory decisions made by governments are supported by research that depends on scientific collections, including natural history collections. These decisions can have a major impact on foreign and domestic trade.

Changes over time

Worldwide, museums, universities, and other institutions have been amassing collections since the 17th Century. By analyzing specimens collected at different points in time, researchers can reconstruct important historical changes. Collections offer scientists a window on the past.

Environmental Quality

Collections document the condition of soil, air, and water, help track pollution, and enable us to model future environmental changes so they can be better managed.

Food and agriculture

Scientific collections of agricultural pests and other threats to food safety and security are used routinely for border inspection, consumer protection, and control measures.

Public Health and Safety

Whether they are used to track down the cause of a deadly new epidemic or to learn important lessons from an ancient one, collections are pivotal resources in the fight to save lives and to improve the health and safety of people around the world.

National Security

Research on collections is a critical part of developing strategies for defending agriculture and food against terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies.

Invasive Species

The easy movement of trade goods through ports is vital to the global economy. At the same time, invasive species that stow away with these goods can threaten our crops, ecosystems, and animal and human health. In the United States there are estimated to be over 50,000 invasive species; collectively, they cause nearly $120 billion worth of environmental damage and loss per year and can spread infectious diseases to animal and human populations.

Scientific Treasures

Many scientific collections contain unique objects that cannot be collected again easily – or at all, in some cases. They are priceless.

Unanticipated Uses / New data

Collections of objects often serve us in ways that could not have been imagined at the time when they were made. Sometimes these unanticipated uses can help solve today’s most pressing scientific problems. Likewise, years, even decades from now, new analytical techniques will allow researchers to use the same specimens to answer new questions. There are countless examples of “new” specimens being “discovered” in collections and recognized as scientifically important long after their original acquisition.

Who Uses Natural History Collections?

Specimens themselves, as well as their associated data, can be used to study organisms and their relationships, but those outside of the research community often use natural history collections, including:

  • Authors of popular guides and field guides to wildlife
  • Artists
  • Citizen Scientists
  • Educators
  • Law enforcement agencies
  • Students

Consequences of Orphaned Collections

  • Some specimens are irreplaceable as they may be the primary source of information of extirpated, protected and rare species, or specimens from destroyed habitats or politically inaccessible regions (Williams and Cato 1995)[1].
  • Most collections contain material that is historically important (e.g., for the history of an institution, history of natural history research), the value of this material lying in the association of the specimens within the collection and with the institution’s history. When collections are orphaned, disposal often results in the break-up and dispersal of the collection and the loss of historical associations and relevance.
  • Collections act as a reference for research. Published material is cited as residing at a particular institution. When the material moves to a new institution, it becomes more difficult to track down, and research is hindered.
  • Private collections, the scientific value of which may be unknown, often are auctioned or offered for sale. In these cases the collection is usually purchased piecemeal by interested parties and it may be difficult to track down these dispersed parts in the future.




  1. Williams, S. L. and Cato, P. S. 1995. Interaction of research, management, and conservation for serving the long-term interests of natural history collections. Collection Forum 11(1) 16-27.