Museums are places of wonder. They share objects, art and stories that people can't experience elsewhere. Natural history museums, in particular, are places where people go to encounter the unfamiliar and explore the world’s physical beauty and cultural diversity.
And the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is no exception, welcoming visitors with exhibitions that explore 21st century issues like genomics, pandemics and marine conservation. But like many museums, this natural history museum is also a site for dynamic research and scientific discovery.
This International Museum Day, check out the museum’s collections spotlighted by these famous pictures taken by late museum photographer Chip Clark — and learn more from Johnson about how the natural history museum’s scientists are addressing ongoing global challenges.
“The whole concept of science as a profession is only a bit older than the Smithsonian itself, which was founded in 1846. The Smithsonian is one of our nation’s first investments in science,” said Johnson.
Within the mineral science collection, there are over one million specimens, ranging from rocks and ores to gems and minerals.
“Collections like these are rare assets. There are only about 100 really big natural history museums in the entire world and the present global population is nearly 8 billion people. Those museums hold everything that people have collected to understand the world in the last few hundred years. We have this remarkable, comprehensive pool of objects to draw from when we do research and, as a result, we act as a place of reference for the whole planet,” said Johnson.
The museum’s vertebrate zoology collection spans four divisions: birds, amphibians and reptiles, fishes and mammals. The birds division is the third largest in the world with specimens from 85% of the 10,000 known bird species. It also includes the Feather Identification Laboratory, which analyzes and catalogues bird strikes with airplanes to improve air safety.“Different parts of our collections are active at different times. Many of our collections are being used to solve practical problems like the Feather Identification Lab which helps to identify birds that are struck by aircraft. Then, there are other questions asked because of emerging societal needs like: Can we build a database for all organisms’ genomes? Increasingly, our collections are intersecting with socially-relevant questions,” said Johnson.
The paleobiology collection at the museum has over 44 million specimens, ranging from dinosaur fossils to fossil plants. The collection began in the late 1800s as a reference point for early paleobiologists researching Earth’s history.“These collections are crucial for people to understand the world in which they live. The way we do that is through studying the past and present, and modeling the future. Understanding what happened in the past helps us understand where we are and gives us momentum for understanding where we’re going. In essence, science can help us begin to understand the future,” said Johnson.
The museum’s entomology collection houses over 34 million specimens, which represent around 60% of the world’s total known insect species.“The collections are sorted into traditional categories such a birds, fish, and insects. These groupings go back to the beginnings of museums and we still use them today. In the meantime, science has become much more interdisciplinary. For example, we've realized that fossil leaves have damage of ancient insects on them so now our entomologists are working with paleobiologists to reconstruct extinct ecosystems. Our department divisions are an artifact of the beginnings of the museum, while our museum research reflects where science is today,” said Johnson.
In addition to storing stereotypically leafy green plants, the botany collection at the museum includes marine algae. This collection and its 5 million specimens began when the United States National Herbarium was founded in 1848.“The collections are huge and we are now focusing on how to make them digitally available. Every organism has a genome, so we are now using the collections to study the genomics of biodiversity. Every specimen we have originally came from a specific time and place, so you get situations where the museum contains collections from ecosystems that no longer exist. For example, we have fossils from lowland tropical rainforests that have now been replaced by cities. If a scientist wants to visit those lost places, they can do so through the specimens in our museum. In a way, museum collections are the physical manifestations of the memories of our planet,” said Johnson.
Over 49 million specimens call the museum’s invertebrate zoology collection home. Examining these specimens and their living counterparts helps researchers better understand the environmental and anthropogenic challenges threatening invertebrates today.
“We need a baseline of what the planet was like before we arrived so that we can measure the impact of humanity on the planet. Museums are where our culture preserves what we know about the history of our world,” said Johnson.
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Interdisciplinary Study Shows How Species Interactions Affect Evolution
Digitization Allows Public Access to Smithsonian’s Hidden Collections