What Good is a Collection?

Roseate spoonbill in Bird Hall, Carnegie Museum of Natural History (photo by Kate St. John)
Roseate spoonbill in Bird Hall, Carnegie Museum of Natural History (photo by Kate St. John)

We think of museums as places where the public views samples of the natural world, but in every museum there are far more specimens in storage than on display.  At The Carnegie that ratio for birds is about 200 to 1.  And so we wonder …

What good is a collection? and Why are there so many specimens?

In the late 1800s to mid 1900s museums collected birds for taxonomic research:  What species exist?  What are their characteristics?  and What species are they related to?  Collections still provide taxonomic answers:

  • Field guide and bird artists use behind-the-scenes specimens to produce accurate work.
  • Historic distribution of species is derived from the specimens’ geographic locations and dates.
  • We didn’t know about DNA when most of the birds were collected, but we now compare specimens’ DNA to each other and current birds.
  • We document regional variation in the same species (for instance, fox sparrows) by studying large collections made throughout its wide range.  That’s why it’s good to have so many specimens.

Many new questions arose long after the birds were collected.  In 2004 Kevin Winker, Curator of Birds & Professor at the University of Alaska Museum, pointed out that museum specimens helped provide these answers:

  • DDT caused eggshell thinning in peregrine falcon eggs, leading to their population crash, 1967.  Derek Ratcliffe measured eggshell thickness in museum egg collections to compare pre- and post-DDT eggs.
  • Mutations were discovered in local fauna after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, 1997.
  • Mercury levels increased in North Atlantic seabirds in the late 20th century, 1998.

Collections are excellent for monitoring change because they provide a snapshot of life on earth for the dates and places where specimens were collected.

The snapshot of birds is very detailed from the 1880s to the 1930s but what about birds at the turn of the 21st century?

Bird collecting dropped off considerably in the mid 20th century but it continues today in a smaller, non-traditional way at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  Each year up to 1 billion birds die by hitting windows in the U.S.  In 2014 the Carnegie joined North America’s BirdSafe project to document dangerous windows, rescue injured birds and collect the dead ones.  During spring and fall migration BirdSafe Pittsburgh adds a couple of common birds each week to the Carnegie’s collection.


(photo of roseate spoonbill in Bird Hall by Kate St. John)

Further reading, an excellent article:  Natural History Museums in a Postbiodiversity Era by Kevin Winker, Curator of Birds & Professor, University of Alaska Museum (of the North), Fairbanks, Alaska.

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