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How to Find and Research Biological Specimens in UK Museums

By Mark Carnall, on 27 March 2013

We interrupt this normal service to bring a special PSA. This post is intended as a how-to for the global community of researchers who are looking for biological specimens in the UK to study.

Recently I went to the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) annual conference and with cuts to heritage and museums many of the talks were about how we make the most of natural history collections in the UK. Biological research is seen as one of the most important drivers and reasons for keeping and using natural history collections, however, in my opinion we do a relatively poor job at matching researchers to specimens and a certain portion of the research community can be forgiven for struggling to find material for research despite the wealth of resources we put out there supposedly designed to help them.

So if you work in a natural history museum, supervise Phd students or teach on a biological/geological course please pass a link to this article on and see if we can’t create more research opportunities that I suspect we currently miss.

There are hundreds of them in this country but anecdotally, a lot of the researchers that we see here just think of museums that they know about. Hopefully that includes the Natural History Museum and the National Museum of Wales and the National Museum of Scotland but rarely does it include smaller museums dotted around the country which hold approximately half of the nation’s collections. Unfortunately, and this is where we’re to blame a bit there isn’t a comprehensive list of them all in an easy to find place (this is something that NatSCA will be working on…). Even good old Wikipedia isn’t much help (spot the Grant Museum here) which probably says volumes about Museums engaging with the web. The Museums Association publishes a Museums and Galleries Yearbook but it would be remiss of me to ask that every researcher buy a copy and then plough through it trying to identify all the natural history collections. At the moment, my recommendation would be to contact the NatSCA mailing list. NatSCA is is the UK’s organisation for representing Natural Science Collections and associated museum staff, as such it represents a large number of natural history collections in the UK and the chances are high that the people on the list will be able to help you find specimens within the collection they look after or will be able to point you in the right direction, however….

Most museum professionals are a friendly lot and making specimens accessible to researchers is part of what we’re here for. However, we won’t do your research for you and we’re not here to do your homework for you. The difference between “I’m interested in Primates” and “I want to see disarticulated postcranial skeletons of female wild caught green monkeys with a known collection date” may be the difference between receiving a swift reply either way or no reply at all.

You may think that museum staff spend the whole day idling about, occasionally dusting the skeletons, but the reality is that there’s always stuff going on from appointments with other researchers, school groups, teaching responsibilities, conference presentations, sometimes the skeletons do need to be dusted and the odd flood/fire/act of God takes curators and collections managers away from getting back to you about your research visit tomorrow because you’re visiting your Auntie in Glasgow and you’d like to pop in.

Okay so I’ve mentioned already that museums are pretty bad at putting their content online but believe it or not the sector has spent millions of pounds and person hours digitising collections for you! Yes you! We just forgot to tell you about it. If you’ve got a museum in mind it’s always worth checking to see if they have an online database for specimens you may wish to use. Here’s our database and here’s the online database for the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. There. Already you can access the collections from 50% of the zoological collections in London from the comfort of your armchair you lucky person. There are also a host of other online databases and networks that might help you to find specimens:

Cornucopia  is an online database of information about more than 6,000 collections in the UK’s museums, galleries, archives and libraries that allows you to search collections by a number of different criteria. The data in it isn’t comprehensive but does allow some clever searching.

Culture Grid is a UK wide aggregator of Museum online database content. Currently around 100 UK institutions have their content syndicated to it but the list is always growing. This beta takes uses the same data but only for university museums. It’s still very much a work in progress but it’s worth a punt.

Europeana contains the same data as Culture Grid but casts the net wider and represents a number of institutions from across Europe. Again the site is still a work in progress but it’s getting there.

Herbaria seem to be ahead of the game here, the excellent resource Index Herbariorum, is a guide to the 3,400 herbaria across the globe representing an estimated 350 million herbaria specimens. Herbaria United brings together information about herbaria in the UK and Ireland, hosts gazetteers and conveniently lists the online databases of individual herbaria.

The Global Biodiversity Information Facility is an excellent site that represents many of the larger natural history museums in the world. The user interface could be a little bit easier to navigate but once you find your way around you can search for instances or specimens, or occurrence records. Those green monkeys I mentioned earlier? We can see there’s 135 of them in the largest museum collections in the World. Again, you won’t find the Grant Museum and other smaller museums on here yet but it’s a starting point.

Search by collector on FENSCORE the rather odd sounding Federation For Natural Sciences Collections Research is now a very out of date online resource for finding the collections related to a geographical region, a particular person (e.g. collector) or a particular taxon. Again it’s not the kind of easy to use resource you’d expect in the 21st Century but if it’s a collection related to a person you are after this is still probably your best shot of finding it.

Between these resources, you have more information at your fingertips than Darwin ever had. There are many more out there created by individual institutions, subject specialist networks or research networks interested in specific taxonomic groups. If you know of any that would be good to put up here, let me know and I’d be happy to add them here.

It may be convenient and easier on your travel expenses to spend more time at a larger museum rather than traveling around but as I mentioned before there are vast amounts of objects in smaller collections and your sample set will be all the better for avoiding institutional collection and preparation biases. The National museums may hold large collections but I’m willing to wager that University museums have a better selection of osteological specimens for some vertebrate groups and many local authority museums will have a better selection of taxidermy specimens if its skin, fur and feathers you’re after. There are also a whole range of historic houses, charities and zoological parks and gardens that have significant holdings but you may not have thought to look in these places. Furthermore, I’d always recommend checking at your local museum as the eccentric individuals who founded many of them traveled the world collecting specimens you wouldn’t expect to find in the museum round the corner from you. It’s worth bearing in mind that most museums hold a high percentage of their collection in storage so just because there isn’t a natural history display in the galleries doesn’t mean there isn’t a warehouse full of specimens behind the scenes.

Some research may demand destructive sampling of specimens. Normally this isn’t something that natural history museums are fundamentally against and most have policies for undertaking it but your science has to be good and you have to demonstrate how your research will get out to the wider research community. When brokering a destructive sampling request you’ll probably have images of curators slowly shaking their head and padlocking their drawers  in your mind. In our minds we have images of specimens with massive chunks taken out of them and no published works disseminating the results. Destructive sampling is always a risk, especially if your methodology is relatively untested, so you have to demonstrate why you need to take samples, how, where and when you’re going to publish them and why your work has significant impact. In addition, museums will ask you about non destructive sampling techniques as well so come prepared to demonstrate how your laser/scanner/bain-marie won’t irreversibly damage a specimen. On another note, blu-tack, plasticine and silly putty are not appropriate putties to be smearing all over specimens to hold them in place so you should expect to have it confiscated upon entry.

These six tips are just the starting point but hopefully it will help researchers to find the biological and geological specimens for use in research. The use of collections by the research community be it scientific or artistic is core to justifying the existing of many collections and at the heart of many museum’s founding doctrines. In short, it’s what we’re here for.

UPDATE 27/03/2013. A colleague from The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-On-Trent has alerted me to  Natural Sciences Collections West Midlands website which is a neat summary of 11 natural science collections and museum services in the West Midlands. Check it out.

UPDATE 2 27/03/2013. Added information about the excellent Index Herbariorum which I must confess I hadn’t heard of before.

UPDATE 3 27/03/2013. Been alerted to The Linking Museum Collections by the Welsh Museum Federation  by a colleague at National Museum Wales. This project looks set to link up natural science collections across Wales and make them more accessible to the public and researchers. One to watch.

UPDATE 4 27/03/2013. Reminded about Cornucopia (which I’d completely forgotten) and added information about Herbaria United.

UPDATE 5 29/04/2013. Added the culture grid link for university collections beta.

6 Responses to “How to Find and Research Biological Specimens in UK Museums”

  • 1
    How to Find and Research Biological Specimens in UK Museums | NatSCA wrote on 22 April 2013:

    […] How to Find and Research Biological Specimens in UK Museums  […]

  • 2
    11 Museum Blogger Questions for #MuseumWeek round 2 | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 4 April 2014:

    […] the value of natural history specimens and the lack of patronage, sometimes it’s about how we could be doing better as a sector, sometimes it’s about our collections, a lot of the time it’s about how weird language […]

  • 3
    How to Write a Research Enquiry to a Museum | Fistful Of Cinctans wrote on 15 December 2015:

    […] a response. I’ve written previously on the UCL Museums and Collections blog that museums could be a bit more helpful for researchers trying to locate material for their use, currently it’s not necessarily easy or straight forward to match potential users with the […]

  • 4
    ant-researcher wrote on 2 July 2016:

    I am a little late to the party here, but I find this article to be of high interest given that I am a museum entomologist. When conducting destructive sampling of insect genitalia, it is most easy to do this with specimens under ethanol with Blu-Tack (which is standard for most insect morphologists in American museums). As I am unfamiliar with your oeuvre, would you kindly be able to inform me about what material Blu-Tack is inappropriate for? I try to be conscientious to curators’ opinions and needs, as well as better methods for doing my work.

  • 5
    Jack Lynn wrote on 7 July 2021:

    Thank you for this information. It was really informative.

  • 6
    Norman wrote on 19 July 2021:

    This is great advice. Thanks for posting.

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