For many people, the Natural History Museum is a wonderful visitor attraction – an iconic building in central London.To some it means only one thing – dinosaurs! The Museum is much more than this. It is primarily a research institution – an international leader in the scientific study of the natural world and a museum with its own fascinating history. Gill Stevens, Head of Museum’s UK Biodiversity Group takes us on a backstage tour.
Science is fundamental to the Natural History Museum’s role. We combine scientific research, focused primarily on our collections, with a responsibility to educate and inform wider audiences. Our mission, ‘to maintain and develop the collections and use them to promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world’, is delivered through our world-class collections, cutting edge research, fantastic exhibitions and public events. Our science describes the present diversity of nature, promotes an understanding of the critical importance of the past, and develops knowledge that supports anticipation and management of the impact of human activity on the environment.
Our expertise lies in the knowledge and experience of over 300 scientific staff members, some of who are responsible for the complex processes involved in the conservation and management of the Museum’s immense collections. The Museum’s research covers a broad range of scientific questions centred on systematics, the science of the diversity of the organism, which is fundamental to all scientific study of the natural world. Systematics enables us to investigate past evolution and current patterns in biodiversity and includes taxonomy – the theory and practice of naming, describing and classifying organisms.
The Museum has a unique combination of broad-based scientific expertise and one of the world’s largest collections of natural objects.The life and earth science collections of the Museum comprise some 70 million items. All our collections represent the natural variation that exists within and between groups. These comprehensive collections cover virtually all groups of animals, plants, minerals and fossils and represent an incredible resource.
The Museum’s entomology department is currently the only place on Earth where you can see over half the known species of insect in the world. Since only an estimated one quarter of insect life has currently been described, these collections are certainly set to expand in the future.
The Museum’s botany department houses one of the five largest botanical collections in the world. It has approximately six and a half million specimens from all parts of the world, dating back to the early 17th century. Scientists in the botany department carry out research on a diverse range of plants, from microscopic algae to forest trees.
Nearly half of our collection represents cryptogamic plants: algae, bryophytes, lichens, myxophytes and pteridophytes. The foundation collections were those of Sir Hans Sloane, gathered from his own travels to Jamaica in 1687 and from extensive purchase of other collections. Sloane’s collections formed the basis of the British Museum in 1753. The Natural History Museum’s collections comprise material from some of the great expeditions of the seventeenth through to the nineteenth centuries. As well as Sloane’s material, the Museum also houses collections from Joseph Banks’ expedition on board The Endeavour with Captain Cook, Darwin’s expedition aboard the Beagle, as well as material from such natural history heavy-weights as Linnaeus, Solander and Bartram. New material is constantly being added. One recent addition has been a collection of beetles – newly re-discovered as part of a private collection – that originally formed part of Banks’ collection.
The Natural History Museum loans some material to other museums around the world as part of an international agreement. However, the fragility of the historic material means that it cannot be loaned in this way and currently, anyone wanting to study these collections must travel to the Museum.This is set to change as the Museum has an active digitisation programme that will make these and other collections available online.
The Natural History Museum may have an international reach and reputation, but it is also very much a ‘local’ museum for the UK and for London. An active ‘UK Biodiversity Programme’ at the Museum is committed to working with partners, such as GiGL, to deliver innovative projects in scientific research and conservation of our native wildlife and to promote outreach and community engagement.This work includes promoting greater engagement with the wider public and naturalists in UK biodiversity projects, and the creation of modern records. Here are a few examples of the Museum’s public biodiversity projects:
Elm Map – the hunt for Britain’s hidden elms
This project began in 2003 and aims to discover and map Britain’s surviving mature elms in order to help their conservation in the future. The Natural History Museum, in partnership with the Ramblers’ Association, English Nature, Sustrans,The Wildlife Trusts,The Woodland Trust and other conservation groups asked all wildlife enthusiasts and tree lovers to join the Elm Map Survey.
Bluebells: Exploring British Wildlife
To help us understand the evolution and dynamics of all bluebells in Britain the Museum has launched a long-term study that will build up a picture of the distribution of all three bluebell species.The easy to use identification guide and online recording forms allows everyone, from children to scientists, to contribute to this annual survey. Contributions appear instantly on an online interactive map.
The Riverfly Partnership
This scheme aims to encourage concerned anglers to work with scientists and environmental organisations to build expertise on riverflies.Together, the scheme’s partners will develop high quality monitoring and recording programmes and address any declines in overall abundance of riverfly populations and loss of individual species. Any fishermen or fishing clubs interested in helping to monitor riverflies should contact Bridget Peacock at the Museum: firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Amateurs as Experts’
Harnessing New Knowledge Networks for Biodiversity This was the first major British study of the relationship between amateur and professional naturalists. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the study observed how amateurs and professionals interact and what happens when these two different cultures work together. http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fss/projects/ieppp/amateurs
Britain’s long history of the ‘amateur expert’ – natural history enthusiasts whose exploration and collecting has informed successive centuries of biological understanding – is almost unique. The biological diversity of the UK is one of the best documented and understood anywhere in the world.Yet, this ‘collecting’ mentality seems archaic, even barbaric to our modern moralities. Over the last fifty years, there has been a notable decline in the number of specimens deposited at the Museum and available to researchers. The shift from collecting specimens to collecting data obviously has advantages. Collecting has not always been carried out with an eye to the future. The Victorian fern craze saw wealthy ladies employing professional plant collectors to augment their personal collections – the extent of which was a measure of their social status. For the beautiful Killarney fern this almost spelled disaster – there are now more specimens in the Natural History Museum than are recorded in the wild.
But there is also a downside to the decline in collecting. Without modern records, it is increasingly difficult to assess the changing face of our natural history – to see how wildlife responds to environmental change.The Museum’s historic collections provide a special and temporal baseline for monitoring change in the natural environment. But with so few modern samples being added to the collection, our future understanding may be at risk.