Natural history museums serve as accessible places for popular science education. For our Museum, we use the exhibits and our outstanding educational programs to connect people with nature, our Mission. Behind the public face of most museums lies the world of collections. In our case, more than 15,000 artifacts are stored below the exhibit floor representing a variety of scientific disciplines; zoology, paleontology, botany, entomology, anthropology, and human culture. Collections universally are the foundation for research on evolution, ecology, climate change, biogeography, and native people.
In addition to preserving collections for science, all natural history collections are concerned with information, identity, and comparison. Natural history collections together form a large library of scientific data about what organisms have lived or are living on Earth. Scientists use collections as sources of information to guide their investigations. Every investigation begins with the real object – the specimen – that must be correctly identified as to species or kind and also accurately placed in space and time; where it was collected, when, how and by whom. A specimen without a label is almost useless; a specimen with its label of accurate and up-to-date information is a mine of information for those who can comprehend it. Specimens collected over time can provide clues to patterns of the past and present to help predict the future. With the loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems locally and worldwide, collections represent a permanent record of the occurrence of organisms in an area. Collections can contain records for a species across its range or can show variation of a given species over time in a given locality. The importance of collections and the work of collection-based scientists continue to grow.
A measure of success for natural history collections is growth in numbers of specimens. Growth of collections is dependent upon an increase in collection resources, both financial and in terms of expertise. Not only are financial resources becoming more and more scarce to support collections, the number of trained professionals available for a collections position within museums is declining. Another challenge for museums is to find new opportunities to engage the public with the research use of collections. The use of computer-based access to information, improved collecting efforts and technologies for preservation, and improved opportunities for new modes of public access to collections are ways museums are meeting growing public interest in collections.
The collections presently under the care of the Santa Cruz Museum Association (SCMA) officially belong to the city of Santa Cruz. One of the many goals within the Strategic Plan for our Museum is to inventory and assess the collections. Museum Research Associate, Frank Perry, is now working to identify those artifacts that do not fit within the mission of the Santa Cruz Museum Association, especially those that clearly fall outside of a natural history collection. These artifacts will be removed from our collections and transferred to build strengths within other institutions and museums where they can be best cared for and maintained. Once transferred, the city will transfer ownership of these collections to the SCMA. Then, our Museum will be prepared to build our collections, make best use of these artifacts in exhibits and in expanded educational opportunities, and support a growing interest in research focused on our regional and biodiversity.
Do you have a question about the future of our collections? Ask in the comment section below!