Image from the UAMN website page for the fish (and amphibian, reptile, and marine invertebrate) collection

Museums collect various types of objects/specimens for many different reasons. I think some of the nuances of the specific reasons depend on the museum and their overarching goals and purposes, but here I will try to give a brief overview of the purpose of collections. As I am particularly interested in natural history collections, my post will probably be slightly biased towards that type of collections, but I will try to discuss cultural and human history collections as well.

I think the purpose of cultural and human history collections is to hold and organize significant objects in order to preserve and maintain them. This could be for human curiosity or for preservation of a culture as a whole. By collecting and maintaining culturally significant objects, a museum can play a part in preventing the loss of rich cultural history as long as people who belong to and are knowledgeable about that culture play an integral part in the maintenance, preservation, and education about their culture. The preservation of cultural information can further educate others about a specific culture and effectively shed light on false stereotypes or assumptions about it.

Museums collect natural history and biological specimens for different but somewhat similar reasons. These collections can inform researchers and the public alike in the history of the world and how it has become the world we recognize today. Paleontological collections provide evolutionary clues into how species adapt and change (or don’t) to their environments. These evolutionary clues can inform scientists how species might adapt to future changes in the environment such as climate change. They also provide an element of wonder for those fascinated by species that existed long ago.  Other biological specimens such as the fish, insect, and mammal collections at UAMN can be integral in the naming and classification of species. For example, I think I’ve mentioned in a post before, that a type specimen, usually designated within a museum collection, acts as an anchor that pins a scientific name to a specific specimen. This becomes incredibly important when dealing with identification, speciation events or classification of new species. Further, museum collections provide opportunities for researchers to take “sub-samples” and use these for various types of research such as disease ecology, genetics, etc. Another important aspect of biological collections is that they preserve specimens that might be at danger of extinction so that the genetic material is available for future generations for research purposes as well.

Q: If the ultimate goal of your career was to curate some sort of collection what specific type of collection would it be?

5 Thoughts to “Curation Discussion – Why do museums collect?”

  1. Angela Linn

    Good summary Tony. I wanted to respond to your note about cultural collections and the collecting of “significant objects” because it’s something I struggle with all the time. I always recall my first museology course at the University of Iowa way back in 1993. Our professor, who was also the director of the Iowa Museum of Natural History, asked a similar question. He pointed out that one of the purposes of cultural history museums is to document the lives of everyday people… so how would that be done if we are only collecting items that signify the “historic” or “significant” events associated with those lives? If we were only collecting things like wedding dresses, how would that skew our perception of how those people lived their daily lives? So we say we need to collect things associated with important events AND we need to be cognizant of the everyday as well… it’s a tough balance for museums of cultural history!

  2. Becca Ray Turner

    That is a really awesome picture you added. I think you are spot on about maintaining our cultural history. We all should strive to do our part to maintain this history by either supporting the museums or by helping provide support to the educational aspect of the museums.

  3. Becca Ray Turner

    That is a really awesome picture you added. I think you are spot on about maintaining our cultural history. We all should strive to do our part to maintain this history by either supporting the museums or by helping provide support to archaeological digs.

  4. Becca Ray Turner

    That is a really awesome picture you added. I think you are spot on about maintaining our cultural history. We all should strive to do our part to maintain this history by supporting the museums.

  5. Barbara Long

    Good Evening,
    If the ultimate goal of your career was to curate some sort of collection what specific type of collection would it be?
    Great question! I have so many that would be awesome. However, I’m fond of birds. I enjoy them all but birds of prey, ducks, and parrots are my weaknesses. I guess my collection would be the falcons (peregrines).
    Again, they are spectacular to observe. Thanks for sharing.
    Respectfully,
    Barbara

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.