Libraries of Life

"Natural history museums tend to have extensive collections compared to other types of museums because their specimens must represent the entire range of variation within a species. In this regard, they are the opposite of art and history museums. These museums collect certain objects because they are unique — natural history museums collect them because they are not." —John E. Simmons, "Unusual not Usual in Collections," Panorama, 1986

The word “collection” conjures images of bric-a-brac, postage stamps and antique coins, perhaps foraged from garage sales or thrift stores and stored in curios and cabinets.

But when the objects are once-living things — preserved bodies of mammals, fish, birds, insects, plants and fossils — and they number more than 9 million, “collection” takes on a different meaning. Beyond what visitors see in the exhibits of the KU Natural History Museum are millions of biodiversity specimens stored behind the scenes.

Drawers of birds

These collections are the fountainhead of research, a catalog of life used again and again to study the dynamic evolution of earth’s biology. And unlike a stamp or coin collection, the goal is not to obtain the most rare and unusual objects; the goal is to obtain many individuals of the very same species.

This catalog can be thought of much like a public library, says William Duellman, curator emeritus of herpetology. “Just as a library has books as resources that patrons can read for information, a natural history museum has specimens as resources that can be ‘read,’ or studied, for information,” he said. “The library loans books; a natural history museum loans parts of its collection to other institutions.”

Duellman points out a major difference, too: “Pick any book. You go into any library, whether it’s your local library or a campus library or the New York Public Library, and all the copies of that book are alike; they carry the same information,” he said. 

In a natural history museum, however, every single specimen is a different individual carrying unique information. Because of this variation, even between very similar animals, scientists need a grand array of specimens. Consulting a “library” of flora and fauna is the best way for scientists to pinpoint what is alike and what is different, and to learn about how life on earth evolved.