Australian Museum is part of global study to combine more than a billion scientific objects in collections across 73 museums in 28 countries; published today in Science magazine.

Thylacine pup specimen
Wet specimen of Thylacine pup in the Australian Museum's Mammal Collections. Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

24 March 2023, Sydney: The Australian Museum (AM) is part of a group of the world’s leading natural history museums who have mapped the collections from 73 of the world’s largest natural history museums in 28 countries, revealing a combined 1.1. billion objects. Organised by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the American Museum of Natural History Museum in New York City, and the Natural History Museum in London, the findings were published today in Science magazine in the paper, “A Global Approach for Natural History Museum Collections.”

The data has been collected to inventory global museum collection holdings to help scientists and decisionmakers find solutions to urgent, wide-ranging issues such as climate change, food insecurity, human health, pandemic preparedness, and wildlife conservation.

AM Director and CEO Kim McKay AO and AM Chief Scientist Professor Kris Helgen are both co-authors on the paper, along with their international peers. According to McKay, working with other museum directors and chief scientists on this first step of an ambitious effort to record museum collections on a global scale is a game changer for the sector.

“Most visitors who come through the doors of the Australian Museum in Sydney, or any natural history museum around the world, are unaware that behind the scenes from the public facing exhibitions, museums are the custodians of vast collections. Each collection item contains a clue from the past and an answer for the future. Our collective scientific research provides insights into the natural world which would not be possible if museums did not exist,” McKay said.

“A good example of this is the Thylacine in Australia, also known as the Tasmanian Tiger, which was a large carnivorous marsupial that went extinct in 1936. The AM has a wet specimen of a Thylacine pup in its Mammalogy collection and a 3-D model of the pup can be viewed online, providing a powerful reminder of how important it is to learn from the past and the need to protect our iconic Australian species,” McKay said.

“As the custodian of the largest collection in the Southern Hemisphere – comprising more than 22 million objects and specimens – the AM has been pleased to play a role in the creation of this new global strategy for how natural history museums can work together. By combining the knowledge our collections hold, in addition to digitisation efforts, we can help solve the most pressing of global challenges, like preparing for pandemics and raising awareness about climate change solutions. The AM is currently undertaking a ten year digitisation project to make millions of specimens and objects even more accessible to scientists and the public online,” McKay added.

The study published today in Science reveals the 73 museums and herbaria, from 28 countries (seven from Australia and New Zealand) have a combined 1.1 billion objects managed by approximately 4,500 science staff and 4,000 volunteers. Most of these materials are dark data, meaning only 16 percent of the specimens currently have digitally discoverable records.

Echidna skins in the Mammalogy Collection Area
It is essential that the provenance of any echidna specimens is recorded so scientists can clearly understand changes in adaptations or where they occur over time. The provenance includes the place, date, and name of the collector. Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

The sum of the collections of the 73 museums is vast, but the survey showed that there are conspicuous gaps with respect to tropical and polar regions, marine systems, and undiscovered arthropod and microbial diversity.

“Australia has been an isolated continent for tens of millions of years, and life has evolved here in unique directions, creating so many species found nowhere else—many of which are now endangered. This makes Australian biodiversity collections, like ours, incredibly important in global context. It will help us fill in those gaps,” Professor Helgen said.

“As Australia’s first museum, the AM holds resources in the collection that can’t be found anywhere else. From fossils of extinct Australian megafauna to irreplaceable frozen tissue samples from our unique wildlife, these specimens are a vital record of the richness of the natural world, and how it changes over time. These collections help inform everything from taxonomy and systematics to applications in biosecurity and quarantine, to the connections between wildlife, human, and environmental health. It’s an incredible privilege to steward these scientific resources, and inspiring to think what access to these collections around the world will mean for future scientific research and for the future of humanity on a rapidly changing planet,” Helgen added.

“Anyone can already search and discover online more than 1.2 million digital species records from the AM collection on the Atlas of Living Australia. We continue to digitise our natural science collections and make these records available to everyone. We continue to add to our collection, too, to help fill gaps in our knowledge with targeted scientific expeditions, and to document ongoing changes in key Australian environments, like at the AM’s Lizard Island Research Station on the Great Barrier Reef,” Helgen added.

The first phase of this initiative included the world’s largest museums; next steps will be to expand the effort to include the hundreds of smaller museums. In addition to expanding the survey to include smaller collections, the aim is to use this framework to accelerate digitisation and facilitate, where possible, genomic sequencing in order to create a coordinated global strategy for future stewardship and fair use of the global collection that fills the gaps in taxonomic, geographic, stratigraphic, and cultural understanding of the natural world.

Editor’s notes

The full Global Collections dashboard is available here:

The full list of participating institutions and authors, and case studies can be found here:

Images of the AM collections available here: Images

About the Australian Museum

The Australian Museum (AM) was founded in 1827 and is the nation’s first museum. It is internationally recognised as a natural science and culture institution focused on Australia and the Pacific. As custodian of more than 21.9 million objects and specimens, the AM is uniquely positioned to provide a greater understanding of the region through its scientific research, exhibitions and public and education programs. Through the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI), the AM also plays a leading role in conserving Australia’s biodiversity through understanding the environmental impacts of climate change, potential security threats and invasive species.

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