Museum Collections

One of the most frustrating things to hear as an academic is that most rhetorical of questions “how do they know that?”. The answer to that as a conceptual question I will save for another time, but often the answer is “by looking at the evidence”. The difference in the concept of the evidence though is that the questioner has seen only the newspaper report of something, or seen one photo of the fossil in question, or seen a single paragraph written on a museum display. What he hasn’t seen is this:

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This is one of a number of rooms in the basement of the Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde in Stuttgart (which will get its own post soon enough). You can see just how big it is and how many cabinets there are, each of which has anything up to 20 drawers and each of which can hold dozens of specimens. What is really visible is only about half the room (it carries on into the darkness behind those pillars on the right). My student Ross Elgin is visible for scale (an important and underrated use of postgraduate students).

There are several rooms like this that I saw, and possibly others, and this is not a big museum by the standards of many. I used to have to patrol the rodent collections at the Natural History Museum in London and there was a room that must have been 20 meters long filled with hundreds of cabinets 2-3 meters high, each of which had up to 40 drawers and each of which contained anything up to 200 specimens (rodent skulls are tiny). This is one collection of rodent skulls (though admittedly one of the best in the world). The specimens numbered in the tens of thousands. We do actually have *quite* a lot of evidence about natural history you know.

It goes without saying that when you visit most major museums (and even many minor ones) what you actually see on display in terms of fossils or actual animal or plant specimens is just a fraction of what the museum holds. Some museums are working to bring those out into the light (such as the Darwin centre in the NHM) but for most it’s sadly impractical or impossible. However it worth highlighting just how much stuff we have as people jsut don’t realise and it is important to understand that this is what the science is based on.




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