Natural history museums have traditionally measured their worth by the breadth of their physical collections. With all the digital projects that archive scientific information, these holdings may seem outdated or superfluous. Carl Zimmer thinks museums still have an important role to play in the future of science research and education, though, and writes for Seed about the importance of maintaining their real-world collections.
Digital projects like the The Encyclopedia of Life, which catalogues the work of natural history museums digitally, are evolving into stiff competition for museums. These digital resources are often less costly to maintain than regular museums, and they can sometimes reach larger audiences.
Zimmer hopes that the existence of resources like EOL won’t discourage museums from taking care of their physical collections. He cites a recent case of an set of Neanderthal bones in a German museum: After languishing in storage for 150 years, scientists found them, took DNA samples, and were able to draw new insights about our evolutionary relationship to Neanderthals. Preserving physical museum collections, then, is not just a nod to the past, but a way of claiming “a stake in our future.”