Natural history museums have one of the largest concentrations of experts devoted to taxonomy and systematic research. Museum curators discover, document and describe species, and study their evolutionary relationships.
Henry Choong is the Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the Royal BC Museum.
“These hydroids here were collected at least 100 years ago” Choong explains, pointing to specimens into his lab. “And here I have a copy of American Hydroids by Charles Nutting, a reference that we still use today.”
Because even 100 years later, the reference book still contains vital information.
“I am constantly amazed at the mountain of knowledge, and the amount of work that had been done previously, given that we now have so many more tools and technologies at our disposal. [The early scientists] really achieved a remarkable depth of knowledge, which we try to build on.”
Choong points out that “science is cumulative knowledge, so every piece of knowledge that we add to the existing body of knowledge pushes us to understand both the future and the past, as well as the present.”
Museum research is unique, says Choong, because of the collections.
“One of our main goals is to understand what plants and animals are, and how they’re related to other plants and animals.”
Museum scientists in more than 6,700 institutions around the world collectively study more than 2 billion biological specimens.
“It’s very easy to visualize museum collections as static, and just a storage space for specimens, but what they really are, and how museum science is different from science everywhere else, is that collections are living things. Specimens in the collections help to tell us about the changes that are happening in our environment today.
“Ocean warming, for example, and loss of species, which is happening faster than we can document. In that case, especially, museum collections are vital, because they are a tangible link to that record, which is disappearing as we speak.”
It’s also important for museum scientists to share what they are learning, Choong stresses.
“In museums we have the double mission, if you will, of both research and education, sharing our knowledge and our discoveries with varied audiences.”
And always adding to the collections to increase that depth of knowledge.
“Museum collections,” Choong summarizes, “form the primary record of life’s history and biodiversity.”