The hidden worlds within natural history museums - Joshua Drew | Summary and Q&A

December 2, 2014
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The hidden worlds within natural history museums - Joshua Drew


Natural history museums hold an unimaginable wealth of scientific knowledge, with their collections serving as windows into the past, present, and future of our planet.

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Key Insights

  • 🥹 Natural history museums house vast collections, with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City holding over 32 million specimens.
  • 🛟 These collections serve as a scientific sanctuary for researchers, enabling breakthroughs in evolution, cosmic origins, and the Earth's history.
  • 🐦 Museum collections have helped solve mysteries like the decline of predatory bird populations and have contributed to understanding the impact of climate change.
  • 🧬 Specimens in natural history museums have been used for DNA sequencing, genetic discoveries, and the identification of ancient habitats.
  • 👶 There are approximately 900 natural history museums worldwide, each contributing to new discoveries and insights about our planet.
  • 👣 Museums help track gradual changes over time, such as the blooming of plants, providing valuable data for understanding the impact of modern threats.
  • 🧑‍🔬 Natural history museums offer a glimpse into forgotten worlds, providing windows into the past for future scientists.


When you think of natural history museums, you probably picture exhibits filled with ancient lifeless things, like dinosaurs meteroites, and gemstones. But behind that educational exterior, which only includes about 1% of a museum's collection, there are hidden laboratories where scientific breakthroughs are made. Beyond the unmarked doors, and ... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: How do natural history museums contribute to scientific research?

Natural history museums provide scientists with access to vast collections of specimens, allowing them to study and analyze different aspects of our planet's past, present, and future. These collections serve as valuable resources for solving research problems and testing hypotheses.

Q: How did museum collections help in solving the mystery of the decline in predatory bird populations?

Scientists at The Field Museum in Chicago used decades of egg collections from predatory birds to determine that the thinning of their eggshells was caused by the pesticide DDT. By analyzing the specimens, they were able to link the decline in bird populations to the accumulation of DDT through the food chain.

Q: What are some examples of scientific breakthroughs achieved using natural history museum collections?

Natural history museum collections have been used to sequence the Neanderthal genome, discover genes responsible for red fur in mammoths, and identify ancient breeding grounds of giant sharks. These collections have proven to be invaluable resources for various branches of scientific research.

Q: How do natural history museum collections help in understanding the impact of global climate change?

Museum collections, such as samples collected over 100 years from Walden Pond, provide a continuous record of how our world is changing. By comparing historical samples to present-day ones, scientists can measure shifts in the timing of natural events like blooming plants, offering insights into the effects of climate change.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Natural history museums contain only about 1% of their collections on display, with the rest hidden away in laboratories.

  • These hidden collections house millions of specimens, including plants, animals, minerals, fossils, and artifacts, which provide insights into evolution, cosmic origins, and the history of our planet.

  • Scientists use these specimens to solve scientific mysteries, such as the decline of predatory birds due to the accumulation of the pesticide DDT, and to understand the impact of modern threats like climate change.

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