"An African bush elephant called Henry. Glittering-winged butterflies. A
palm-sized taxidermy pink fairy armadillo. These are just a few of the
awe-inspiring specimens on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of
Natural History in Washington, D.C.
But the 12,000-or-so items that the public sees on exhibit represent not even a
single percentage point of the museum’s full collection of 148 million
“By and large, the vast majority of things are not on exhibit because the vast
majority of things are not for exhibit,” says museum director Kirk Johnson.
“They’re for scientific research and knowledge.”
Most people know natural history museums as sites of school field trips and
weekend wonderment, places to ogle dinosaur fossils and whale skeletons. But
behind the scenes, their collections are vast, valuable repositories. Holding
historic data on everything from plant evolution to infectious diseases to
mineral deposits, these collections offer a wealth of information that can help
researchers of the natural world better understand the current environmental
changes driven by the climate crisis and other human activity. In the past,
researchers had to visit collections to sort through jars of preserved
specimens and sheets of pressed plants. Now museums are stepping up, making it
easier for scientists — and anybody — to delve into and explore the trove of
knowledge held behind the scenes.
“We’re not just a place full of old stuff,” says Johnson. “We’re the place that
records what’s happening. We’re a tape recorder for the planet.”"
*** Xanni ***
Chief Scientist, Xanadu
Partner, Glass Wings
Manager, Serious Cybernetics