Global Museum Colls Used to Aid Decision Makers: Integration Plan

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

In a Policy Forum, Kirk Johnson and colleagues report a quantitative survey of 73 of the world’s largest natural history museum collections. Using this global dataset, they present a framework for integrating the data it represents into a resource that could be used to address a variety of global issues, including invasive species, biodiversity conservation, climate change, and pandemic preparedness. The vast collections housed in natural history museums worldwide provide a window into the planet’s past and present and are becoming increasingly important resources in policy-relevant research. For example, data from natural history museum collections have been used as the primary source of biodiversity knowledge in several major policy frameworks, including the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Global Warming. However, despite their enormous value, the information in these collections remains largely inaccessible and a comprehensive understanding of what data museum collections hold is lacking. As a first step toward integrating the world’s natural history collections into a comprehensive global scientific infrastructure, Johnson et al. analyzed of 73 of the world’s largest natural history collections from 28 countries. This involved working with the directors and lead science and collection staff to design and complete a simple and rapid survey of their collective holdings. The findings were subdivided into 19 different collection types across 16 geographic regions. Although the analysis included more than 1.1 billion objects, the authors found that most collection information is not digitally accessible – only 16% of the objects have digitally discoverable records, and only 0.2% of biological collections have accessible genomic data. This dominance of “dark data” significantly limits the use of museum collections in broader scientific and policy-making pursuits. The authors call for museums to partner with initiatives focused on digitalizing collections, as one recommendation for making their contents more accessible. “Natural history collections are a form of science infrastructure that is necessary to support society-wide solutions,” they write. The authors do note limitations of their analysis, including that it “does not address the hundreds of smaller museums, their col­lections, and their staffs, which comprise the rest of the global collection; these are especially valuable because of their regional holdings and the specificity of their expertise.”

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