Thursday, January 29, 2015

Smart Collecting: A New Collecting Culture

Fig.1. Antique Cabinet Museum in Pennsylvania holds many natural history curiosities (Credit: Michelle J. Enemark, 2011).

Editor's Note

This article first appeared as a post written by Adele Crane for Cracking the Collections, a blog run by the Emerging Professionals Group in the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC). This group aims to connect young professionals interested working with natural history collections to their peers and mentors.

Adele is the program assistant for Scientific Collections International (SciColl), which is housed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. She manages the SciColl blog and other day-to-day program operations.

During the 1993 outbreak of a novel hantavirus in the Four Corners region of the United States, an effort to locate the pathogen's origin included investigating both human and animal samples in medical and natural history collections. A 1978 frozen tissue sample linked the outbreak pathogen to its natural reservoir in the deer mouse. Scientists were able to predict future outbreaks based on die-offs of local deer mouse populations. This piece of tissue from decades ago was never collected to provide the missing link between species, nor was it meant to be the basis for predicting an outbreak. However, this does show that without holistic and thorough sampling, collections cannot be used to their fullest potential.

Last October, we hosted some of the world’s experts on emerging infectious diseases at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to discuss scientific collections’ role in disease research and response. Among conversations on how to apply collections in novel ways and streamline disease response – including a presentation of the Four Corners hantavirus – several attendees called for a new collecting culture. Together, we developed ideas for how to “collect smart” for wider-reaching, sustainable, and well-rounded collections.

Smart collecting techniques are a part of this new collecting culture that intends to maximize the value and use of collections. How can we be smart and frugal about sampling and maintenance? Additionally, how can we expand our collections with consideration for future use? We need ingenuity to connect different types of collections and answer challenging questions. Due to limited resources (funding, personnel, interest, etc.), a new culture of collecting works to maximize the use and value of collections.

Workshop participants agreed that the following concepts would increase this utility effectively:
  • Holistic sampling, including keeping specimens for a geographically and temporally broad range and preserving component parts associated with the specimen (e.g., hosts, parasites, DNA, reservoirs);
  • Connecting through databases and online systems; and
  • Sustaining through collaboration between collections and institutions.

Fig.2. Holistic sampling demands connecting these eggs to the mother or location, along with any parasites or associated specimens (Credit: Michelle J. Enemark, 2011).


Holistic sampling

Holistic sampling is already a goal, if not a rule, in natural history museums. Smart curatorial practices, however, will help maintain proper sampling techniques. First, collections need to stretch across time and space, as well as have emphases on particular sites. Secondly, associated samples, such as a parasite and its host, need to remain connected. Simply put, samples are far more powerful tools to answer new questions when they are part of an interconnected scientific resource that can trace a specimen from its original collection to its derived data. While acquiring the interest and funding to maintain or expand a collection is no easy task, holistic sampling creates collections that can accommodate our future needs, from conservation efforts to predicting the next outbreak.


Connecting across collections

A critical aspect of a modern sustainable collecting culture is maintaining the connections between samples, data, and research. First, access to an online database immediately increases the reach of the institution and expands the capacity to connect various disciplines in research. One good example is ARCTOS, a collection management system that integrates specimens and information on collection location and time, publications, storage, and other metadata. ARCTOS can accommodate information collected during holistic sampling and acts as an open portal to museums’ specimens.

Second, broader systems are needed to connect researchers and curators to each other. Databases – such as GRBio, the Global Registry of Biodiversity Repositories, and GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility – operate on a global level. These online systems manage information from thousands of institutions and collections, raising awareness and accessibility of collections and specimens. Such databases extend the reach of collections beyond disciplinary and institutional boundaries.

Fig.3: The Marine Mammals Collection at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History holds many bones (including these skulls) and offers researchers an extensive insight into marine environment and mammal evolution (Credit: Adele Crane, 2014).


Communication and collaboration

The final recommendation made in October was the call for more collaboration, an invitation to start and continue the discussion of collecting. Connecting to other collections or museums would ease the resource strain of creating and preserving a well-rounded collection. Students and researchers alike should be drawn into collections science, across disciplines, and between institutions. Crossing these boundaries allows for surprising use of specimens. One such example is in quantifying heavy metals in the environment. Researchers traced the increase of mercury contamination since pre-industrial times by studying seabird collections from natural history museums. Another example is when scientists tracked human migration patterns through changes in the herpesvirus genome. Our organization and others -- such as SPNHC, ISBER, and WFCC , to name a few-- are in the perfect position to promote discussions on interdisciplinary uses of collections. Workshops and meetings allow for the spread of new ideas and the formation of new relationships.


A new collecting culture

This interpretation of “collecting smart” does not just mean pressing more plants or filling more jars with ethanol. The culture of collecting needs to be one of sustainability and maximization. That is, unfortunately, easier said than done. In a world that has huge costs associated with collecting, even prestigious institutions are on shaky ground. Scientific collections are an investment for the future, and we can maintain viable and sustainable collections that will adapt to future needs. Holistic sampling, an online network of samples, collections and resources, and collaboration among colleagues, both new and established, all lead toward a new collecting culture. We house amazing research and education opportunities and, hopefully, a smarter way to collect will maintain that tradition.


Funk, V.A. (2014, October). The Erosion of Collections-Based Science: Alarming Trend or Coincidence? [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Kress, W.J. (2014, Dec 12). Valuing Collections. Science, 346 (6215): 1310. Retrieved from

Suarez, A.V. & Tsutsui, N.D. (2004, Jan). The Value of Museum Collections for Research and Society.BioScience, 54 (1): 66-74. Retrieved from:

Yates, T. L., J. Mills, C. Parmenter, T. Ksiazek, R. Parmenter, C. Calisher, S. Nichol, K. Abbot, J. Young, M. Morrison, B. Beaty, J. Dunnum, R. Baker, and C. Peters. 2002. The Ecology and Evolutionary History of an Emergent Disease: Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome. Bioscience. 52(11):989-998.

1 comment :

  1. Hi.....
    Smart collecting techniques are a part of this new collecting culture that intends to maximize the value and use of collections. ... Due to limited resources (funding, personnel, interest, etc.), a new culture of collecting works to maximize the use and value of collections.
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