Over the past 300 years, people have collected objects and specimens to place in natural history museums throughout the world—but they aren’t simply static collections of specimens for people to view.

Researchers have recognized the value in these collections to help scientists and decision-makers to find solutions to urgent, wide-ranging issues such as climate change, food insecurity, human health, pandemic preparedness and wildlife conservation.

Now, in the first step of an ambitious effort to inventory global holdings, a group of natural history museums has mapped the total collections from 73 of the world’s largest natural history museums in 28 countries, including the collections from four University of Michigan museums.

To better understand this immense, underutilized resource, lead scientists from natural history museums worldwide created an innovative but simple framework to rapidly evaluate the size and composition of natural history museum collections globally. The findings were published in Science.

“The University of Michigan Herbarium, the Museum of Zoology, the Museum of Paleontology and the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology together have something like 17 million specimens and artifacts. We have some of the finest natural history collections on the planet,” said Hernán López-Fernández, associate chair for collections at the Museum of Zoology and Herbarium, curator of fishes and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

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