UMMAA and three other U-M museums—the U-M Herbarium, Museum of Zoology, and the Museum of Paleontology—contributed to a groundbreaking global inventory of the collections of 73 natural history museums in 28 countries. The study, “A Global Approach for Natural History Museum Collections,” was published in Science on March 23, 2023, and written about in Michigan News and The New York Times.

The purpose of the project, led by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History Museum, and the Natural History Museum in London, was to create a framework to evaluate natural history collections of museums around the world, so that researchers have better access to knowledge that might help address issues like food insecurity, wildlife conservation, climate change, and diseases and human health.

The framework consists of 19 collection types (from archaeology and biology to geology, paleobiology and zoology) and 16 terrestrial and marine habitats (Africa, Asia, Pacific, Atlantic, etc). The project revealed that there are more than 1.1 billion objects in the collections of these museums. 

Find the framework for the global collections inventory and a link to the Science article here.

Jim Moss, one of UMMAA’s collection managers, who has been working on this project since 2018, writes, “The University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology has been historically associated with the U-M Museum of Natural History. However, there is currently very little of our material currently on display. There are many reasons for this, but one of the primary reasons is that communities typically do not like being depicted as being situated in the past (as has often been the case), and in the same contexts as dinosaurs, rocks, and animals.

“However, despite this trend to distance anthropology collections from natural history, I felt it was important to include UMMAA’s collections in this effort, as there is currently no similar work to bring together cultural collections specifically. Additionally, anthropology museums do hold many objects that speak to the global biodiversity effort, including our ethnobotanical collection, our comparative faunal collection, and our archaeological collections, which document human interactions with the natural world going back thousands of years (and more). Additionally, many (most?) cultural objects are made from materials that would be considered part of natural history collections, such as animals, plants, and geological materials.

“Museum collection data aggregators such as GBIF and iDigBio do not include anthropology collections. In fact, UMMAA’s own collections database is not publicly available. While we are working to correct this, there are many decisions around what should be made publicly available that need to be made in consultation with the communities that the collections represent. Efforts such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and ReConnect/ReCollect: Reparative Connections to Philippine Collections at the University of Michigan are making progress, but we are confronting over 100 years of collecting practices that typically did not work with or consult with the local communities from which material was extracted, and progress is slow.

“The idea of the global museum has come under scrutiny in recent years. Global museums were frequently assembled as part of colonizing efforts. In many cases, due to political power imbalances, collections could be taken from local communities in the name of science. While cultural collections can certainly contribute to global biodiversity efforts, we must consider the impact on and thus the will of the people who we claim the collections represent.”