I am going to try to give some meaning to the number 10 000 000, because the Canadian Museum of Nature often uses that number to give dimension to the collections at our Natural Heritage Campus; we have about 10 million objects in our collections.

An immediate response is that this is a big number and when we consider how many plants, animals, minerals and fossils are in all Canadian collections, our bit is about one-sixth of the total. That didn’t really help, because now we are dealing with a really big number, about 60 000 000 objects in Canadian natural-history museums.

A woman stands between rows of shelves that hold jars.
Kathy Conlan with her collection of invertebrates at the Natural Heritage Campus. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

Here is an approach with a more-Canadian reference. When we put all of our specimens in jars, freezers, special racks and cabinets, and spread them around in an orderly manner so they are safe and so we can find things, it requires an area equal to five hockey rinks. So it is a spacious assembly, as it should be, because this is a project that has engaged expert men and women for over 150 years. This collection has spanned generations with an important goal: to better understand this place we live in and to keep the best examples to help us remember.

To build such an important collection is an exercise of discovery, a special kind of discovery. Here is an example. When I travel to a new place I look at art and architecture and I often see things that are engaging, inspiring and sometimes powerfully emotional. Those discoveries may be completely new to me, but to an expert in those fields of study, those things have likely been known for decades and are just noteworthy. My art and architecture discoveries can change my life, and often cause me to learn more. A huge personal discovery, but on the new-frontier-ground-breaking-discovery scale, not so important.

Close-up of an eye on a model of a Vagaceratops irvinensis dinosaur.
The eye of a full-sized horned dinosaur model at our museum, based on a specimen from our fossil collection. Image: Mark Graham © Canadian Museum of Nature

There are exact parallels for people discovering the natural world for the first time, seeing marine mammals and birds, finding a fossil, capturing a butterfly or collecting mushrooms. Likely, all of those things are known to the science world, and are powerful personal discoveries that inspire us to better understand our place in this world.

On the other hand, our science experts go to the field, usually with a team of colleagues, and discover new species of plants, animals, minerals and fossils, or discover species that we already know about, but are in places where they have not been seen before. They have the depth of knowledge in their field of expertise to know what they are seeing is new, and they know how to collect it, describe it, add the new knowledge to the growing body of science literature, share it with their colleagues and the public, and conserve it for all time in case others want to study it.

A woman uses a hammer and chisel on a rock face.
Paula Piilonen collecting minerals in Norway. Image: Glenn Poirier © Canadian Museum of Nature

When our experts find things over time, in the context of other collections that happen over longer periods of time, and over vast space (Canada, North American, the globe!), they get a deep understanding of these species, such as how they make a living, where they can be found, who they are related to, how they evolved. This deep knowledge is attached to each of the specimens.

So if you get the chance to visit during our Open House and walk around our five hockey rinks filled with the natural history memories that represent Canada and other places, you may be impressed that you are with 10 000 000 objects. You may also be blown away by knowing that each of those objects is a story about Canada and the natural history that is all around us.