One of my favourite descriptions of natural history museums is as “organisms that ingest and never excrete” [1]. At times, this biological metaphor underscores the curse of museum curators and administrators who continually try to find space for growing collections; yet this definition doesn’t tell the whole story.

All museums collect, but there is much, much more that goes on. Let’s review some natural history museum basics. Each year, scientists discover and describe about 15 000 new species of plants and animals [2], and about 100 new minerals [3].

In 2015, the scientists at the Canadian Museum of Nature described 34 new species.

A mineral specimen.
The main crystal in this image is the new mineral arisite-(Ce). It was discovered by museum researchers Paula Piilonen, Joel Grice, Ralph Rowe and Bob Gault. It is from the Aris carbonatite in Namibia in June 2010. The field of view is 2 mm. Co-author William Lechner took the photo. Read the paper. Image: William Lechner © William Lechner

Every discovery and investigation is based on finding the best example for the species, often the first one found—the type specimen. For the new species to be accepted by the scientific community, the description has to be published in a peer-reviewed journal and the type specimen must be stored safely in a museum collection.

In addition to the type specimen, there are often many other specimens of the same species that are collected at the same time and place. These good examples are often presented to other museums to share the knowledge and for safe keeping. In addition to the essential “ingestions” of type material by natural history museums, other specimens are deposited in the collections to establish the findings of thousands of scientific studies from all over the world.

Natural history collections grow, all the time. Based on an ongoing survey done by the Canadian Museum of Nature, the collections of 17 major natural history museums in Canada increased from 35 million to nearly 38 million from 2014–2015.

Bob Anderson digs in a forest floor.
Museum entomologist Robert Anderson recently searched through the leaf litter in Cuba to discover new species of beetles, especially weevils, his specialty. Bob has discovered and described dozens of new species during his career. Image: Robert Anderson © Canadian Museum of Nature

As one of the institutions in the survey, the Canadian Museum of Nature acquired 435 000 of those specimens. The data associated with those specimens are freely available to the science community.

Specimens That Travel

The ingestion part of the story is huge. And it is true that we as museums rarely “excrete” or get rid of specimens, but it does happen in limited amounts and under controlled conditions. Our specimens are regularly used in the research done by our staff, by dozens of scientists and students that visit us each year, and through loans to other research institutions.

Last year we sent out 38 loans throughout Canada and an additional 56 to 12 other countries. A total of 5300 specimens that were ingested by us went on the road to be used in other studies, most of which will eventually be sent back.

A woman stands working at a table with herbarium sheets.
Micheline Bouchard (now retired) is seen here preparing botanical material for loan. This activity happens regularly in our herbarium. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

Even though we go to great lengths to conserve our collection for as long as possible, some parts are used in destructive ways for research that adds to our understanding of the natural world.

For example, we often use a tiny part of plant or animal specimens for DNA analysis, one of our powerful tools to help identify and describe our specimens. Pieces of other tissues such as bones, feathers and scales, and pieces of fossils are used in studies to determine age, the level of contaminants or other elements that tell a story about ecological significance. In other cases, fragments of minerals are often taken from specimens to define crystal structures and chemical composition.

A woman sits working at a table with a specimen on it.
Museum volunteer Carol German samples the feathers from an Eider Duck for stable isotope analysis. The process generates valuable data, but destroys the sample. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

While all of those examples don’t exactly equate to museum “excretion” in our biological model, you can at least see that the description of the normal, healthy, dynamic museum has an active metabolism.

Many examples of our steady diet of specimens are on display at the museum, including our most recent meal, Judith the dinosaur (Spiclypeus shipporum). Information about the other parts of our collection can be found at, the museum’s website, in the Research and Collections section.


[1] Keene, S. 2005. Fragments of the World: Uses of Museum Collections. Oxford: Elsevier, Butterworth-Heinemann.

[2] Thomson Reuters. 2016. Index to Organism Names (ION). Data gathered from the Zoological Record. Website consulted on June 20, 2016.

[3] International Mineralogical Association. 2016. List of Minerals.