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Our Dead Stuff is Very Much Alive

Every year as we renew the Museum’s insurance plan, we engage in the thought exercise of how to value an irreplaceable collection—millions of specimens, artifacts, and files accumulated over nearly 150 years that represent our region’s past and present. Although most of the items in our collection lack the traditional value of “collector’s items, they represent a vast and invaluable scientific treasure. 

On its own, the San Diego Natural History Museum collection is distinctive in its tight geographic focus on Southern California and the Baja California Peninsula, coupled with a long timeline of scientific study. As part of the wider world of natural history collections, ours is a rare deep dive into a region characterized by unique and extremely high biodiversity and interlocking threats of development, climate change, and invasive species.  

Today’s article in the prestigious journal Science counts The Nat among the world’s largest and most important natural history collections and highlights the potential of digital access to a combined 1.1 billion specimens in the global collection. It also calls for a massive effort to digitize and pool data across the world. 

While it may look like drawers of dead plants and animals, our collection is very much alive with information critical to the future of our region, and indeed, human survival on the planet. 

Biosecurity, food security, human health, and environmental monitoring in the face of climate change are all aided by the specimens in our care and the data carefully recorded by generations of scientists. Indeed, it was our bird egg collection that helped illuminate the threat of DDT to birds of prey in the 1970s. It was our decades-old yerba santa (Eriodictyon crassifolium) specimens that helped biomedical researchers at the Salk Institute get one step closer to a cure for Alzheimer’s and dementia in 2019. And today, researchers continually return to our collectionboth virtually and in person—to figure out when zoonotic diseases spread to new populations, to learn how wildfire is changing our ecosystems, and to understand why insects are disappearing all around us 

Every day, we strive to share our collection data freely and to expand access through digitization. Globally, only 16% of natural history museum objects have digitally discoverable records and only 0.2% have accessible genomic records. At The Nat, we have been working on digitizing our collections for more than a decade. We also collect and store tissue samples from all incoming specimens for future DNA analyses 

A century ago, Nat scientists collected specimens throughout our mission region as they strove to learn about our corner of the continent. It was a tall order, as San Diego County alone is one of the most biologically diverse counties in the contiguous 48 states, and the Baja California Peninsula is teeming with endemic species found nowhere else on Earth. Today we employ sophisticated analyses of these same specimens to understand genetic relationships, nutrient balance in ecosystems, environmental pollutants, and diseases. As new analytical methods become available, our irreplaceable collection becomes more valuable every day.   

Our collection is a priceless ecological record of our special region and an integral part of the world’s natural heritage. We’re committed to caring for it and maximizing access to the endless answers stored withinforever. 



Posted by Judy Gradwohl, President and CEO.

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