Article by Nicklaus Kruger

Museums aren’t just musty buildings for storing boring old stuff. They have the power to teach us about our past and open our minds to new ideas — and to transform the world around us. On International Museum Day 2022, we’re celebrating that power, by exploring how natural science collections can help us build a better future.

Natural science collections are preserved plants and animals – things like pressed plants and animal skins, skulls, bones; pinned insects; frogs and snakes in ethanol to preserve them. These are mostly dead things kept in very large collections, mostly in museums and herbaria that have been built up over a very long period of time – and with their help, we can understand not only where we’ve been, but where we’re going.

Prof Michelle Hamer

Lead, Natural Science Collections Facility

South Africa has an estimated 100 natural science collections at approximately 40 institutions – museums, herbaria, universities, and so on. Together, they provide over 18 million objects or specimens representing about 100,000 different species of plants, animals and fungi, assembled over the last 200 years and representing life on Earth since its origins.

Natural science collections are critical infrastructure for the field of biodiversity science – and particularly the basic science of taxonomy, which documents, catalogues, describes and names species. Research and data from these collections contribute to solving problems of national and global relevance in many different ways, fulfilling important roles in the field of science and broader society.

By studying natural science collections, we can answer a wide range of questions. Questions like: What makes the Coelacanth so special? How do natural science collections help promote food security? How do science collections help protect and contribute to indigenous knowledge? And do species ever get un-extincted?

Shanelle Ribeiro

Project Manager, Natural Science Collections Facility

For example…

  • Big Data – Patterns From Past To Present: The data associated with the specimens in natural science collections, integrated and analyzed in data sets across institutions, can provide an understanding of past and present patterns in the distribution of biodiversity, and allow future predictions that can inform decision-making. And the actual specimens, because they have been collected over time, can be studied to understand emergence/origins and spread of pests, pathogens, disease vectors and alien invasives, and past diets and movement which informs management and preventative strategies for health and agriculture. 
  • Understanding Climate Change: South Africa is globally recognized for research in the palaeosciences. The specimens held in collections include a wide range and number of fossils, which can provide a unique understanding of past climate impacts on biodiversity. Considering the current global climate and extinction crises, and with increasing recognition of how dependent humans are on functioning ecosystems and natural resources for their survival, the natural science collections, associated data and services are important for understanding impact, mitigation and adaptation, and protecting the systems that sustain life.
  • Empowering Communities – Sharing Is Caring: We all need to work together to protect our biodiversity and use it in a sustainable way that contributes to the country and its people. Natural science collections play a role in this agenda, and by contributing to expanding the holdings, and sharing materials we can work more effectively and efficiently.Museum exhibitions, events and lectures based on biological collections contribute to a greater public understanding and appreciation of nature, both local and world-wide, and the need to conserve it. Collections are resources to be used for research, capacity development and product development, in the interests of all

The Natural Science Collections Facility’s Value of Natural Science Collections project, funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and run in partnership with 16 of SA’s scientific institutions, aims to document the priceless value of these collections, and their contributions to saving our planet, and in so doing increase public appreciation and understanding, and inform decision making by policy makers and governing bodies.

Many of us are familiar with museums, and their wonderful displays – like the Whale Room in Cape Town’s Iziko Museum. Fewer of us know much about herbaria – and even fewer of us know that there’s a whole other side to these institutions which the general public don’t get to see. And that’s the side that’s really exciting – the side where we don’t just remember the past; we use specimens to do new work right now, and come to a better understanding of our world.

Dr Ian Engelbrecht

Data Coordinator, Natural Science Collections Facility

To read more about the value of South African natural science collections, and the research projects that have contributed to our understanding and conservation of earth, visit: 

And if you’re keen to experience some of the International Museum Day fun, and join museums all over South Africa – and all around the world – in unleashing the power of museums…and of course you are…well, what are you waiting for?