How can museum collections contribute to biodiversity conservation in strategic ways?

You might have heard of some big-picture assessments over the last 12 months- the IPCC 1.5 degrees report, IPBES Global Assessment, and IPCC Assessment of Land Use and Climate Change to name the most obvious. How can museum collections contribute to research, policy and management related to these? Finding ways to assess and articulate the value of collections for answering key questions relating to biodiversity conservation was the basis for a project I ran, with funding from the British Ecological Society. I’ve written a couple of posts on this blog about the main output publication of the project, but in case you missed that, you can get it here:

Of course, collections in museums have many, many, many uses. Finding ways to articulate and assess their value in strategic ways is not as obvious, until you look at what are the challenges facing biodiversity and how they are being prioritised or managed those challenges, and then looking at what questions collections support or could support.

Researchers, policy workers and site/species managers working to conserve global biodiversity (‘biodiversity workers’) have relatively little contact with museums, and vice versa. To help address this situation, I was awarded a grant by BES in 2018–19 to better understand the perceptions that biodiversity workers and UK museum workers had of the potential of
UK natural history collections to support the conservation of global biodiversity. The study received 454 detailed responses from
biodiversity workers, including 224 scientists, 88 biodiversity policy workers, 53 biodiversity data workers, 23 site and species managers, and
66 people working in a combination of these areas. Respondents included many national nodes for the Convention on Biological Diversity, Global Strategy for Plant Conservation and Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF); government ministries; and a wide range of agencies including IUCN, Plantlife, and Flora and Fauna International.

Responses were received from 84 countries worldwide. In the UK (and the Isle of Man), contributions were received from DEFRA, NERC, BAS, JNCC, Kew, Natural England, CEH, SNH and Historic England among others, and researchers in many universities. In terms of UK museum workers, responses were received from 133 museum curators and collection managers, from all of the major museums, many medium-sized and small museums, and from all four constituent countries. This study is the largest of its kind.

The study was framed around ‘One Hundred Questions of Importance to the Conservation of Global Biodiversity’ (Sutherland et al. 2009). The aim of that study was to compile a list of 100 questions that, if answered, would have the greatest impact on the conservation of biological diversity worldwide. The questions were developed by a team of representatives of
the world’s major conservation organisations, professional scientific societies, and universities, and the work was intended to be of use to
organisations wishing to support biodiversity research programmes effectively. As museums have unique resources that can potentially
contribute to biodiversity conservation, the 100 questions have a high relevance. Sutherland and others’ study found that the 100 questions fell
into twelve topics:

Ecosystem function and services
Climate change
Technological change
Protected areas
Ecosystem management and restoration
Terrestrial ecosystems
Marine ecosystems
Freshwater ecosystems
Species management
Nature conservation organisational
systems and processes
Societal context and change
Impact of conservation interventions

Biodiversity workers were invited to complete an online survey to explore how they thought UK museum collections supported (or could or couldn’t support) research, policy and management in relation to the topics they
had expertise in, using the same topic areas as listed above. In parallel, UK museum workers completed a similar online survey to explore how they
thought UK museum collections could support the same topics. Both groups were asked to identify what actions would help to promote more effective use of collections to conserve global biodiversity. The two surveys were advertised widely through social media, email distribution lists, IUCN
website and at conferences.

80% or more of experts in each topic thought that UK museum collections currently support or could support research, policy and management in those areas. This is a very encouraging result, demonstrating the usefulness, or at least potential usefulness, of collections to support action to address contemporary threats to biodiversity.

The publication drills down further, to explore which key questions biodiversity workers, and museums workers, thought that collections currently support or could support.

There was a fairly strong agreement between biodiversity workers and UK museum workers as to which of the 100 questions they thought UK
museum collection could support. There were 31 questions 50% or more members of both groups thought museum collections could support, and
49 questions neither group thought museum collections could support. These 31 questions can be thought of as a strategic direction for
biodiversity workers and UK museum workers, to develop use of collections to support biodiversity research, policy and site/species management. As most respondents to the museum survey were curators working with natural history collections, the high level of agreement can be taken as strong evidence of the value of natural history curators for making effective use of natural history collections. However, it is worth noting that differences of opinion between the two groups of respondents
are worth exploring further, as they suggest additional uses for collections that are not currently being considered by the other group.

The publication explores a number of topics relating to the barriers to effective use of collections, and how collections and museums can support biodiversity conservation in an ongoing way. Those subjects will be explored in further posts.

Published by Henry McGhie

I have set up Curating Tomorrow as a new business. I know that lots of people, organisations and networks care about the communities they are based in, broader social issues and the natural environment. Curating Tomorrow takes museum-based skills of curating, and applies them to the wider world. It is about helping people and organisations move farther, faster, together to build a better world.

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