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Preserving Natural Science Collections:

Chronicle of Our Environmental Heritage

Preserving Natural Science Collections




152pp, 2-color report, ebook in PDF format

©1993 National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property, Inc.

This report is the product of the Conservation and Preservation of Natural Science Collections Project, undertaken by the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property (NIC) in partnership with the Association of Systematics Collections (ASC) and the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC). 

Funding for the report was provided by the National Science Foundation, Grant DEB - 9112855. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Report staff:

  • Lawrence L. Reger, President
  • Catharine Hawks, Project Coordinator, Conservation and Preservation of Natural Science Collections
  • Kate Bussey, Project Assistant, Conservation and Preservation o f Natural Science Collections
  • Ellen Cochran Hirzy, Text Editor
  • Paula Peters Chambers, Design and Production Editor

Preface written by W. Donald Duckworth, Hugh H. Genoways, and Carolyn Rose

In the report from a 1988 workshop on collections resources, the Association of Systematics Collections (ASC) noted the need for improved collections preservation, including research on conservation methods and training for natural science conservators. That same year, the natural science organizations and institutions that are members of the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property (NIC) recommended that NIC undertake a project to address these topics.

The Conservation and Preservation of Natural Science Collections Project was established by NIC as a collaborative effort with the Association of Systematics Collections (ASC) and the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC). The goal of the project has been to improve the care of natural science research collections by:

  • gathering and analyzing information from a variety of sources concerning the care and preservation needs of natural science collections;
  • synthesizing the information and identifying priorities;
  • developing strategies to address the challenges;
  • proposing curricula for graduate programs to train conservators in bioscience and geoscience collections;
  • identifying training methods in preventive conservation for collection managers and other professionals; 
  • publishing a report summarizing the findings of the project;
  • disseminating the report to leaders in the natural science and conservation fields; and
  • using the report as a basis for disseminating information to audiences in the private and public sectors in order to stimulate new support for conservation initiatives.

Information on three topics was gathered and analyzed for the project:

  • basic problems affecting the overall care of natural science collections;
  • specific conservation problems in need of research; and
  • collections care and conservation training.

With assistance from ASC and SPNHC, NIC representatives met with nearly 200 research scientists, collections managers, conservators, conservation scientists, educators and institutional administrators to develop an understanding of the conservation needs of natural science collections. Meetings were held with members of disciplinary organizations in the natural sciences to survey their views on the preservation of these collections and to identify the issues common to all the natural sciences, as well as those that may be specific to a particular discipline.

With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), NIC then convened four multinational, interdisciplinary panels to discuss conservation research for natural science collections. Because of the complexity of the materials in these collections, the panels included specialists in natural and synthetic polymers, materials science, organic and physical chemistry, geochemistry, biochemistry, microbiology and mechanical engineering as well as conservators and natural scientists. The panelists suggested the technology transfer and research approaches necessary to meet current conservation needs and to address the preservation of specimens that will be collected in the future.

Following the materials conservation panels, two working groups met to synthesize the information from previous meetings and recommend education and training initiatives to support the conservation of natural science collections. Based on the efforts of the panels and working groups, an advisory panel composed of administrators from museums and other collecting institutions reviewed a draft of material for this report and developed recommendations and strategies.

This report reflects the overall views of the many project participants and our effort to integrate their ideas into a plan of action. We hope it will serve as a catalyst for further discussion and a stimulus for collections care initiatives in natural history institutions and in funding organizations.

We extend our sincere appreciation to our project staff, Catharine Hawks and Katherine Bussey, for organizing the meetings, preparing transcripts of nearly 100 hours of meeting tapes and assembling draft documents for review; to Ellen Cochran Hirzy and NIC Editor Paula Peters Chambers for bringing clarity and order to our ideas; and to ASC Executive Director Elaine Hoagland and SPNHC President Gerald Fitzgerald for their advice, cooperation and steadfast attendance at meetings throughout the project.

We are extremely grateful to NIC President Lawrence L. Reger and the NIC board of directors for their willingness to commit substantial resources to this project and to the NSF Division of Environmental Biology for its generous support of the materials science panel meetings, the working group and advisory panel meetings, and the production of this report. We also acknowledge NSF Program Officers David Shindel and Leonard Krishtalka for their advice and assistance in the development of the project.

Finally, we are deeply indebted to the many professionals who have graciously contributed their time and expertise to this effort. The participation of these men and women is eloquent testimony to the importance of natural science collections and to the breadth and depth of the concern for their care.

W. Donald Duckworth
President and Director
Bishop Museum, Hawai’i State Museum of Natural and Cultural History

Hugh H. Genoways
University of Nebraska State Museum

Carolyn L. Rose
Senior Research Conservator
National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution