33 Million and Counting

A look at the scientific collections at the American Museum of Natural History

When I was 10 years old my aunt had her closet remodeled to properly store her luxury handbags. At that time I didn’t think much about the styles, or the prices of such items, or even the system she used to organize it all. Instead, I was obsessed with playing hide and seek with my brother in some of the unused cabinets. It wasn’t until years later as a teenager when she showed me her Excel spreadsheet with the names of the bags; along with prices and dates they were purchased and descriptions of each one. Yes, I definitely think my aunt has found her obsession in life, but this need to categorize, store, and keep track of “things” we hold dear to us can be found at all levels of society.

In the summer 2014 issue of Rotunda, a Member magazine curated by the American Museum of Natural History, an article was published on the digital and material collections at the museum. At that time I was working part time in the Membership Department. Most of my knowledge about the museum was mainly about the day-to-day operations, what were the special attractions being offered, and the most important, where the closest bathroom is located. It wasn’t until that summer when I learned how vast the museum’s collections really are.

I remember taking a copy of the summer issue of Rotunda and reading it on the commute home. Approximately 33 million items make up the scientific collection at the museum (today, it may be close to 34 million!) with items ranging in invertebrate zoology to anthropological artifacts. Many the items collected are very old, but collected from around 150 years ago when the museum was established. To understand the scope of the museum’s collections, a diagram was created to illustrate each major science division’s collections on page 18 of the summer issue of Rotunda. The first episode of the Shelf Life series is also a great way to help you visualize the size of the museum’s collections. You can access it here.

So, what now? It’s quite hard to show the public all the items a museum has in its collections. There’s just not enough space! But in the last year the museum has began an extensive project to include a new. The Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation is going to be a new building that will allow the public to not just view the museum as a place that is one of New York City’s best tourist stops, but as what it was originally intended to be – an educational tool that will help shape our children’s future. New educational labs will be included that will help underserved New York City public school students access a wide range of tools to help them better understand topics in biology, physics, and see items never put on display before. It will allow for more questions to be asked about what makes a museum’s collection important and understand that what we see on display during museum hours is just the tip of the iceberg.  

Tiffany Chan, INFO 653-02

Posted in Archives, Cataloging, Classification, Museums

by Hugh McLeod

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Pratt Institute School of Information
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