Research & Collections
VMNH has developed a strong reputation for significant research and important collections, which now number more than 10 million items. Research at VMNH, led by five doctoral curators, focuses on studies of Invertebrate Paleontology, Vertebrate Paleontology, Recent Invertebrates, Archaeology, Mammalogy, Marine Science and Geology. While the Museum's primary geographic strengths are in Virginia and the Southeastern United States, the collections and research programs span the globe with programs in China, Peru, Brazil, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Russia and Tanzania.
The Museum's message is simple: understanding natural history is the first step toward meeting the challenges of preserving and managing natural resources in the future. From the vacationer watching birds on the shores of the Chesapeake to the garden enthusiast in Alexandria, each and every Virginian directly benefits from the ongoing research and collections programs at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.
The collections at the Virginia Museum of Natural History continue to grow, in keeping with the mission and purposes of the Museum: "to interpret Virginia's natural heritage within a global context in ways that are relevant to all the citizens of the Commonwealth, . . . to preserve elements of natural history, to serve as a permanent repository for specimens, especially those of Virginia origin, and to make the natural history material and its data accessible to researchers and the public." The collections provide the basis for both in-house research and research that extends nationally and internationally.
The curators at the Virginia Museum of Natural History study a large variety of subjects, but focus on seven specific subjects. They are: archaeology, geology, invertebrate paleontology, mammalogy, marine biology, recent invertebrates, and vertebrate paleontology.
Q & A
What is a specimen?
The objects held by natural history museums are called specimens. A biological or paleontological specimen is an individual organism, part of an organism,or a naturally-occurring material related to an organism. For example, birds are traditionally preserved as skins with the feathers still attached. The bird skin is usually positioned on its back with the wings tucked and the legs in line with the body. This type of preservation (as opposed to a life-like pose with the wings spread) is space efficient, allowing more bird skins to be stored in a given amount of space. Nests, eggs, and fossil trackways are examples of naturally-occurring materials that are not organisms, but they are natural history specimens. A specimen may exist in its original state, in an altered form, or some combination of the two. For example, a fossil may be left in its rock matrix, or if time, money, and techniques permit, it may be removed from the matrix. A specimen may consist of one piece or many related pieces. For example, an individual mammal is typically preserved as a skin with hair attached and a skeleton. The skin, together with all the individual bones and the skull, are considered to be a single specimen because they all represent the same individual animal. Bones and teeth are the connection between living mammals and extinct forms represented only by fossil material.
Why are most specimens never seen by the general public?
Specimens in natural history collections are stored in special conditions to reduce damage caused by fluctuations and extremes in temperature and humidity. Most specimens are susceptible to deterioration due to exposure to light. Insects and rodents can also cause irreparable physical damage to specimens such as mammal and bird skins.
Proper storage is extremely important, but so is proper documentation. A common saying in museum collections is "A label without a specimen is more useful than a specimen without a label." Labels typically include information about where, when, and how a specimen was obtained. All this information is necessary to place that specimen into the correct geographic, ecological, and evolutionary context.
With a label, the specimen is a wealth of information; without a label, the same specimen is of little or no value to science, although it may be useful for exhibits or educational programming.
Specimens that are displayed in exhibits or used in education programs are subjected to conditions (excessive light and handling) that damage and destroy them over time. Because of the amounts of time, money, and effort required to collect, preserve, and document a specimen, most museums do not use properly documented specimens in their exhibits and programming. For this reason, the vast majority of specimens in natural history collections are never put on public display.
Why do you have so many specimens?
It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict which specimens will be used in the future by whom and for what purpose. Keith Thomson observes, "It is an old saying in business that half of all money spent on advertising is wasted, but nobody can tell which half. Similarly in museums, at any one time it may be urgent or fashionable to study a particular group of organisms or a particular phenomenon. The rest of the collections are unused. But 25 years in the future, a different subset of the collections will be in constant use. Who would have thought it important in 1950 to save broken bits of peregrine falcon eggshell collected over the last century? Or that, after Rachel Carson's book ‘Silent Spring,' such fragments would be essential for documenting the lethal effect of DDT on eggshell thickness worldwide?"*
Holdings of an institution's natural history collections typically reflect the research interests of the scientists who have worked there. For example, VMNH has unusually large collections of tree squirrels and millipeds because of Dr. Moncrief 's and Dr. Hoffman's efforts.