Blog

What exactly is museum science and how does it help? (Timor-Leste Expedition)

By: Maxine Kauter, Category: Science, Date: 30 Nov 2012

As the second and final portion of our expedition to Timor-Leste wraps up we talk about what exactly museum science is and how valuable it can be today.

Selection of fishes from Dr Francis Day collection

S Humphreys © Australian Museum

Recently on this blog we posted a series of entries made by Michael Hugill, a Museum staff member who accompanied our scientists into the field on our recent expedition to Timor-Leste. You can read his blogs here: Michael's Timor Blog. The expedition aimed to provide information about the species of animals present in Timor-Leste to assist in developing a Protected Area Network.

The series prompted a lot of questions and discussions about what exactly museum science is and how it is used. I thought it might be useful to talk a little bit about our science and how the data produced by the surveys we conducted in Timor-Leste has the potential to solve a number of pressing problems for our society.

The basis of museum science here is our collections. Collections in museums around the world hold vast storehouses of objects and specimens that act as libraries for researchers and ours is no exception. Keeping libraries of specimens in the Museum saves time and money because the central location and preservation of these collections minimises the need for fieldwork1.

People researching perhaps Timor or the Malay Archipelago or a certain species of fish simply come to the museum rather than having to conduct the surveys themselves. By collecting, registering and preserving samples from the Timor-Leste expedition we are able to make those samples available to a range of researchers.

The Protected Area Networks I mentioned above are areas which are ‘internationally recognised as regions set aside primarily for nature and biodiversity conservation’2. A good step in establishing such a network is to understand what it is you are protecting.

The Museum’s surveys establish a record of what species are present, in what numbers and where. We record this information and keep it with the physical samples in our collection. Researchers can use this information to compare this data with data collected at other sites or data collected at earlier/later dates.

These comparisons can tell us many things. Some are obvious - like how the distribution of these species might have changed over time. Others are less obvious but just as important - like how the toxicity levels of samples taken today compare with those taken 20 or 50 years ago.

Knowing this helps us to determine the effects of environmental contaminants and project effects in the future. This enables governments to manage activities that might place a strain on certain populations within a region.

Surveys like the one conducted in Timor-Leste also have the potential to help us manage biological invaders or pests. ‘Museum collections have been used to determine the current distributions of invaders, identify the source of introduced populations and gauge the ecological impact of invaders.3

Pests threaten our ability to produce food in reliable ways and the cost of damage caused by biological invasion can be financially confronting and socially formidable. Museum collections have the potential to reconstruct the patterns of specific pests and to make recommendations for their management.

As the second and final trip to Timor-Leste wraps up it’s worthwhile thinking about the immense potential and contribution of museum science. The work begun in Timor-Leste over the last few months will continue at the Museum for some time and while we might predict some of the knowledge these trips will produce, much of it is unforeseeable but vital to managing the environment that supports our food production, air, water and our enjoyment of the natural world.

Read more about this expedition on our website

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1.Suarez, Andrew V, ‘The Value of Museum Collections for Research and Society’, Bioscience, Jan 2004, Vol. 54, No. 1, pp. 66-74.

2.United Nations Environment Program, World Conservation Monitoring Centre http://www.unep-wcmc.org/about-protected-areas_163.html, accessed 25 November 2012.

3. Suarez, p 70.