The future of the Australian Museum collections

We don't know everything there is to know about life on earth. We know very little about most insects and other invertebrate animals, and we are still learning about the vertebrates - including humans - and about the history and formation of our planet.

Over the last two centuries the methods of, and reasons for, collecting in museums have changed significantly. Museum science and research is no longer the Victorian model of encyclopaedic collections and 'cabinets of curiosities'. However the work of these early researchers forms the foundations of current work on conservation, biodiversity, sustainability and cultural custodianship. The collections are of increasing importance in a changing world where environments are becoming increasingly degraded. Straight taxonomic and systematic research form the building blocks of all further biological work and are particularly important in environmental assessments.

The Australian Museum is presently expanding its role as a 'custodian' of cultural heritage for indigenous communities through the fostering of partnerships between indigenous communities and the Museum. These partnerships have been found to be beneficial to both parties, with indigenous communities having greater access to their own cultural heritage and the Museum learning more about its own collections.

The Australian Museum collections continue to grow and are used to solve an increasing number of scientific problems. For example, alcohol-fixed and frozen tissue samples (used for biochemical studies) will greatly increase. Fifty years ago, tissue samples were not routinely collected as the sciences of molecular biology and genetics were in their infancy. The Australian Museum now has one of the most extensive animal-tissue collections in the country. More than 40,000 samples are preserved at -80°C in ultracold freezers or in ethanol. Included are tissues from rare, endangered and extinct species such as the Tasmanian Tiger. This vast tissue collection is a valuable resource of genetic information. At present its primary use is for genetic studies, however it will no doubt serve future needs that have yet to be developed. The same can be said for all our biological collections.

Computer technology has seen spectacular advances in the way we can use the collections. Through computerised databases we can search through the collections and can provide input into issues such as biodiversity, endangered species and the impact of humans on the environment. The collections are used increasingly to answer questions about population diversity, numbers and distribution patterns. The databases will continue to grow both in size and value as more information is needed for current and future studies.

Some of the Museum's collections are now available on-line, via the Museum's website and many more will be added in the future.

Because there is still so much to learn, it is important to continue to collect both already-known and new-to-science specimens and objects for future research. As our predecessors work continues to be re-evaluated and re-assessed in the light of new knowledge, so will the work of today's researchers and scientists.

Brooke Carson-Ewart , Web Manager
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