Natural history museums attract millions of visitors every year worldwide (Jenkins, Lisk, and Broadley 2013). Their collections, often inherited from centuries past, were gathered for scientific as well as educational purposes – and in many cases are still used for just that (Johnson 2015). Since at least the 1950s, natural history collections (NHC) have been regarded as less important (Rader and Cain 2008), with few new collection being assembled and old ones perceived as a burden on museums and academic institutions, of little use other than exhibition in dusty cabinets, occupying space that could be used for more spectacular means of attracting the public.
Yet NHC, even older collections, do have other uses, many of which have far-reaching consequences in terms of societal well-being, inclusion and participation, which are less known and seldom recognized in the collective mind of public and stakeholders alike. NHC, in the words of (Kress 2014), “provide windows into the past, inform about the present, and help predict the future of natural habitats and human-altered environments.” They have been used to discover new species (Bebber et al. 2010), to investigate shifts in species distribution in response to climatic change (Lyons and Willig 2002; Peterson 2003; Moritz et al. 2008; Peterson and Martínez-Meyer 2008), phenological responses to climatic change (Nufio et al. 2010) or global environmental change (Lang et al. 2019); to study biological conservation (Pawar et al. 2007), land management (Ochoa-Ochoa et al. 2009), pollination (Biesmeijer 2006), invasive species (Giovanelli, Haddad, and Alexandrino 2008; Rödder and Lötters 2009), spread of pathogenic organisms (Moffett et al. 2009; Soto-Azat et al. 2010), forecasting future changes (Graham et al. 2004). The wealth of data accumulated in NHC are used for statistical and model-based investigations in several fields (Lane 1996; Shaffer, Fisher, and Davidson 1998; Lister 2011; Lavoie 2013; DiEuliis et al. 2016; Willis et al. 2017; Rouhan et al. 2017).
(Hill et al. 2012) cites many examples of ways in which NHC are used; (Heberling and Isaac 2017) offer a comprehensive list of published papers of new uses for old herbaria; (Vicki A Funk 2003) pools together 32 different uses of herbaria, later expanded to 72 (Vicki Ann Funk 2003), from basic research, education and outreach to money making ventures. (Carine et al. 2018) actually analyze the effective use of herbaria. With new technologies continuing to emerge (such as stable isotope analyses, massive parallel sequencing, and CT-scan tomography), the importance NHC and the variety of uses we can make of them are growing more and more (Bi et al. 2013; Rocha et al. 2014). (Pettitt 1997) reviews the cultural impact of NHC.
Many (if not all) of the uses of NHC have an impact on societal issues that afflict the contemporary world, and not only on global issues such as biodiversity loss, climate change, and environmental degradation, but also on local issues that affect people and communities directly. The aim of this paper is to review the available literature and discuss concrete examples where the use of NHC has resulted in benefits for society as a whole or within a single community. Other than reviewing more traditional fields of NHC activity (taxonomy, species description or ecology), important though they are, we shall focus on seven areas where the use of NHC is perhaps less evident: public health and disease, trade and food security, crime and public safety, local communities and their identity, inclusion and participation, inspiration for art and engineering, and unanticipated uses. Library materials or archives, even when related to science and natural history subjects, are not generally considered as part of NHC and will not be of concern here.