Representatives of Australian and international natural history collections made a substantial contribution to the recent Museums Australia National conference, held at the University of Adelaide from 24 to 28 September 2012. Several presentations demonstrated current initiatives in digitisation of natural history collections, including reports on Atlas of Living Australia supported projects.
A parallel session chaired by Dr Dennis Stevenson, New York Botanic Gardens, spotlighted natural history collections, and discussed their history and contemporary uses. In this session Stephen Forbes, Botanical Gardens of Adelaide director, described the rich history and essential role of botanic gardens. His talk was illustrated with images of gardens cultivated for research and pleasure throughout history, beyond their traditionally understood starting point during the Enlightenment.
In conjunction with this, Professor Steve Donnellan, South Australian Museum and Council of Heads of Australian Faunal Collections, spoke about the contemporary uses of natural history collections. Professor Donnellan talked about the advanced technologies that are increasingly allowing us to ‘peer inside’ the animals kept in such collections, exposing new information about their genetic profiles, life histories, ecology and the historical record. He explained that application of new technological research tools to deep historical collections in museums is facilitating new discoveries and knowledge.
Genetic analysis of contemporary and historical specimens is encouraging new biodiversity discovery, including in groups of animals previously considered to be well-covered, and making precise observations possible in analysis of climate change. Advanced chemical analysis of historic specimens is also allowing scientists to retrospectively analyse environmental and human impacts that have put certain species in peril, and allowed fine grained analysis of traditional habitats of extant species. Professor Donellan highlighted the importance of continuing to build and maintain our collections that provide such a valuable scientific resource and historic record.
This conference brought together representatives of natural history, social history, art and cultural collections, for an invigorating week of discussion and information sharing. The call for abstracts has opened for the next Museums Australia conference, to be held in Canberra in May 2013.
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