Museums Australia Conference delves into the applications of Natural History collections

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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.