Museums are places or buildings where objects of historical, cultural, artistic or scientific interest are exhibited, preserved or studied. The word ‘museum’ is derived from the Greek word ‘Mouseion’ (home to the Muses). In Greek mythology, the Muses were the 9 daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus, who each presided over a different art or science.
Every year, New Zealand museums attract millions of visitors. Museum collections and exhibitions tell us about New Zealand, its people, flora and fauna. People visit museums for pleasure and for education. It’s here that they have the opportunity to explore our history, our culture and our place in the world.
Collections are an important part of museums.
People have always been interested in collecting objects and organisms. Sometimes, people like Sir Joseph Banks (a wealthy amateur scientist) and Dr Daniel Solander (a scientist trained by Carl Linnaeus) accompanied scientific expeditions for the sole purpose of collecting; other times, collecting was a hobby and was incorporated into daily activities, as it was for William Colenso.
Collections of historical or cultural value often end up in museums. One example is William Colenso’s plant collection. Colenso was a printer for the Church Missionary Society who arrived in New Zealand in 1834. He had a keen interest in botany and made many journeys along the East Coast of the North Island collecting over a thousand botanical specimens. In other cases, museums start and build their own collections through research and fieldwork.
All objects and organisms collected for museums have to be documented and conserved. The importance of museums lies in the fact that everything begins with the real object – the specimen. These must all be correctly and thoroughly identified and labelled. Specimens are then stored carefully to preserve them for the future.
You can have a look at a wide range of specimens held at Te Papa by visiting their website and browsing through their online catalogue. Here, you will find access to images of plant specimens collected by Dr Patrick Brownsey and Dr Leon Perrie, as well as to those collected by Sir Joseph Banks and Dr Daniel Solander during James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand in 1769.
Why are collections important?
Museum collections serve many purposes.
At Te Papa, for example, there are more than 260,000 dried plant specimens, including approximately 19,000 fern specimens. These form Te Papa’s herbarium. Herbaria are a collection of preserved and catalogued plant specimens, mostly pressed and dried, used for teaching and research.
Te Papa’s herbarium is a huge library of information about what plants have lived and are living in New Zealand. These plant specimens are a permanent record of the plants found at that point in time. For example, the plant specimens collected by Banks and Solander are the first European collection of New Zealand plants. This provides a reference point as to what was growing here naturally before European colonisation.
Collections can be used to create publications documenting New Zealand plants. These are called Flora. All Flora build on the previously published Flora, with the first collections forming a reference point. Traditionally, Flora have been published as books but now can be published in a multimedia format or online.
Museum collections also hold other reference specimens, called ‘type’ specimens. These are the physical specimen of a new species as nominated by the author at the time of publication of the original description. Type specimens are important as they provide a reference point for the future if there are questions about the species.
The work carried out on and about the specimens in museum collections is made public through permanent collections, exhibitions and temporary displays, websites and databases, publications, conferences, lectures and other events.