Museum Tutorials: Natural History Collections

Natural History Collections

Natural history collections contain samples of the natural world. To be included in park collections, the specimen should be collected in a scientific manner within the park, have associated data, and fall within the park’s Scope of Collections. Natural history collections include both ancient and recent life on earth, which along with geological specimens can include the entire span of geologic time.

Associated data for natural history collections includes project files, field notes, photographs, final reports, and copies of any publications resulting from the project that produced the collection.

Each type of specimen collected by these disciplines may require different approaches as to how it is curated and stored. Current research on plants and animals often uses DNA and tissue samples that must be stored under special conditions. These are becoming more common as part of NPS natural history collections.

In some cases a specimen in the park’s biological (and paleontological) collections may be the holotype of a new species. The holotype is the single specimen used as the basis for naming a new species and designated as the primary reference specimen for the new scientific name created. NPS museum policy requires that all holotypes are listed as controlled property.


The scene of life and of living plant or animal organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin, evolution, and distribution. Biological collections include botany and zoology specimens and environmental samples.

Link to video showing wolf skulls in the collection at Yellowstone National Park Watch a video with Colleen Curry, Museum Curator for Yellowstone National Park, as she shows how wolf skulls are protected in the collection.

Helpful Hints:

  • Skins and taxidermy studies often use toxic preserving agents – Use nitrile or vinyl gloves when handling.
  • Natural history collections attract bugs – Have a good Pest Management plan in place.
  • Use visual cabinets when possible to reduce handling.
  • Monitor the light, temperature, and humidity carefully.
  • Create individual packaging to meet the needs of the collections and avoid handling as much as possible.


The study of the planet Earth – the materials of which it is made, the processes that act on these materials, the products formed, and the history of the planet and its life forms since its origin.


The study of life in past geologic time, based on fossil plants and animals and including their phylogeny, their relationships to existing plants, animals and environments, and the chronology of Earth’s history.

Examples from the Parks

Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park has a complex diversity of biological and geological resources. The herbarium collection contains over 6,000 cataloged plants, lichens, algae, and seed. The zoology collection contains over 5,000 birds, eggs, nests, mammals, and invertebrates. And the geology collection has 139 specimens. Park staff have collected lava bombs, tree molds, and lava triplets from specific eruptions events at the park. Take the time to view some of the items from their natural history collection.

View looking down into the volcano crater at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Museum Tutorials

Museum tutorials are provided through the Collection Connection, a group of NPS experts offering advice and showing how they successfully manage their park collections. Join the Collection Connection Group in the Commons to find experts, ask questions, get advice, and read success stories.

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