A reconstructed thylacine (Tasmanian tiger).

Reconstructing museum specimen data

Understanding the mechanisms of natural history trade.
We are unearthing the merchants and museums involved in the 19th century trade routes of natural history.

About the project

How did 19th-century museums afford the hundreds of thousands of natural history specimens they exhibited and stored? This is the central question of our project which examines trade processes to reconstruct and understand the mechanisms of natural history trade.

This global commerce involved the collection and movement of millions of animals around the world to advance scientific knowledge of worldwide fauna and to teach the public about biodiversity. But this trade often obscured data vital to each specimen – such as where and when a specimen was collected, what it ate and looked like before death.

The methods used to preserve the animal specimens in the field and in the museum were often secret, but today are causing problems for their preservation. Our project will reconstruct these two data sets.

Enriching museum specimens

With large habitat loss from industrialization and changing environmental conditions, researchers urgently need the data and the specimens. To assist conservators, we are using x-ray fluorescence (XRF) and vibrational spectroscopy (VS) to design innovative analytical sampling methodologies and build a reference library of preparation materials. To assist biologists, we are investigating the pathways of global commerce and tracking transactions through archives to reconnect specimens with the vital field data.


The project will run to 2021 and is funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage grant.

Logo for Australian Research Council.

Featured image (top of the page): thylacinus cynocephalus (Harris, 1808), possibly collected by William Pettard, Tasmania c.1877, NHM.496

Jude Philp

Senior Curator, Macleay Collections