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The Global Museum: natural history collections and the future of evolutionary biology and public education

Natural history museums are unique spaces for interdisciplinary research and for educational
innovation. Through extensive exhibits and public programming and by hosting rich
communities of amateurs, students, and researchers at all stages of their careers, they provide a
place-based window to focus on integration of science and discovery, as well as a locus for
community engagement. At the same time, like a synthesis radio telescope, when joined together
through emerging digital resources, the global community of museums (the ‘Global Museum’) is
more than the sum of its parts, allowing insights and answers to diverse biological,
environmental, and societal questions at the global scale, across eons of time, and spanning vast
diversity across the Tree of Life. We argue that, whereas natural history collections and
museums began with a focus on describing the diversity and peculiarities of species on Earth,
they are now increasingly leveraged in new ways that significantly expand their impact and
relevance. These new directions include the possibility to ask new, often interdisciplinary
questions in basic and applied science; inform biomimetic design; and even provide solutions to
climate change, global health and food security challenges. As institutions, they are incubators
for cutting-edge research in biology and simultaneously protect core infrastructure for present
and future societal needs.