As a public health precaution due to COVID-19, all Smithsonian museums are temporarily closed. We are not announcing a reopening date at this time and will provide updates on our websites and social media.
The National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) encourages donations of specimens, samples, objects or materials that are either of known origin or are solicited. NMNH complies with all U.S. export and sanctions laws, as well as fish, wildlife and other regulations applicable to the importation and exportation of specimens and research materials. All specimens, samples, objects or materials shipped to NMNH must be properly licensed if applicable and otherwise comply with U.S. law. By way of illustration, please check theU.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions programs and lists and do not ship specimens and research materials that originated in a sanctioned country even if such specimens and research materials are not currently located there. The museum discourages unsolicited shipments. If you are considering making a donation please contact the museum in advance. If you have questions, please contact the Collections Manager of the appropriate museum department.
The Convention on Biological Diversity and the Nagoya Protocol affect the work of natural history museums, the acquisition of collections and their use, and external collaborations. Accordingly, it is important for the NMNH to have a clear statement on access and benefit sharing. NMNH has approved the following statements on Access and Benefit Sharing and Genetic Resources for the museum's use. It is complemented by the document Awareness of Convention on Biological Diversity.
The policy was developed in consultation with the Smithsonian Office of the General Counsel, the Office of the Under Secretary for Science's Senior Policy Advisor, Executive Director of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life, the Associate Director for Science, the Chief of Collections and representative NMNH researchers.
Lending and borrowing collection items for research, public exhibition, and education are an integral part of the National Museum of Natural History’s mission to make the nation's natural history collections available to the widest possible audience. Loan Program and Department Specific Loan Policies
The National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution (NMNH) captures electronic data about its collections to:
enhance access to, and ability to do research on its collections;
meet the Smithsonian’s mission and stewardship responsibility to preserve its collections and the information inherent in them;
enhance informational integrity and value of collections as the foundation for research, exhibitions, publications, and educational programs;
facilitate legal, physical, and intellectual control over collections; and
improve public access to the collections.
The Smithsonian seeks to provide the widest possible dissemination of collections information consistent with the stewardship responsibilities for its collections, associated documentation, and intellectual property rights.
In keeping with the above statements, the National Museum of Natural History will make data in the following fields freely available on the “Natural History Web” for collections that have been electronically recorded, with certain exceptions (see below):
Catalogue number (USNM number)
Name (for biological and paleontological specimens this includes at least the scientific name (binomial) and author(s) and may also include year published, identifier and year identified; for rocks, minerals, gems, etc. the name(s) and sometimes the chemical composition; for anthropological specimens the object name)
Original collection locality including:
Country and/or Ocean
State or equivalent primary political and/or geographical unit within country
County or equivalent secondary political and/or geographical unit within country, if available
Depth and/or Elevation (if available)
Geographic coordinates (if available, and sometimes rounded to the nearest degree)
Collector’s number (if available)
Numbers of specimens (if appropriate)
Type Status (if appropriate)
Low resolution thumbnail photo (when available)
In keeping with its stewardship responsibilities, the Smithsonian will control, monitor, and document all access to and use of its collections.
Requests for data from the Natural History Web will be tracked. (More information on how we track, will be coming in soon). Collections and database information not available on the Natural History Web may be available on a specific request and approval basis.
Access to collections and collections information may be restricted due to resource limitations, security, privacy, personal data, confidential proprietary information, object availability, intellectual property rights, applicable restrictions, and preservation constraints.
The provenance of acquired collection items is a matter of public record. Sensitive information involving privacy, collecting localities, intellectual property restrictions, security, privacy, personal data, confidential proprietary information, and restricted use may constrain access to collections information.
For the following reasons, the National Museum of Natural History may not make every record or all of the fields listed above available.
Some records or fields may be restricted for any of the following reasons:
restrictions agreed to by NMNH as part of accepting a collection (accession agreements), documented restrictions due to intellectual property rights, collecting permits, distribution agreements, or similar restrictions; or
ongoing research (by NMNH staff and associated scientists, either by individuals or projects , may limit availability of some data for a period not to exceed five years, which may be extended in some cases after review by the museum’s director or designate(s)).
Some provenance data may be restricted for the following reasons:
personal privacy of staff, collectors, donors or their families or
personal safety and security of staff, collectors, donors or their families.
Some collection locality data may restricted for the following types of collections:
collections of high monetary value
commercially traded collections (especially those biological species regulated under CITES or other international conventions to which the U.S. is a party; anthropological, rock or mineral, and paleontological specimens);
endangered or threatened species;
cultural objects or information from archaeological sites and other culturally sensitive properties; or
specimens or objects collected on private property.
This document has two parts, the first a general description of some key issues in the development and use of the data here. The second section is the fine print: the formal do’s and don’ts for appropriate use, attribution, and understanding of the data.
1. What is here
The physical collections of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) have been assembled for over 150 years by many dedicated and hardworking people in many parts of the world. The data associated with the NMNH collections are in many forms: they are hand-written in ledgers, typed on file cards, on labels stored with the collections, and, for the last 50 years, captured in a series of computer-stored databases. Due to the size of its collections and financial constraints, the NMNH has not yet been able to computerize all of the basic data about its collections. NMNH constantly adds records to our collections databases, increasing the percentage of specimens for which we have computer-retrievable information. To date, electronic data capture has been completed for only about 21% of the collections. The most complete parts of our databases include type specimens in our biological collections, meteorites, gems and minerals, and certain other collections.
2. Issues of accuracy and completeness
The information on the Natural History Web is as accurate as our staff can reasonably make it. However, the nature of much of the research of the museum is to examine and understand the specimens and their relationships to one another and their natural environment. Fundamental to this in the biological sciences is the process of re-identifying and re-classifying the specimens. Many of the specimens that are listed in the databases have not been examined for many years and the data about them may be inaccurate because the specimens were originally misidentified; the specimens were correctly identified at that time, but a scientist here or elsewhere has re-classified the group and the “new” name is not reflected here; or the data were mistyped/transcribed from the ledgers or file cards. As specimens and data are reexamined, the data are corrected to be as accurate as possible. Please, if you believe that data you are examining are not correct, let us know what and why. We will work to make any necessary corrections. Please contact NMNH data managers for the discipline you are interested in. For more information about how to contact the appropriate data manager, please see: Contact Us
Because the process of adding, improving, editing, and fixing NMNH data is an ongoing task, the data are never “definitive”. Ideally NMNH should get to the point of having all of its collections in electronic form, but even then, as researchers and collections staff work on specimens, scientifically-based and editorial changes will occur and modifications to the databases will be made.
For many questions that you may want answered, data will be needed from many sources, including NMNH and other museums or universities. We are working with national and international initiatives to make certain that our data will be in a compatible format and/or available from a single site (single query).
3. The importance of non-occurrence
Key to correct use of the data here is an understanding of the difficulties in using negative information. Our data constitute positive information only; that is, it is a record of something found in a particular place at a particular time. The absence of a record of a particular species or object does not necessarily mean that it was not present at that particular place and time—it means that it was not collected, that it is not in NMNH collections, or that the data have not been captured electronically. Scientific collections are usually strong in particular geographic areas, groups, or kinds of objects that have been of interest to the staff who use them. For that reason, and others, they are incomplete. There are many places where collecting has been done repeatedly, many areas where no collecting has ever been done for a particular group, and some areas where no collecting has ever been done. It is a common, but frequently incorrect, interpretation of collections data that gaps in distribution means absence of the organism or object of interest. That interpretation is often incorrect even if you know that the organism has been looked for there because many animals are seasonal in their distribution and others may show up in a place one year and not again for many years. Understanding the positive-only nature of the data, and how they are pieces of a larger puzzle of environmental and historical understanding, is critical to their proper interpretation and appropriate use.
Terms and Conditions of Use
By accessing or using these data, you agree to the following conditions:
While every effort is made to provide accurate information, use of these databases is entirely at your own risk. The National Museum of Natural History makes no warranty, either express or implied, regarding the completeness, accuracy, or currency of the information in the databases or its suitability for any particular purpose. Where the use of this data is critical to scientific investigation, scholarly publication, or policy decisions, the user is responsible for verifying identities and provenance against specimens and other primary data sources.
These materials are provided “AS IS” for your informational purposes only. NMNH is not responsible for the consequences of reliance on any information contained in the databases, and the risk of injury rests entirely with the user.
Information in the databases must not be regarded as definitive or published. Distributional, ecological, taxonomic, and other such data should be verified by specimen inspection in consultation with the NMNH curatorial staff.
Data in the NMNH databases are constantly updated. For this reason, all downloaded data will include a field with the date and time of the download. Please contact us if you discover errors in the data and supply the Catalogue number, timestamp, and data in error. This will make it easier for us to make necessary corrections.
Because these databases are dynamic, scientists planning projects needing long-term access to the data, are encouraged to work with NMNH staff to develop live access to the data rather than downloading it.
By accessing the information in the databases, you agree that the NMNH shall not be liable to you for any loss or injury caused in using, compiling, or delivering the information. In no event will the NMNH or the contributors of information to the databases be liable to you or anyone else for any action taken in reliance on such information or for any consequential, special, or similar damages.
Data are provided under the understanding that their use will not cause detriment to species in the wild, fossil sites, or anthropological sites.
Please contact NMNH data managers for the discipline(s) you are interested in for additional information. For more information about how to contact the appropriate data manager, please see: Contact Us.