Flora of North America - The Outreach Resources

From Curiosity Cabinet to Museum Collection

This lesson for 5th to 7th graders integrates biology, history, art, and math through a series of collecting, classifying, and cataloguing activities. The lesson introduces students to binomial nomenclature and museum-based research. Students discover the development of museums from their origins as curiosity cabinets to today's virtual museums, providing online access to collections and specimen databases. Students create a curiosity box, label the objects in their curiosity box (using Latin binomials for plant and animal specimens when possible), develop a classification scheme for the objects, and create a database of all objects collected by the class.


Learning goals: (1) to classify objects using skills in observing, identifying, and comparing; (2) to tabulate and analyze data
Key terms: classification, taxonomy, binomial nomenclature, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species

Before museums existed, objects of natural history, art, and technology were held in private collections. Curiosity cabinets - also known as cabinets of wonders or chambers of curiosities - of the 16th and 17th century included all sorts of attractive or interesting objects. Rare items were especially prized. Peter the Great and other wealthy collectors amazed their visitors with never-before-seen shells, bones, medicinal plants, minerals, paintings, cannons, and clocks. The objects were usually displayed together. But they were categorized as naturalia (products of nature), artificialia (products of man including textiles, coins, weapons, furniture, prints), and scientifica (scientific instruments).

As collectors traveled the world, many new organisms became known to science. There was a great need to organize this new information. In 1735 Carolus Linnaeus outlined his scheme to classify plants, animals, and rocks. By 1753 he formalized the two-word system to name organisms. Thus, he established his role as father of classification and binomial nomenclature.

The private collections of naturalia eventually became natural history museums. Ashmole's collection, owned by Oxford University, opened in 1683 as the first public museum. Natural history museums quickly grew into impressive research collections. Today natural history museums around the world hold about three billion specimens. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, established in 1850, has over 126 million specimens of plants, animals, minerals, rocks, fossils, and human artifacts.

Specialized collections such as fossil specimens are often housed in paleontology museums and plant specimens are housed in herbaria (singular: herbarium). The three largest U.S. herbaria are New York Botanical Garden, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Harvard University Herbaria (with 6.5, 5.2, and 5 million specimens, respectively).

The mission of natural history museums is to identify and research Earth's biodiversity, and to share their knowledge with the public. In response to increased threats to species and their habitats, researchers have stepped up efforts to catalogue Earth's biodiversity. New species continue to be discovered around the world, including North America. Between 1975 and 1995, over 1,190 vascular plant taxa (including some 600 new species) were described in North America.

Hands-on Activities and Worksheets

Time frame

Two class periods. In the first period, describe the history of museums and introduce naturalia, artificialia, and scientifica as one way of classifying objects. Students create a curiosity box as a homework assignment. The second period is an in-class activity and discussion.

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