Flora of North America - The Outreach Resources

From Curiosity Cabinet to Museum Collection

Materials for Creating a Curiosity Box

     one small cardboard box per student, cardboard and X-Acto knife to make dividers within
     pencil or pen
     collector labels (~ six per student—a page to photocopy is provided in Worksheet 1)
     datasheet (provided in Worksheet 2) or transfer table columns to chalkboard
     computer with web access (for optional enhancement activities)


  1. Introduce background information on curiosity cabinets as precursors to museums. Introduce naturalia, artificialia, and scientifica as kinds of objects that were collected for curiosity cabinets. Describe the homework activity. Ask students to collect a variety of natural objects, man-made objects, and scientific instruments and record information about their collections. About six objects per student is reasonable, although the number can be altered depending on class size. Within the category of natural objects, ask students to include some leaves, flowers, seeds, or nuts from their home (e.g., rice, beans, dried herbs from the pantry) or backyard or nearby park. Please ask students to collect only fallen plant parts if collecting beyond their backyard. (Collecting plants and animals in state or national parks requires an official permit.) The man-made objects and scientific instruments should be items from the students' homes. Scientific instruments may be any items used to measure, document, or understand the world: ruler, compass, watch, calculator, magnifying lens, battery, scale, accept any reasonable item. While collecting, students should record on a piece of paper when and where they collect each object. Give students one week to collect the items and arrange the items in their box in whatever fashion they choose.

  2. On the day that students are expected to bring their curiosity boxes and collecting records to school, introduce current classification scheme for living organisms and some of the general characteristics of each kingdom. Ask students to consider ways they classify everyday objects.
  3. Allow a few minutes for students to look at each other's boxes. Ask them to look closely at the kinds of objects that have been collected and their characteristics.
  4. Break the class into three museum staffs: one for the natural objects, one for the man-made objects, and one for the scientific instruments. Give students 20 minutes to brainstorm ways to classify the non-living objects and discuss the classification of their plant, animal, fungus collections. Ask students to diagram a hierarchical classification scheme for their objects, noting the major characteristics for each subgroup of objects. A spokesperson from each museum staff should then present to the class their classification schemes and the characteristics they used to separate the objects into groups and subgroups.
  5. Using the agreed classification schemes, ask students complete a label for each object in their curiosity box (a label page is provided, photocopy as needed).
  6. Ask students to pool their individual label data to create a database recording all objects collected by the class. Fill in the columns on the datasheet provided (or tally on the board).
  7. Each student should analyze the class database.
  8. Discuss the class's data and experience. Which objects did the class most commonly collect? Are these commonly collected object commonly found in the environment? Which item was difficult to classify? Why? What characteristics did you use to group objects? How many groups did you recognize? Can you think of alternative ways to classify the set of objects? Referring to your experience in classifying objects, discuss the statement: Classification systems are human inventions.

Applying and Extending

  • If you collected something new to science, how would you identify and name it?
  • How many species have been named worldwide; how many do you think have yet to be discovered and named?
  • Why is it important that museum labels include information about where the specimen was collected? What kinds of research do you think takes place behind-the-scene at a museum?
  • Create a classroom herbarium for teaching and learning purposes. As a group project collect, press, dry, mount, and label specimens of locally common herbs, shrubs, and trees.

Create a field guide for the plants in your classroom herbarium. Prepare a page for each species, include an image of the plant (a sketch, an image cut out of a magazine, a photograph, any medium will work), a map of the plant's range, the plant's scientific and common names, a description of the plant (its life form, its size, leaves, flowers, and other identifying features), when to find the plant flowering (or producing cones or spores, if not a flowering plant), and a list of the plant's habitats. For each plant genus in your classroom herbarium with two or more species, prepare a key that identifies each species.

A guide to plant collecting geared for middle school students is available from the University of Arizona's General Biology Lesson Plans.


The Canadian Botanical Conservation Network provides instructions for collecting plants and creating a herbarium accessible to elementary school students.


Explore and do more!

How does your label data compare with labels of museum specimens? Many museums and herbaria have images and databases of their specimens online.

Check out images of plant specimens online

Missouri Botanical Garden
New York Botanical Garden
Digital Flora of Texas
Fairchild Tropical Garden Research Center
Plant Information Center of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, School of Information and Library Science, North Carolina Botanical Garden, and UNC Herbarium

Look at some animal specimens available online

The WorldWide Museum of Natural History
Virtual Insectarium
Virtual Tour of the University of Kansas Natural History Museum

How do the early museums compare to modern museums? Learn more about the history of museums and view some curiosity cabinets.

http://www.kunstkammer.at [Although not in English, this site has spectacular images]

Suggested Readings

Purcell, R. 2004. A room revisited (A contemporary artist is inspired by a "cabinet of curiosities"
collected by a naturalist of another era) Natural History 113(7): 46--48.
Suarez, A. V. and Tsutsui, N. D. 2004. The value of museum collections for research and
society. BioScience 54(1): 66--74.
Tangley, L. 1998. A flowering of finds for American botanists. U.S. News and World Report
125: 64.

NRC Content Standards: Unifying Concepts & Processes 1.1; Science as Inquiry 2.1; Life Science 4.3; History and Nature of Science 8.2, 8.3

Grades and Levels: middle school

Evaluation: Students should be evaluated on their individual work and their ability to work together, how they completed their labels, and whether they could record data in the database, and whether they could calculate percentages