Merchants and Museums

Reconstructing museum specimen data through the pathways of global commerce.

Thylacinus cynocephalus
Thylacinus cynocephalus

Interdisciplinary research will revitalise irreplaceable zoological specimens by addressing their decaying physical condition and lack of basic information.

From 1758-1900 millions of specimens were commercially traded to and between museums and collectors, frequently without retaining the data essential to biodiversity research and cross-cultural understanding. Through the pioneering application of analytical techniques in advanced spectroscopy we will reveal composition data so as to produce a unique international resource for preventative conservation work.

The recognition of museum involvement in this global specimen trade exploits new pathways for recovering lost ecological and collection data, thus revealing further research arenas.


Internationally millions of historic museum specimens are orphaned from the collecting data that underpins their value and relevance to scientific and cultural knowledge. This project pioneers spectroscopy techniques to reconstruct data and enhance material conservation practice.

Multidisciplinary methodologies will unravel the global commercial networks of museums to reconnect zoological specimens with vital collection data essential to biodiversity research and greater public understanding.

Outcomes / activities

  • Museum outcomes of enhanced learning and exhibition for the specimens
  • Unprecedented data on the chemistry of these materials which will be made available through an open-access database (similar to what is currently available for pigments) for use by materials conservators and researchers
  • Assist museum researchers to learn more about the origins and preservation techniques required to maintain rare specimens
  • Significantly increase the international capacity to conserve these irreplaceable specimens
  • Publications and conference presentations

Project details


Australian Research Council, Linkage (Funding 2017-2021)
Australian Museum, Sydney, NSW

Research partners

Macleay Museum, University of Sydney
Australian Museum, Sydney, NSW

Project team

Dr Jude Philp, lead Investigator, University of Sydney
Professor Simon Ville, University of Wollongong, NSW
Associate Professor Anne Clarke, University of Sydney
Dr Robin Torrence, Partner Investigator, Australian Museum
Professor Deirdre Coleman, University of Melbourne
Dr Elizabeth Carter, University of Sydney
Ms Vanessa Finney, Partner Investigator, Australian Museum


Professor Deirdre Coleman

More information

Merchants and Museums website