Most people have been to a natural history museum during their lifetime. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., or the American Museum of Natural History in New York City are but two examples of natural history museums that draw thousands of visitors. A visit to one of these places teaches that natural history is the study of plants and animals in their environment.
The meaning of the term “natural history” has changed over the course of time, as both the Greeks and Romans studied what they called natural history. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, written between AD 77 and 79, includes such diverse topics as astronomy, mathematics, anthropology, and zoology. Natural history museums played a vital role in the development of the biological sciences, especially in the 19th century, when their vast and diverse collections formed the basis of instruction about the natural world, from dinosaur fossils to human artifacts.
Modern definitions of natural history are often an umbrella term, generally related to a type of observation of the environment. Naturalists, those who specialize in natural history, often define the discipline as the practice of intentional focus on, and receptivity to, the world beyond human life. Others believe that it is the observation and record of patterns in nature. Regardless, a trip to any natural history museum is an education experience in the world around us.