As part of a physical and historical reconstruction of a fossil collection, we demonstrate how elucidating biographic aspects of the collector and describing the activities of the institution can expand our understanding of collections as natural, social and historical assemblages. We then show how this understanding can be applied to contemporary concerns by using it in conjunction with modern collections to reconstruct species richness in deep time and to reflect on the term ‘biodiversity’. This multi-disciplinary engagement between natural and social sciences at natural history museums could endow historic collections with novel relevance and thereby provide convincing arguments against their dispersal or deaccession.

In this particular case a historic plant collection, the Ewald collection, which is now part of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany, was restored and studied. Originally it was collected during the 1850s when the Prussian government undertook extensive surveying projects and a large part of its territory was geologically mapped. During the surveys, field geologists collected rocks and fossils in order to build a reliable stratigraphy based on the fossil record, partly to assist in the discovery of natural resources for emerging industry.

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