About Health Science Collections

Classical Human Anatomy Specimens

The Health Sciences Department is home to impressive classic anatomy specimens, including traditional wet and dry subcollections. While a number of specimens are on public display in the Museum’s human biology and physiology exhibit, Expedition Health, the majority of this collection is specially housed in the Museum’s Avenir Collection Center for long term preservation. Specimens not on display can be viewed digitally through the Museum’s Image Database (LUNA, under Health Sciences), which is easily accessible to the general public. With over 200 images of the human anatomy collection, the database gives viewers the opportunity to not only explore bone structures and organs but also examine in close detail the plastinated subcollection as well. Aimed for students and public viewers, this anatomy collection database provides real anatomical specimens for education and interest purposes.

Histology & Pathology

Put simply, histology is the study of the structure, composition, and function of human, animal, and plant tissues seen under a microscope. The tissues and cells have been sectioned, stained and mounted on a microscope slide for examination and study. This process allows trained physicians, commonly pathologists to obtain diagnostic information from what they observed under the microscope. Pathologists would not be able to detect anything if the specimen on the slides were not stained. The most common type of stain used for histology slides is a hematoxylin and eosin stain (H&E stain).The hemalum (a product after hematoxylin is oxidized) binds to the DNA within the nucleus, dying it blue. Meanwhile the aqueous solution of eosin Y stains the cytoplasm of cells and extracellular proteins in shades of red, orange, and pink. This allows pathologists to detect any abnormalities and will therefore understand treatment options further help the patient.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science has recently acquired a massive 20,000 plus histology slide collection donated from a local pathologist by the name of Dr. Robert H. Shikes. As a former professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, he has used many of his slides for teaching. Dr. Shikes’ extensive knowledge on the subjects of pathology and histology were highly recognized by the international community of doctors. His collection includes a great variety of different tissues, ranging from the heart, to the kidneys and from the skin to the nerves.Volunteers, interns, as well as experts have been tediously organizing the slides and associated paperwork to provide future researchers the opportunity to pursue further study and research of his work. After careful revision and filing, the museum will decide a future plan for the collection.


Simply put, the plastination process halts the progression of decomposition after death. It does this by replacing the water and fat in body tissues with polymer plastics, thus removing the environment in which bacteria and other microorganisms responsible for decomposition thrive. This method produces bodies, organs, and tissue slices that remain very lifelike-still real, but infused with plastic so they are flexible, odorless, and very durable. All the anatomical details and much of the color of the tissue are preserved.

Dr. Gunther von Hagens, anatomist and lecturer at the University of Heidelberg, patented his plastination technique in 1977 as an alternative to the usual method of preserving specimens by imbedding them in solid blocks of plastic. He wanted to be able to touch the specimens and examine them more closely. The value of plastination to anatomy studies was immediately obvious. Dr. von Hagens spent the next 20 years refining the process, making improvements and modifications as he worked. He made the first whole-body plastinate in 1990.

The Museum has acquired a number of plastinated specimens for educational purposes, including "The Hikers," two whole-body plastinates that allow visitors to see inside the staggeringly complex and interconnected network of bone, muscles, tendons, organs, and blood vessels that make up our bodies.

Learn more about this process at the Plastination Institute in Guben, Germany. 

Modern Human DNA

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The Health Sciences Department is unique in the world of natural history museums. We aim to directly connect the Museum community to current human health research in a way that is relevant and authentic. Therefore, our scientific studies and therefore how we grow our DNA collection, are conducted in the community-based Genetics of Taste Lab within the Museum’s popular Expedition Health exhibit. In this unique lab, volunteer citizen scientists gather population data on taste genetics, and its role in health, by enrolling Museum visitors every day into the current study.

This enrollment experience for Museum guests includes the collection of cheek cells by swabbing the inside of each person’s mouth. Our citizen scientists working in the lab are trained to extract and purify the DNA. This DNA is used to analyze taste genes and their role in taste perception.  In this way, we are able to crowdsource large amounts of real data while having engaging educational interactions with the public, and grow an amazing collection of modern human DNA for taste perception studies.

Be a Part of the Collection

Our research studies are designed with educators to ensure that we not only answer real public health questions, but the experience is fun to do. Guests that enroll in each yearly study can elect to have their de-identified DNA sample become part of our permanent research collection for future analysis on taste genes. In this way, you not only support cutting-edge research, but can become part of the Museum’s permanent collection!

If you’d like to be a part of this research, stop by the Genetics of Taste Lab on the second floor of Expedition Health. there you can check on availability to participate that day, make an appointment to come back, or you can always email us at [email protected] to set up a time to participate with friends and family members.Our goal is to enroll 1,000 people over the course of each nine-month study (studies typically run from Nov through Aug annually) and the experience takes about 30 minutes.

Taste Study Results

All study results are published open-access (FREE!)  in peer-reviewed scientific journals.You can access all of our publications on our research page, www.dmns.org/genetics.

Historical Medical Collection

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We have a small, but significant collection of historical medical items, including two orginal Jarvik hearts (see above).

Collections Alumni

Cheers to our alumni!

Chelsea Goldberg
Summer 2015, Independent Study Focus: Liver
Graduate of the Modern Human Anatomy Program

Fred Gonzalez, MA
Spring 2015, Independent Study Focus: Renal System
Graduate of the Modern Human Anatomy Program

K. Rives Binford, MA
2014-2015 Capstone Project: Gas Exchange
Graduate of the Modern Human Anatomy Program




The research collection in the Health Sciences Department is comprised of rare and unique human anatomy specimens, as well as a small selection of pieces of medical importance. For more information about each subcollection, including plastination, histology, human DNA, classical anatomy, and historical medical, explore the tabs on this page.


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