Natural history collections offer unique physical and virtual opportunities for formal and informal progressive learning. Collections are unique data in that they each represent a biological record at a single place and time that cannot be obtained by any other method. Collections-based experiences lead to an increased understanding of and substantive interaction with the living world. Global biological diversity and changes in that diversity are directly tracked through specimens in collections, regardless of whether changes are ancient or recent. We discuss how collections, specimens, and the data associated with them, can be critical components linking nature and scientific inquiry. Specimens are the basic tools for educating students and interested citizens through direct or virtual contact with the diversity of collections. Such interactions include instruction in a formal classroom setting, volunteering to gather and curate collections, and informal presentations at coffee shops. We emphasize how the recent surge in specimen-based digitization initiatives has resulted in unprecedented access to a wealth of biodiversity information and how this availability vastly expands the reach of natural history collections. The emergence of online databases enables scientists and the public to utilize the specimens and associated data contained in natural history collections to address global, regional, and local issues related to biodiversity in a way that was unachievable a decade ago.