Museum collections are increasingly subjected to scientific scrutiny, including molecular, isotopic and trace-element analyses. Recent advances have extended analyses from natural history specimens to historical artefacts. We highlight three areas of concern that can influence interpretation of data derived from museum collections: sampling issues associated with museum collection use, methods of analysis, and the value of cross-referencing data with historical documents and data sets. We use a case study that focuses on kiwi (Apteryx spp.) feather samples from valuable 19th century Māori cloaks in New Zealand to show how sampling and analysis challenges need to be minimized by careful design. We argue that aligning historical records with scientific data generated from museum collections significantly improves data interpretation.