Improving Specimen-Data Recording and Access in a Life Sciences Museum

The Museum of Life Sciences at King’s College London contains teaching and research material from King’s College London (KCL) and elsewhere. The collections include Botany, Zoology and Pharmacy specimens, including microscope slides, from around the world and a small, unique exhibition of glass sculptures recently created to commemorate the role of KCL in the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Paper and electronic (Access) databases were first created in 2003 and contained data for the then KCL Zoology and Botany Collections. In the last few years, volunteers have been recording specimens in paper (form-based) or electronic (Excel) formats and we have all been learning ‘on the job’. Inevitably specimens have been catalogued in different ways to record various kinds of information and many specimens remain uncatalogued. Some groups of specimens from a single collector/preparer or from a single source have been catalogued together as eg ‘The Daws Collection’, The Challenger Collection’.  The accumulating data were becoming unwieldy as there are now more than 8000 records.

The form

Example of the paper based record sheet for the Zoology specimens.

excel spreadseet form

Original electronic format for the Zoology Collections.

We are now rationalising our system of information storage and accessibility by bringing together all this information into one comprehensive electronic database. So far 106 information fields have been identified from the old database or allocated to the new database.  These allow information on all types of specimens to be entered into the new database. We will soon be able to include and readily update information on storage location, type and state of the specimen, any conservation taken or needed and whether specimens are out on loan. This vastly improves the accessibility of information to staff, students and volunteers, making management of the collections far more efficient and effective, but the process has had its problems.

The specimens in each collection were catalogued using a letter-based system to denote the taxon to which a specimen belonged followed by a number to denote the order in which the specimen was entered into that taxon. This lead to some specimens from different collections being given the same catalogue identifier, for example, B1 is both a Porifera (sponge) specimen in the Zoology Collection and a Cyanobacteria specimen in the Botany Collection. We have now created five core Museum of Life Sciences Collections; Zoology (ZY), Botany (BY), Pharmacy (PH), Microscopy (MI) and there will be a Cranio-Facial (CF) collection record when the relevant information is available. Under this scheme Zoology specimen B1 becomes ZY B1 and Botany specimen B1 becomes BY B1, allowing both B1 records to co-exist.

Where the taxonomic status of specimens has changed, they are now reclassified and labelled with accepted synonyms of the binomial name and the original name moved to a Synonym(s) field. It is now possible to search for the currently named specimen or to search for the historical synonym.

The previous electronic database was ‘flat-file’ which allowed for a record to have a row of data for each specimen allowing data to be accessed as a simple table although the paper catalogue was used mostly for accessing data. The integrated museum database now employs the power of relational data bases so Recorders can use either a table view or a form view data entry (see examples below) which are now interchangeable for each of the five collections.

The new form

The new table-form for the data.

The screen

The new form view of a Botany specimen showing data and related image.

The basic format of our new and integrated database is now functional. There is still much to be done to be done to upload information on all our specimens and to integrate the various data sets seamlessly into the database. This will improve recognition and identification of individual specimens without having to sort through actual specimens or paper records and will also help to minimise damage to delicate specimens.

We are grateful to the Bill Pettit Memorial Award for part funding this work. The original KCL databases were compiled by Ms M Bavington, based on systems used at The Grant Museum. The work and knowledge of the Ms Bavington and the continuing help and advice of colleagues at the Grant Museum elsewhere are gratefully acknowledged.

Written by Dr Gillian Sales. Curator, Museum of Life Sciences at the Gordon Museum.

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