Written by Jan Freedman (Freelance Museum Consultant).
Fossils. Rocks. Minerals. Invertebrates. Vertebrates. Plants. In the UK alone, there are an estimated 150 million natural science specimens spread across the country. These are a rich, unmatched record of biodiversity on our planet. Like a vast library, only the books are preserved specimens, and the information they contain is irreplaceable and unique to each one.
Every specimen is a record of that species, at that time, in that geographical place. And museums hold unfathomable amounts of data which can be used by researchers across the globe. We hold vast amounts of information with our specimens that can be used for research into climate change, habitat loss, biodiversity loss, pollution, food security and much more. But there is a conundrum, this data is currently locked up inside museums’ collections, how do we set them free?
Curators know their collections, and we make links with researchers, give talks, write articles and share specimens on social media so that more people know about them. But this takes time and effort on behalf of the curator and might be done differently by each individual in each department in each museum. How can we ensure that researchers from anywhere in the world, can access the invaluable data from UK collections in a useful format for them to use in their research?
Earlier this month, a workshop was organised to discuss these very issues. Led by Ella Howes and Vince Smith at the Natural History Museum, the workshop looked at how the UK can develop a collaborative approach to digitising our natural science collections. This scoping work towards ‘Digital Natural Science UK’ is being funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and draws on initial work by a partnership of 15 major collections and organisations including NatSCA. The project wants to enable researchers to access the millions of specimen data from one place, and part of the scoping work will be to look at potential models for museums passing on their information.
The aim is to centralise all the specimen information, including species, locality, date collected and collector, from museums holding natural science collections. Hundreds of museums, millions of specimens, all working together to allow the data to be used and shared in an instant. As a start, the current scoping work aims to develop a better understanding of the UK natural science collections ecosystem and digital capabilities, a strong vision and network, and pilot training.
This is a really interesting initiative, and something curators in UK museums may be familiar with. The Federation for Natural Science Collections Research (FENSCORE) was set up to bring information about natural science collections into one place. Although there is a huge amount of data on there, unfortunately data for a small number of regions was never finished, and the digital functionality of the database is outdated. Over the last few decades, NatSCA have been working to help show where collections are through their Natural History Near You work, and through the NatSCA JISC list where researchers can request certain collections. Something similar was attempted in the 1980s to bring all UK collections together.
With projects like FENSCORE failing to be fully completed, and curators knowing the enormous amount of work involved, there have been several false starts in the past. However, this is different, the programme will build links to the European Initiative, Distributed System of Scientific Collections (DiSSCo). DiSSCo involves 22 countries across Europe, with over 1.5 billion specimens uploaded onto a central gateway. Researchers have been using this data to look at a range of different areas resulting in thousands of publications. This is one of the bonuses for the UK: we can use other countries as case studies to see what works and learn from their successes. The work of previous projects such as FENSCORE will also be reviewed and where possible incorporated as a baseline.
Outcomes of Digital Natural Science UK
This is the early stages of Digital Natural Science UK. For many curators it may seem like an insurmountable task, and for many managers it may seem a task which requires too much time and input from their staff with no tangible benefits for their museums. The team want to work towards creating a strong, visible strategy to provide curators and funders with clear outcomes and goals and show the true value of these collections.
There will be many challenges for such a huge project where so many different museums, and different types of museums are involved. A few were highlighted at the workshop, including:
- Regional museums have multidisciplinary collections, so there is a focus on all the collection areas, not just natural science. This can result in these museums not being able to provide as much information to any deadlines.
- Often there is one curator looking after the natural science collections, and there are many different priorities in the day to day running of the department. Time is a big challenge.
- Often in independent museums, there is no subject specialist who themselves face other priorities.
- Funding is an obvious challenge that affects all museums, which could provide additional support for this work.
Challenges are important to recognise, and there will be more for such a large project that needs the assistance of so many museums across the UK. Openly raising concerns and issues that museums may face to prevent them from contributing is important so that the project team can find ways of helping. This initiative needs everyone and it is working to make sure everyone is supported to achieve the goal of a central UK gateway for collections.
This is an enormous project. As all curators know, there is a lot of work involved to update our databases, with historic backlogs going back decades. However, now is the time for us all to work together, large and small museums, to bring our data into one place.
Digital Natural Science UK has started. In the next several months it will create a business case outlining a vision for a UK infrastructure of digitised collections. Ella and colleagues will be working with NatSCA to help share the progress, gather information, and help develop training opportunities. A business case can be shown to higher-lever managers, to show in a clear concise way, what it is trying to achieve, the work involved and the benefits.
In the coming weeks, the project will be releasing scoping surveys to assess the types of natural science collections held in UK collections, their levels of digitisation, and the digital readiness of collection holders. The results of this survey will represent the most complete overview of UK natural science collections and pave the way to understanding the next steps for Digital UK. The team understand that this is a huge task for collections holding organisations and will be on hand to offer support throughout the process.
If you hold a natural science collection and would like to contribute to the scoping exercise, please register your interest by contacting email@example.com.