Written by Milo Phillips, Assistant Curator of Entomology at Leeds Museums and Galleries.
The past couple of years have seen a significant shift toward digital alternatives throughout the museum sector, from online exhibitions to webinars and remote conferencing, with our collections and their stories reaching a potentially global audience, more so than ever before. While much is being done to boost engagement with collections in new and exciting ways, museums on the whole have yet to harness the power of this shift when it comes to collections management.
The value of our natural science collections lies in their accessibility, in how open they are to this growing audience, from our local schools to researchers around the world and everyone in-between.
As our collections grow and our technology improves, digitization has become an important part of maintaining natural history collections. Using a citizen science approach, and bringing museum audiences on-board, we can turn collection management into a way of improving our collections, while simultaneously facilitating a deeper and more meaningful level of engagement with our objects and their stories.
Zooniverse is a free online platform built to facilitate a crowdsourced approach to large data sets and, while traditionally used by academic research groups, is an ideal solution to tackling tasks with much more efficiency than lone curators or even dedicated teams might be able to achieve. Projects can either be restricted to a specific group of users or opened up to the public for anyone to contribute their time to.
The Dead Inspiring project at Leeds Museums and Galleries has been using Zooniverse, with a team of volunteers over the past year, to unlock the scientific data contained in the entomology collection through transcription of specimen labels and simple condition assessments. So far, the team has digitized over 1000 specimens. The result is a comprehensive output ready for importing into museum databases or uploading to external databases like GBIF or NBN.
In the case above, Zooniverse shows each volunteer a series of specimen photos, asking them to copy any label text into the appropriate fields, i.e. species name, date of collection, specimen origin etc. Through a series of simple tasks like this, complex workflows can be built up easily. Before volunteers, or anyone else, can begin contributing to an ongoing digitisation project, they must complete a tutorial (written by the project designers), that explains each step of the process. In the interests of quality control, factors such as retirement counts are set (how many volunteers must process a specimen before it is deemed ‘finished’). Ranking of user contributions is also considered, meaning that museum staff or project volunteers’ contributions may carry more weight than an anonymous user’s when determining the score of a given specimen’s digitization entry.
The next stage of the Dead Inspiring Zooniverse work is opening it up to the wider public, using our core team of volunteers to oversee the process and begin photographing the collection themselves for processing. Once this step is complete, the possibilities for education also expand, opening up Zooniverse for school workshops or science days to run events similar to the widely successful Wikipedia hackathons, and university coding marathons.
Transcription is just one way to put Zooniverse to use, and current projects range from counting penguins and eggs at breeding colonies to identifying bird calls and much more. All these parts come together to create a tool invaluable to museums of all sizes, useful for expanding their engagement opportunities and improving their collection digitisation efforts in a more collaborative and effective way. Check out some of the projects linked below or have a look through the hundreds that are going on right now at Zooniverse.org.
Example Zooniverse Projects:
Ngā manu tātākī (NZ bird call ID): https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/mrniaboc/nga-manu-tataki
Penguin Watch: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/penguintom79/penguin-watch
World Architecture Unlocked: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/courtaulddigital/world-architecture-unlocked
Dead Inspiring Project: https://museumsandgalleries.leeds.gov.uk/virtual-visit/dead-inspiring/
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