Many Hands Make Light Work

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.

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Setting Natural Science Collections Data Free

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?

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Databasing Herbarium Specimens and Ease of Use.

Written by Teagan Reinert1* and Karen L. Bacon1

1 Botany & Plant Sciences, School of Natural Sciences, National University of Ireland, Galway; * corresponding author email: t.reinert1@nuigalway.ie

One of the main aims of creating online databases of herbarium images (or any data set) is to increase the ease of access for researchers, educators, and other users who may want to obtain data from the specimens without having to physically travel to an herbarium. Online herbarium databases have become particularly useful during the global COVID-19 pandemic, when many herbaria are not allowing or greatly reducing the amount of in-person visitation.

For many herbaria, online databases are still being constructed and ease of access and use can vary significantly between collections. Additionally, while a database may list a certain number of specimens held by the herbarium, it can often be the case that only a subset of these specimens are actually imaged and available to view online. Some herbarium databases are better than others in actually allowing the user to narrow down their search to get the data they are looking for. The databases range in ease of use from ‘very easy’ to ‘usable but frustrating’. Any databases that are too difficult to use often dissuade researchers from using the digital resources available on that database.

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CryoArks Biobank and COVID-19

Written by Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates, National Museums Scotland.

Biobanks may sound a bit dull when compared to shelves teeming with boxes filled with fascinating skeletons, or cabinets stuffed with colourful skins, beautiful eggs or pinned insects. Serried ranks of anonymous freezers, enhanced with the odd fridge magnet, could make your heart sink, but peep inside the biobanks’ databases and you will see an amazing array of biodiversity. 

CryoArks Biobank at National Museums Scotland ©National Museums Scotland

At National Museums Scotland we host one of the main hubs of the CryoArks Biobank initiative alongside our partners at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who also host a hub of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria Biobank, and the Natural History Museum in London. CryoArks is a project led by Professor Mike Bruford of Cardiff University and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to establish zoological biobanking in the UK. As well as the -80o freezer infrastructure to store the tissue samples long term, CryoArks is developing an online database that will allow researchers to find out what genetic resources are available in the CryoArks Biobank hubs and in member institutions. With the advent of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefits Sharing in 2014, access to genetic samples from species from range countries is more challenging. Therefore, it is vital that we make the best use of the samples already available in the UK and make these freely available to support research, much of which may benefit the conservation of endangered species worldwide. 

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