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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A Supreme, Dream Team: The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and Society for the Preservation of Natural History Museums (SPNHC) Conference 2021

Written by Bethany Palumbo, ACR, Founder and Owner of Palumbo Conservation Services

As a Natural History conservator, I was thrilled to learn that the 2021 SPNHC conference would be a joint conference with the AIC. These two large US organizations have very different priorities and committees, but many collaborative interests. I had waited a long time for this collaboration! The theme of the conference was ‘Transformation’ seeking ideas to not only transform museums, but discuss how museums can transform the world for the better. A fitting theme for a year of massive upheaval and dramatic change.

The conference was originally due to be held in Jacksonville Florida, but the on-going pandemic meant it was moved online at the last minute. Though disappointed to not see colleagues physically, holding the conference online did allow for truly international participation and I could catch up on talks as and when I was able!

The majority of sessions were collaborative with talks from both members of AIC and the SPNHC. They were spread over 6 weeks, allowing for many more sessions than could normally be accommodated in a 5-day conference. The sessions were varied, covering not only the conservation of objects but digitization and data management, using Natural History as an educational tool, collaborating with stakeholder communities and storage and display.

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Time To Figure Out Where Specimens Are Really From

By John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool.

In 2020 the Vertebrate Zoology collection at World Museum took a step towards ‘FAIR’ data sharing and began adding datasets of specimen records to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). There is always a trade-off between releasing datasets as soon as possible and ensuring they contain the most precise and reliable data possible. We’ve taken the view that through releasing these datasets, and encouraging their use, a positive feedback loop will incrementally improve data quality. That said, due to restrictions on other activities, one side effect of the Covid pandemic has been a little more time for in-house provenance research.

Banded Broadbill – Eurylaimus javanicus Horsfield, 1821 [accession number: NML 31.12.14.56a]. Collected at ‘Kao Nawng’, Surat Thani, Thailand on 1913-07-21 © National Museums Liverpool (World Museum).

One collection I’ve focussed on during this time is that of prolific collecting duo, Herbert Christopher Robinson and Cecil Boden Kloss, which came to World Museum from the Federated Malay States Museums (FMSM) in 1914. Robinson, a former assistant at the Liverpool Museums, directed the FMSM from 1908 until 1926; Boden Kloss was the colleague ‘to whom he was much attached’. It seems that the FMSM specimens arrived in Liverpool without any additional documentation, so the collection locality information in our database (at National Museums Liverpool we use Mimsy XG) must have originally been transcribed from specimen labels with ‘place collected’ presumed to be Malaysia. Continue reading

#CyclaPeople In Lockdown

Written by Claire Smith, volunteer at the University of Reading Herbarium.

I don’t imagine that there’s an abundance of field work taking place during the unprecedented pandemic situation that we find ourselves in at the moment. However, if there was one piece of advice that I could offer to anybody taking down field notes, it would be to develop neat handwriting! Either that, or to transcribe your notes into digital form as soon as possible. Otherwise, some poor soul – who may not even be a botanist – may find themselves, a mere thirty-three years after your expedition, staring at a page of unfamiliar place names or Latin plant names, with confusion.

Some field notes are more legible than others…
© Claire Smith, 2019

That said, would anybody care to take a guess at what’s been happening with the Cyclamen Society collection during lockdown? Yes, I’m taking the opportunity to get to grips with as much of the data entry as I possibly can. As with so many other collections around the world, volunteers haven’t been into the Herbarium since the middle of March. This means that our usual tasks of mounting and photographing the collected cyclamen specimens are out of bounds. Aside from the physical though, there is always plenty of digital work to do.

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