Book Review: Managing Natural Science Collections.

Written by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth.

Working with natural science collections is quite a unique role. The specimens we care for, the stories they tell, the research we carry out or help facilitate, and the engagement with the public, are just a few rewarding jobs that we carry out daily. Sometimes there are barriers between those working with natural science collections and those at a higher management level. This is mainly due to a lack of understanding of the importance of these types of collections. “Why are there so many flies?“, “It’s just taxidermy, bring it out for people to stroke“, “It’s just a rock”. Just a few of things many of us have heard being said about natural science collections.

Whilst we can respond to these kinds of comments, some of us may find it more difficult to respond in a strategic way: in a language that makes sense to high level managers or funders. I have in the past, and I’ve found that frustrating, because I know the importance of the collections I look after. I was very pleased to be asked to review a new book about management of collections, focusing on strategy and development, Managing Natural Science Collections: A guide to strategy, planning and resourcing which was released this year and it couldn’t have come at a better time. A time when the country is recovering from an economic slump after the Covid pandemic. A time when cuts to the museum sector are inevitable.

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Digitisation

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Today we have Lukas Large, curatorial trainee with the Birmingham Museums Trust, on digitisation:

The theme of this year’s SPNHC2014 meeting was ‘Historic Collections: Future Resources’. Digitisation was featured as one of the main topics as this is an important way that collections are being made accessible to researchers and new audiences.

The talks described a wide variety of digitisation projects from the enormous Paris Herbarium which ran for 4 years and created images of 5.3 million specimens to Arkansas State Herbarium with 18,000. Many of the projects involved herbarium sheets as these are relatively easy to image but an amazing variety of objects have been digitised including fossils at GB3D Type Fossils, insects and even historic slide collections.

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Extracting the information from specimen labels is an important but potentially expensive and time consuming process so many museums have started to use crowd sourcing to perform tasks such as transcribing specimen labels. Laurence Livermore discussed several successful examples such as Herbaria@home which has been running since 2007 and has a dedicated team of digital volunteers who have contribute 135,000 transcriptions.

These new uses of collections show just how important it is that these objects are properly cared for. Without the museum staff that have looked after these objects, we would not have them to digitise. Without ongoing care, researchers will not be able to study them in the future.

Slides from the talks are available on the iDigBio website as well as detailed descriptions of the protocols and tools used by different projects which are extremely useful for anyone planning their own digitisation project.

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