Improving Specimen-Data Recording and Access in a Life Sciences Museum

The Museum of Life Sciences at King’s College London contains teaching and research material from King’s College London (KCL) and elsewhere. The collections include Botany, Zoology and Pharmacy specimens, including microscope slides, from around the world and a small, unique exhibition of glass sculptures recently created to commemorate the role of KCL in the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Paper and electronic (Access) databases were first created in 2003 and contained data for the then KCL Zoology and Botany Collections. In the last few years, volunteers have been recording specimens in paper (form-based) or electronic (Excel) formats and we have all been learning ‘on the job’. Inevitably specimens have been catalogued in different ways to record various kinds of information and many specimens remain uncatalogued. Some groups of specimens from a single collector/preparer or from a single source have been catalogued together as eg ‘The Daws Collection’, The Challenger Collection’.  The accumulating data were becoming unwieldy as there are now more than 8000 records.

The form

Example of the paper based record sheet for the Zoology specimens.

excel spreadseet form

Original electronic format for the Zoology Collections.

We are now rationalising our system of information storage and accessibility by bringing together all this information into one comprehensive electronic database. So far 106 information fields have been identified from the old database or allocated to the new database.  These allow information on all types of specimens to be entered into the new database. We will soon be able to include and readily update information on storage location, type and state of the specimen, any conservation taken or needed and whether specimens are out on loan. This vastly improves the accessibility of information to staff, students and volunteers, making management of the collections far more efficient and effective, but the process has had its problems.

The specimens in each collection were catalogued using a letter-based system to denote the taxon to which a specimen belonged followed by a number to denote the order in which the specimen was entered into that taxon. This lead to some specimens from different collections being given the same catalogue identifier, for example, B1 is both a Porifera (sponge) specimen in the Zoology Collection and a Cyanobacteria specimen in the Botany Collection. We have now created five core Museum of Life Sciences Collections; Zoology (ZY), Botany (BY), Pharmacy (PH), Microscopy (MI) and there will be a Cranio-Facial (CF) collection record when the relevant information is available. Under this scheme Zoology specimen B1 becomes ZY B1 and Botany specimen B1 becomes BY B1, allowing both B1 records to co-exist.

Where the taxonomic status of specimens has changed, they are now reclassified and labelled with accepted synonyms of the binomial name and the original name moved to a Synonym(s) field. It is now possible to search for the currently named specimen or to search for the historical synonym.

The previous electronic database was ‘flat-file’ which allowed for a record to have a row of data for each specimen allowing data to be accessed as a simple table although the paper catalogue was used mostly for accessing data. The integrated museum database now employs the power of relational data bases so Recorders can use either a table view or a form view data entry (see examples below) which are now interchangeable for each of the five collections.

The new form

The new table-form for the data.

The screen

The new form view of a Botany specimen showing data and related image.

The basic format of our new and integrated database is now functional. There is still much to be done to be done to upload information on all our specimens and to integrate the various data sets seamlessly into the database. This will improve recognition and identification of individual specimens without having to sort through actual specimens or paper records and will also help to minimise damage to delicate specimens.

We are grateful to the Bill Pettit Memorial Award for part funding this work. The original KCL databases were compiled by Ms M Bavington, based on systems used at The Grant Museum. The work and knowledge of the Ms Bavington and the continuing help and advice of colleagues at the Grant Museum elsewhere are gratefully acknowledged.

Written by Dr Gillian Sales. Curator, Museum of Life Sciences at the Gordon Museum.

A Tale of Two Playing Cards

The Museum Ethnographers Group conference is being held on Monday and Tuesday at the excellent Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent. The theme is ‘Nature and Culture in Museums’, and the relationship between the two.

I am a zoologist by background, but for the last three years I have been immersed in a different world, working on a review of the Anthropology collections at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. I have learned an enormous amount about material culture from all over the world, seen some incredibly stunning objects, and been surprised by how relevant my Natural History knowledge has been. Many of our objects are made of animal materials, and it’s been a great opportunity to learn new skills in identifying ivories, bone, and antler. Only a few weeks ago I was very excited to be able to identify an Inuit flint-sharpening tool as being made of mammoth ivory!

I have also been asked to add taxonomic data to some Anthropology object records in our Collections Management System, so that we can record the species that are represented by objects. This provides richer contextual data, and links between objects that can be navigated on our website.

Victorian playing cards featuring exotic species (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Victorian playing cards featuring exotic species (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

One such group of objects is this set of Victorian playing cards. They are cute: on one side is a cryptic clue to the identity of an animal, and on the other is an illustration of that animal. I didn’t anticipate how much the taxonomic information would add to our understanding of the objects, or that it would enable them to tell a story about discovery and extinction…

Two cards in the pack, together, tell this tale. The first is the ‘Black-diver’:

Black-diver playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Black-diver playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Mounted Great Auk specimen (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Mounted Great Auk specimen (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Which is actually a Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis). I have never heard ‘black diver’ used as a common name for this bird, but the likeness is unmistakable. The last recorded sighting of this species is from 1852, following the death of the last individuals to be shot, in 1844. I was intrigued to see this species represented in the pack, and was left wondering whether any of the Victorian children who played with the cards had ever actually seen a live Auk.

A second card could potentially hold the clue to this:


Reverse of animal playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Reverse of animal playing card (Horniman Museum &Gardens)

Gorilla playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Gorilla playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

The Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei) was not described until 1903, so it seems much more likely that this card represents the Western Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), described in 1847.

The date of the discovery of the Western Gorilla, combined with that of the extinction of the Great Auk, could potentially narrow down the date at which these cards were made enormously: there is only a five-year period in which both species were known to exist together, between 1847 and 1852. However, the actual date of manufacture could be much later: following their discovery, gorillas were incredibly popular with the public for many years, particularly in the 1860s after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, and the first live specimen reached a European zoo in 1876. ‘The Auk’ was taken as the title of the American Ornithologists’ Union’s journal, founded in 1884. So the Great Auk was clearly still in the public consciousness long after its extinction. Given this information, it seems quite possible that the original owners of the playing cards may never have seen either species in the flesh!

But that is as far as my research has taken me for now. This is a story that I hadn’t expected to find in these objects. As museum professionals, we are custodians of more than just collections: we are the keepers of specialist knowledge that we use to interpret our collections, to tell stories that will engage our audiences. Sometimes, to find their stories, you need to look at objects from more than one perspective. By working across disciplines and sharing our expertise, we can find new tales and new ways to tell them.


Rachel Jennings
Documentation Assistant, Horniman Museum and Gardens

One of our dinosaurs, birds, crabs…. is missing

Reblogged from the UCL Museums and Collections Blog

One of our dinosaurs, birds, crabs…. is missing

By Mark Carnall, Grant Museum of Zoology

You may have figured from the title of this blog but I’m going to take a bit of time to talk about when specimens go missing from a museum collection. It can be a difficult thing for museums to talk about as most museums operate to care for the specimens and objects that are given in trust to them often for perpetuity, or more practically until the death of our part of the Universe. Currently a lot of my work here involves relocating our specimens following the move of the stores and museum a couple of years ago and trying to work out what happened to a missing specimen involves a bit of detective work, so I thought I’d offer an insight into the process.

Missing Specimens- The Prime Suspects

Collectively, museums look after billions of objects. The Grant Museum contains roughly 68,000 specimens which may sound like a lot but natural history collections regularly number in the millions. Even keeping track of a mere 68,000 of them can be problematic enough. Here’s the mental checklist I go through when a specimen can’t be located.

1. Somebody* put it back in the wrong place. A little known fact about museums is that under English law it is still possible to punish a museum professional with death if they commit this crime. Putting a specimen in drawer 43 instead of drawer 44 may sound trivial, but if it’s one of 200,000 superficially identical butterflies that’s been misplaced….. Of course, naturally you search the nearby area but if it isn’t immediately  findable the next step is to organise a search committee and comb the museum inch by inch until it is located. Sometimes this is how half dodos are rediscovered.

Good old object movement tickets. They still work when the servers don’t. (C) UCL Grant Museum

Good old object movement tickets. They still work when the servers don’t. (C) UCL Grant Museum

2. It’s temporarily somewhere else. At the Grant Museum, we use our specimens a lot. On any given day we’ve got specimens out for researchers, specimens on loan across the department and to other institutions, specimens being photographed and documented and our own rotating and temporary displays. For longer term movements, the ever useful object movement record should be where the specimen normally lives and the temporary location will be recorded on the database. For shorter term movements this won’t be the case and it’s true to say that with higher-than-you’d-expect regularity two people will need the same specimen at once. As for loans to other institutions it used to be common place to loan specimens on ‘permanent loan’ so some specimens have been temporarily somewhere else for 20, 30, 40 and even 60 years and before the current museum good practices and standards the loan agreement may or may not have been written down anywhere… There’s a good reason why ‘permanent loans’ have been all but outlawed in museums.

A page from one of the Grant Museum loan books. Note how some of the unnumbered ‘Dog skulls’ don’t appear to have a return date. SAD SMILEY FACE. (C) UCL Grant Museum

A page from one of the Grant Museum loan books. Note how some of the unnumbered ‘Dog skulls’ don’t appear to have a return date. SAD SMILEY FACE. (C) UCL Grant Museum

3. The specimen never existed in the first place. Many museums have gone through a number of phases in the attempt to catalogue every single object and specimen in the collection. Sometimes two or more people are documenting the same objects at the same time. This results in duplicate or ghost records appearing for the same object. Over time, and I can testify to this happening, you can be in the situation whereby you’ve got to try to work out whether the 20 physical dog skulls you have before you are the 20 records on the catalogue or not. Another complication is that we appear to have older catalogues of the collection which were part descriptions of the physical collection and part ‘wishlists’.

4. The specimen has been destroyed. Without constant monitoring and conservation work, sadly specimens may be degraded past the point of being recognisable, safe or otherwise usable. In addition specimens may be actively destroyed for the purposes of sampling or other investigation. Today we’d record a specimen as being disposed of and the method by which it was destroyed but in the past this may or may not have been recorded so you’ll be looking for objects that haven’t existed for a long long time.

Pest damage to entomology collections results in the disintegration of specimens. (C) UCL Grant Museum

Pest damage to entomology collections results in the disintegration of specimens. (C) UCL Grant Museum

5. The specimen was part of the ‘curator’s collection’. If you’ve been following my colleague Emma’s series on previous Grant Museum curators you will have read how some of our previous curators didn’t appear to leave much of a material trail in the museum. This is because in the past the boundaries between what belonged to the museum and what belonged to individuals was, how shall we say it, very fluid. When the curators moved on to other institutions they sometimes took their own collections with them or donated their important specimens to the Natural History Museum. Frustratingly, they didn’t always record that this had happened.

6. Stolen. Whether it’s innocent 5 year olds pocketing a handling specimen, a professional scientist accidentally retaining specimens sent to them or your organised criminals stealing to order it’s a sad fact of life that museum specimens do get stolen. There’s at least a bookshelf of literature on art thefts over the years, rhino horn thefts are at an all time high and then there’s the more run-of-the-mill smash and grab jewellery thefts. The real issue is at what stage the theft is noticed. Gallery display thefts tend to be obvious but if it’s one of 40,000 specimens in a storeroom that’s gone missing it can be months or years before it’s noticed. More often than not it’s when specimens come onto the open market that it’s realised it’s no longer in the museum.

7. Misidentified. The classification of animals is constantly changing. In older collections you’ll have the full spread of names an animal has ever been known by that may be completely different to the current ‘consensus’ (which can be in a state of flux for 150 years and counting). Furthermore, depending on who has been documenting a specimen, your non specialist may get as far as bones, your generalist natural historian as far as lion and your carnivoran expert down to population you may be looking for a bag of bones labelled lion or looking for a lion labelled as a bag of bones.

A great example of the kind of handwriting you can expect to find on older specimens. Diplommyotns, Diplomyctus, Diplonijotus, Diplonnystus? Suggestions on a postcard please. (C) UCL Grant Museum

A great example of the kind of handwriting you can expect to find on older specimens. Diplommyotns, Diplomyctus, Diplonijotus, Diplonnystus? Suggestions on a postcard please. (C) UCL Grant Museum

8. Human Error. I don’t know if there’s a ‘background rate’ for errors that people make but when you scale museum staff adding up to 200 different fields of information (number, description, location, etc.) for thousands or hundreds of thousands of different specimens the inevitable fallibility of humans starts to add up. Couple this with the fact that, like GPs, scientists tend to have awful handwriting and you can be looking for a Z300 instead of an S800.

 So that’s the mental checklist I run through when a specimen can’t be located and it can be very heartening to relocate a missing specimen but ultimately some specimens end up recorded permanently as lost in the hope that at some point they’ll be rediscovered.

Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology

* For diplomacy I use the generic somebody here. In reality it’s always Mr. Nobody who takes responsibility for this.