Global Biodiversity Collections: Becoming Part of the Open Data Community

Written by Isla Gladstone, Senior Curator Natural Sciences, Bristol Museums

On 13th March I travelled to Sofia in Bulgaria, my mind buzzing with questions about biodiversity data…

I had been awarded one of 30 funded places on the first training school of Mobilise, an EU initiative to mobilise data, experts and policies in scientific collections. More specifically, Mobilise is an EU COST Action: a bottom-up network funded over four years to boost research, innovation and careers by COST, an intergovernmental framework for European Cooperation in Science and Technology.

Digitisation and data management challenges in small collections promised new skills in the key basics of data quality and cleaning. It also offered a chance to meet colleagues from around the world, and connect to a bigger picture.

At a time of unprecedented human-caused climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation, it feels more urgent than ever to connect museum collections to real-world change. Natural sciences collections offer precious opportunities here. Alongside huge potential to engage communities and inspire debate, specimens are unique sources of the scientific evidence urgently needed to unlock sustainable development solutions:

“There is more information about biodiversity in [the world’s] natural sciences collections than all other sources of information combined.” iDigBio

Collections’ biodiversity data: the what, when, where, who collected attached to many biological and palaeontological specimens © Bristol Museums

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Caring for Entomology Collections

The following post is from Emma-Louise Nicholls of the Grant Museum of Zoology who attended our recent Caring for Entomology Collections Workshop

The scarab beetle shows how pins are used to manipulate the legs whilst the specimen is drying, after which it will maintain its shape.

At the NatSCA course Caring for Entomology Collections held at the NHM in London, I not only got to salivate over the swanky slide cabinets that the Natural History Museum now houses, but I also got to pin a scarab beetle from scratch, peer into a liquid nitrogen freezer at minus 196 degrees, see a grasshopper eating a mouse, eat amazing food (not from the nitrogen freezer), and was even rewarded for my endless questions* with a free gift in the form of a rubber gasket. All in all it was a stupendous day and a course definitely worth attending.

This liquid nitrogen freezer is used to store organic material that would degrade at higher temperatures.

This liquid nitrogen freezer is used to store organic material that would degrade at higher temperatures.

The day was split into eight sections that covered how to prepare your specimens, care for and store your collections, and lots of inspiration for what you can subsequently do with your specimens to make them available to a wider audience. We also talked about how to deal with insects that are not so much the specimen type, but more of the wild roaming, likely to eat your specimens variety. Although there is much to say, here are some highlights.

The Digitisation Project is working to re-house entomology collections and give each specimen an individual QR code for fast and efficient data extraction.

The Digitisation Project is working to re-house entomology collections and give each specimen an individual QR code for fast and efficient data extraction.

We were shown an impressive digitisation project that involved taking a drawer of entomological specimens in need of some TLC, applying both remedial and preventative conservation techniques and then photographing each specimen with a unique QR code. The idea is that in the future, the code can be scanned and will link to metadata on the Museum’s database. Knowing how troublesome paperwork for loans can be, this has exciting implications in terms of simplifying the process and decreasing both the time required and the potential for human error in filling out forms and in transcribing the specimens’ labels.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an essential part of any museum staff members’ knowledge base. Even if a full blown IPM plan is not logistically feasible in your building (as it isn’t in the museum where I work), a knowledge of how and why it works is integral to writing a pest monitoring programme that suits your collection. Housekeeping is, of course, the most important part of keeping museum pests at bay, but even in the best kept collection, pests can and do still occur, and knowing how to monitor and effectively eradicate any outbreaks is integral to preventative conservation of your specimens. It was both interesting and very useful to compare and contrast the problems and protocols that are used by the Natural History Museum with those from my own museum and I came away some useful tips.

The scarab beetle in the centre of this image shows how pins are used to manipulate the legs whilst the specimen is drying, after which it will maintain its shape.

The scarab beetle in the centre of this image shows how pins are used to manipulate the legs whilst the specimen is drying, after which it will maintain its shape.

The element of the course I most enjoyed was the opportunity to both pin an insect specimen, and ask endless questions of the suitably enthusiastic entomologists demonstrating the techniques. There are many more methods used in pinning insects and other invertebrates than I had ever imagined, and being able to have a go myself solidified the information as well as making for an exciting day. I can proudly tell you that the scarab I pinned lost no legs and the metal pin was at a (near) perfect 90 degree angle to the base. It’s all in the teaching no doubt.

Despite both the obvious and more subtle differences between the Natural History Museum and other natural history collections and museums, I felt the information given at the course was delivered in a way as to be directly relevant to all collections represented. Having spoken to the other delegates present, it was unanimously agreed to be a thoroughly useful and interesting day.

– Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Curatorial Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology

* May have been an attempt to silence me

‘Crap in the Attic?’: the management and use of natural history collections

20 November 2013, 10.30-17.15, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Oxford University Museum of Natural History, in partnership with Oxford ASPIRE, would like to invite colleagues from organisations with natural history collections in the region to ‘Crap in the Attic?’: a symposium on the challenges facing natural history collections in the region, the role of natural history collections within the wider sector, and what the region needs in order to ensure the future of these significant collections.

Book your free place at http://oxfordnaturalhistory.eventbrite.co.uk/

Caring For Entomology Collections

Seminar series to explore basic entomology collections management, curation and conservation techniques.

NHM (Natural History Museum), South Kensington, London 9.30am – 4.30pm Friday 1st November 2013

Cost £34 for members or £49 for non-members (remember that becoming a member is just £15 a year!).

This course will cover all basic aspects of collections management for entomological collections, including storage and handling of specimens, loans and legislation, and specimen preparation.

There will be specialist sessions including Integrated Pest Management, storage facilities, spirit curation, specimen pinning, molecular collections, basic slide preparation, documentation and databasing. Tours of the collection areas will also occur.

The course will be both theory and practical supported by a booklet covering both aspects.

Schedule (TBC):

9:30 -10:00 Introduction and Coffee

10:00 -10:30 Entomological Storage

10:30 -11:00 IPM

11:00 – 11:30 Morning Coffee

11:30 – 12:00 Digitisation

12:00 – 12:30 Data-basing

12:30 – 2:00 Lunch

2:00 – 2:30 Specimen pinning

2:30 – 3:00 Slide preparation

3:00 – 3:30 Afternoon Coffee

3:30 – 4:00 molecular collections

4:00 – 4:30 Spirit collections

Download booking form

Contacts:

For further information: Erica McAlister – e.mcalister@nhm.ac.uk

For booking & payment: Holly Morgenroth – holly.morgenroth@exeter.gov.uk

To become a member: Maggie Reilly – maggie.reilly@glasgow.ac.uk

Subject Specialist Networking

NatSCA is the Subject Specialist Network (SSN) for natural science collections in the UK. This means that we provide a mechanism for communicating about advances in theory and practice in the sector, as well as supporting the development of staff – both specialists and those generalists with responsibilities for mixed collections.

In general SSNs are viewed a valuable resource and are seen as intrinsic to Arts Council England’s (ACE) plans for the museum sector – at least that’s what we were told by a representative of ACE at NatSCA’s recent 20th anniversary conference at the Yorkshire Museum.

The conference topic of ‘Policy and Practice’ focused on strategic issues and practical projects that have contributed towards policy and procedure formulation and testing. I won’t go into a blow-by-blow account of the meeting, which ranged from legislation affecting asbestos and radioactive materials in collections, to the practicalities of choosing and implementing a method for collection reviews and the benefits and pitfalls of disposal.

The meeting opened with a call for greater positive advocacy of natural science collections in a talk that can be summarised as “we need to stop bloody moaning and do something positive”. It was a well received sentiment, despite the fact that in some instances it can be hard to be positive.

The buzzing of the grapevine revealed dark deeds in a university (involving a skip and a departmental collection with notable specimens) and mounting clouds over the National Museum of Wales where cuts are looming, with the sciences bracing to take the brunt. Nevertheless, there was a remarkably positive feeling to the meeting as a whole and some healthy discussion arose that continued well into the early hours of the morning.

conference_meal

The NatSCA conference meal in York 2013. A lot of people and a lot of discussion!

One particular topic that saw a robust response was an NHM call for a national strategy for collections. After decades of the NHM focussing on their global placement the audience was
sceptical about the factors driving this change of focus. Rob Huxley from the NHM performed well on the spot and may have begun the slow work of winning over a surprisingly hostile crowd when he acknowledged that national museums often have lessons to learn from their smaller counterparts.

The full proceedings of the meeting will be published later this year in the new peer-reviewed Journal of Natural Science Collections. I would recommend taking a look if you want to find out how to non-destructively sample parchment for protein analysis, simplify your loan procedures or conduct a review of a quarter of a million objects in just one year.

This article is based on a piece originally written for the Museums Association website.