Becoming a master of digitisation | Digital Collections

A guest blog from our Summer placement students Janice Wu and Ying Luo

Janice and Ying at work preparing some mollusc shells for digitisation

The digitisation team started a mass approach to digitising our collections nearly a decade ago. At this time, there were very few museum employees around the country who could claim their job title was “digitiser”. Now, ten years on, the Museum has digitised 5.6 million specimens, the digitisation team has nine full-time digitisers and has been able to host two placement students this summer.

As digitisation is a fairly new career option, unlike becoming a curator, it is often not something that students at university are necessarily considering which is something that we really wanted to change.

Larissa Welton, one of our full-time digitisers who has been supervising our summer placements, started her career at the Museum when she was able to take part in an eight-week placement during her master’s degree in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. This later led to her finding out about digitisation and applying for a job as a digitiser.

‘I’m so glad I found this path. I get to handle our fantastic specimens every day and work to increase digital access to our collections for researchers and the public alike.’ Larissa says

‘Once I got this job, I wanted to offer other students the same opportunity I had, but in the growing field of digitisation.’

Hosting students has been a valuable and rewarding experience and we hope to continue to do this, whether it’s school work experience students or university placements. This blog is by our two 2023 placement students Janice and Ying who are both masters students in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. They will share their experiences as they are introduced to digitisation over their eight-week summer placement at the Museum.

Why should we digitise?

An insect in a lightbox for imaging

Natural history collections that date back hundreds of years are often the only place that contains a baseline of biodiversity from before industrialisation, wide scale intensive farming and mining the ocean for important minerals. Because of this, digitising museum collections and setting this data free is vital for those wanting to understand what change has happened and understand how we can work in the future to conserve our biodiversity so that both people and the planet can thrive.

Janice tells us ‘Over the past few years, we have witnessed a series of events, including the global pandemic, the fire of the National Museum of Brazil and of the Notre Dame de Paris. These events made me realise the vulnerability of our global collections and culture. This made me want to preserve and protect museum and heritage collections.’

Digitisation is an impactful approach to preserving and protecting collections – it can sometimes reduce the amount of handling that specimens are subjected to when people are using them for research, and shares these collections with the world, opening up the collection with scientists, students and artists who can be inspired by and use these collection to better the planet.

What is digitisation?

Digitisation is simply the process of creating a digitally discoverable record. This might or might not include an image, but will include important information about a specimen such as what species it is, where and when it was found and if it is a ‘type’ or example specimen from which a species is named. This is important information to release to the world as it helps scientists track how populations have changed over time, for instance if there are changes in the appearance of a species due to climate warming, or to discover if what they have collected on a field trip is a new species.

The digitisation team often refer to the different methods of digitisation as ‘workflows’ which is a specific set of instructions to adhere to when working with a series of like objects that all require similar steps. You can find out more in this blog on a Day in the life of a digitiser. Each time a digitiser starts a new project they are trained in the workflow and given an introduction to the collection before starting official digitisation. During their eight-week placement, Janice and Ying were able to be trained to digitise microscope slides, pinned insects, molluscs and herbarium sheets.

The first workflow our digitisers learn is the microscope slide workflow. This is the quickest workflow that we have and the highest number one digitiser has ever managed to get through in one day is 1525 slides. The Museum has more than 2.5 million microscope slides, which can contain whole small insects, parts of other specimens or tiny fossils.

‘I was surprised to learn that the slide digitisation workflows that have been developed take an average of 16 seconds to image a slide, and they help me to semi-automate slide capture and data editing. This greatly improves efficiency and reduces the potential for human error.’ Ying

Janice ‘This is a highly efficient workflow and I can get through 400-600 slides per day which is really satisfying. I find that listening to music as I work helps my concentration.’

Expectation vs. Reality — Even Better!

Before the placement, Janice didn’t interact much with nature. ‘During our placement, I have been exposed to so much variety in the natural world. This placement has shown me how incredible nature can be.’

‘My favourite specimen so far is Chan’s megastick. This stick insect measuring 567mm is the second largest insect in the world (it held the world record until 2008) the team had to use a drawer scanner to image this specimen.’

‘After being a digitiser, I realised that each person on the team can contribute a little to the bigger impact every day. I’m really proud that what I do on a daily basis, can benefit society for centuries to come.’

Ying tells us ‘I love how well preserved the specimens are in the collection – the butterflies still have their brilliant colours and fragrant plants like thyme retain their characteristic smell over 100 years later.’

‘My favourite part of the role so far has been being able to meet new people both in the digitisation lab and wider Museum. I enjoy that each project is a collaboration between the digitisation team and the curators. I already know that eight weeks are not enough for me and I will be looking to join the Museum again in the future.’

The Future is Bright and digital

Janice ‘I feel very lucky to have been able to work with such a welcoming team, and our supervisor, Larissa has been amazing. I would be thrilled if I could continue into digitisation work and contributing to make collections accessible to everyone in my future career. If you ever get the opportunity to become a digitiser, seize it!’

Ying ‘I was surprised by the large amount of scientific terminology that needs to be learnt for this role – as a member of the museum’s collections team, you need to have a deep understanding of the collections. Some of our digitisers are themselves experts in insects, fossils or plants. The placement has opened my eyes to the intersection of multiple disciplines in a museum setting and that digitisation is a specialism.’

We want to thank Ying and Janice for spending time with us this Summer, it has been a pleasure to get to know you and see you excel in so many areas during such a short few weeks.

If you want to stay up to date with our digitisation activities, projects and opportunities please follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

If you are a student or course leader that wants our help to support learning more about digitisation during the life of your course, please reach out to us on either of these channels as we would be happy to hear your ideas.

Crime and punishment while collecting insects? | Digital Collections

National Insect Week blog by Louise Berridge

Rev. Alfred Edwin Eaton (1844-1929) – photograph reproduced with permission,
from the collection of the Royal Entomological Society

Most of the Museum’s digitisers have encountered the entomologist Alfred Edwin Eaton (1844-1929) through his specimen labels. We are transcribing the labels of three groups of freshwater insects that Eaton often collected, the Museum’s Ephemeroptera, Trichoptera, and Plectoptera collections. Eaton’s handwriting can be challenging to decipher (see examples below). We often need to share pictures in our Team’s online chat to try to work out difficult labels together. We reached a point where a new tricky Eaton label was an exciting event and finally cracking his handwriting was a relief… until the next label!. We were all imagining what sort of a person Eaton might have been.

When we heard a story that Eaton had been arrested on 22 June 1896 in Algeria while collecting insects, I wanted to know more…

Eaton travelled to Algeria in 1892 as no European entomologist had yet documented Algerian Trichoptera. He found the country such an interesting place of study that he remained there for several years, with only occasional return visits to England.

At noon on 22nd June 1896 Eaton was searching for Neuroptera (net-winged flies including lacewings, mantidflies and antlions) at Forêt d’ElOubeïra, close to the Algerian border with Tunisia, when some farm workers noticed his dishevelled appearance and unusual insect-collecting equipment. The workers thought Eaton should be questioned by their local Sheikh in case he was a spy or ‘suspicious character’. There was a language barrier – at this time Algeria was under colonial rule by France: Eaton could speak French, but the Algerians he met that day were speaking Arabic, which Eaton did not know.  Eaton shared his lunch with the men and then followed them at their suggestion, wandering off on the longest possible route to their village so that he could explore the area’s swamp and collect more insects. Clearly the arrest was not as terrifying as it might have been.

When they reached the village, which Eaton names as Aine Kriar, Eaton met the Sheikh who decided that he should be questioned by the nearest French Administrator, 12 miles away at El Kala (French: La Calle), where there was a jail. Eaton does not name him, but a contemporary French Almanach National lists the Administrator of El Kala as a man named Moreau. Eaton protested so loudly at being asked to share a horse with the Sheikh’s man who was supposed to accompany him to see Moreau, that eventually the Sheikh gave up and let Eaton ride a separate horse.

Eaton and his companion did not need to travel the full 12 miles to El Kala– they met with Moreau out travelling on their route. Eaton bolted his horse ahead to meet Moreau in order to reach ‘safety.’ Eaton showed the French official a jar of dragonflies to illustrate what he had been doing. Moreau was not very impressed, explaining that there had been a lot of robberies in the area recently and that was why the locals were wary of strangers, but he asked Eaton if he had been treated badly. Moreau wondered why Eaton had not got any personal identification papers or travel permits, to which Eaton responded that he hadn’t known he needed any. Moreau let him go. Reading between the lines of Eaton’s account, it sounds like the men who arrested him treated him with a lot of patience. Eaton’s conclusion was that it all worked out fine and he managed to get back to where he was staying at Le Tarf in time for dinner.

One of Eaton’s dragonflies collected at Aine Kriar on 22nd June 1896 [NHMUK013388821]
And another [NHM013388822]

Eaton’s Dragonflies

Thanks to detective work by Dan Hall in the Museum’s small orders collection, we know that some dragonflies which Eaton showed Administrator Moreau on his arrest day are at the NHM, courtesy of his friend Robert McLachlan’s collection. These examples are Sympetrum sanguineum (Müller, 1764), also known as ruddy darters, a cosmopolitan species which is found all over Europe and the Mediterranean. When alive, the males are tomato-red and the females are an ochre colour (see image below). Eaton’s specimens have faded in colour – which would have happened a day or two after he collected them – but they are still in good condition.

Ruddy Darter male Sympetrum sanguineum (32455377778).jpg
RSPB Lakenheath Reserve, Suffolk. TL720867
gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K

Knowing the story of how these specimens were once used as a ‘get out of jail free card’ by an eccentric entomologist certainly add another dimension to digitising them. Eaton’s story will also help us to georeference his specimens from Algeria as we have learned more about his travels.

It would not be recommended or possible today to travel and collect overseas without id and travel documents; today you would usually need specimen collecting permits and an environmental impact assessment might be necessary too. Eaton may not have even been travelling with a passport, as this was not always strictly enforced before the First World War.

Eaton was at least not freewheeling with his collections data, and formally recorded occurrence information for quite a lot of insect species in Algeria for the first time. Eaton sent Algerian Hydroptilids (a family of Trichoptera) he had collected to the Scottish entomologist Kenneth J Morton who found they were significant not because they were new species, but because most of the same species had been found across Europe, and so he learned that they had a wider distribution than previously known. Eaton’s labels still form a baseline of information which help us to monitor how insects are affected by environmental changes over a long period of time, which is why it is worth transcribing them, even if it can be difficult sometimes.

With thanks to Rosemary Pearson and the Royal Entomological Society for permission to use Eaton’s portrait, Dan Hall for tracking down Eaton’s dragonflies in the small orders collection and Krisztina Lohonya for help with transcription and georeferencing.

Find out more from our digitisers and the stories they unravel while digitising 80 million specimens by following us on Instagram and Twitter. If you want to read more about Eaton’s tale you can access his own account of his arrest on the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

A Museum for all | The Natural History Museum’s Executive Board

If we want to create advocates for the planet and meet our mission of galvanising a movement of millions around the planet to speak up and act for nature, then we need to be the most inclusive Museum we can be. Our vision is a future where both people and planet thrive – so we must be a museum for all people.

Continue reading “A Museum for all | The Natural History Museum’s Executive Board”

Young people turn local seaweed problem into a resource

14-year-old Eder, a participant in Big Seaweed Search Mexico, in the classroom, inspecting and identifying seaweeds he collected, with the help of Ameyalli, who is using a hand lens to take a closer look at the seaweed.

This blog is guest-written by Ameyalli Rios Vázquez from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, a collaborator with the Museum on the Big Seaweed Search Mexico project.

After an amazing two years, the Big Seaweed Search Mexico collaboration is coming to an end. Previous blogs about this project described how the team in Mexico designed and delivered an inspiring programme of activity, for young people from Sisal, Yucatán, and Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo to collaborate with professional researchers from Mexico and UK in this community science effort to monitor seaweed. The seeds we planted in the young people through this collaboration needed time and care to grow, but finally, they are bearing fruit.

Continue reading “Young people turn local seaweed problem into a resource”

How does biodiversity loss impact human health?


The health of our planet depends on the existence of million species, the ecological networks in which they interact with one another, and the complex habitats they live in and modify. Humans are just one component of this living network and, therefore, we rely on nature for goods and services that underpin our societies, economies, health and wellbeing.

Land use change, intensive farming and hunting of wild animals all increase our exposure to parasites and pathogens. Museum collections provide vital insights into how and why these relationships are changing, and the implications these have for our health and the health of our planet.

To help us to communicate how researchers at the Museum are addressing the on-going planetary emergency, we have developed ten Research Themes. One of these themes is Biodiversity and Health which will aim to prioritise research into the intersection between biodiversity change and emerging diseases.  

Continue reading “How does biodiversity loss impact human health?”

First Mexico, then the world? Where next for our seaweed community science collaboration

In my last blog, the team had just arrived back from our final workshop for the Big Seaweed Search Mexico partnership and I reported on day one. On day two, we headed to the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) campus just outside Mérida to explore how we could expand our work in the region. This is a big motivation for me personally – that our work could have a positive impact on the lives of local communities, so I was really excited for that!

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Eliza Catherine Jelly, a Pioneering Woman in Science

A guest blog by Larissa Welton and Leo Le Good

Jelly Collection of bryozoans

On March 8, International Women’s Day is observed around the world. Describing a future ‘free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination’, this year International Women’s Day encourages us all to #EmbraceEquity.

At the Natural History Museum, Larissa from the digitisation team and Leo from the Library were reminded of this year’s theme when we came across a handwritten manuscript of Eliza Catherine Jelly. A scientist of the late 19th century, Eliza, like many women of the age, has not received the nearly the level of recognition as her male peers.

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Destination Mexico for our Community Science Collaboration

Team photo at the Big Seaweed Search Mexico workshop.

I’ve just got back to my desk after a brilliant trip to Mexico – the highlight of my working year already. What a treat to be able to travel for work and connect with amazing people doing similar work and with similar interests across the globe!

The team hosted an inspiring and informative workshop in Mérida, Mexico, to conclude our Big Seaweed Search Mexico collaboration. This has been a two year partnership that saw the UK Big Seaweed Search project adapted to address the issue of massive seaweed influxes on Mexican beaches.

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