What’s in our UK natural science collections and why does this matter? | Digital Collections Programme

A guest blog by Tara Wainwright

Botanical sheets from Kew ©RBG Kew

The UK holds hundreds of millions of natural history specimens of scientific importance. Exactly how many specimens and what those specimens are, is currently unknown. Unveiling the contents of the UK’s collections will open the door to further digitisation and unlock the full scientific potential of UK natural science collections.

Digitising, the process of converting physical information into a digital form, the UK’s natural science collection, opens up a unique and valuable national resource to the world and enable the UK to be part of current and future scientific collaborations to find solutions to the biggest challenges of our time.

As part of a wider programme of investment in national digital research infrastructure, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is committed to developing a sustained, multi-year programme for science collections digitisation, starting with the Scoping UK Natural Science Collections Initiative. The initiative has created a partnership between major UK museums, botanic gardens, and the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA), with the goal of gaining a richer understanding of the UK’s natural science collections.

The knowledge gained will inform a strategy to create a digital natural science collection for the UK; encompassing collections from insects to mammals, extinct plant fossils to currently endangered plant species, and UK sourced minerals to meteorites. This project will help to establish a UK network, providing better links between natural science organisations and allowing expertise and resources to be shared more readily.

What’s in the Cabinets?

While the full number of specimens are currently unknown, it is currently estimated that there are at least 150 million items in UK natural science collections. The first step towards digitising this national collection is understanding the breadth and depth of what the UK holds. To do this, surveys are being sent out to organisations across the UK to find out more about the collections held and how ready they are to be digitised.

There are two surveys. The first is divided into eight disciplines: Anthropology, Botany, Extra-terrestrial objects, Geology, Microorganisms, Palaeontology, Zoology Invertebrates, and Zoology Vertebrates. Participants are asked to provide the number of specimens held under each discipline and the extent to which these collections have been digitised. The second survey will focus on each organisation’s digital priorities, their ability to digitise their collections, the management of their data, and the challenges digitisation poses.

The feedback from these two surveys will provide an up-to-date picture of what is held in UK collections so that all partners can collaborate on a strategy to digitise the UK science collections. The results of the surveys will be used to build a business case to increase funding, support efforts to improve the digitisation of our natural science collections, and provide the basis for training resources. What training is required, and how this will be delivered, will depend upon the responses from the surveys.

Digitising butterflies at the Natural History Museum, London

Why do we need to unlock the UK’s collections?

Unlocking collections will aid in scientific breakthrough, with specimens being used to discover new species, to uncover the origins and evolution of diseases, to track biodiversity changes, and to assess conservation efforts. Recent evidence also suggests that digitising natural science collections not only has scientific value, but also societal and economic value. Frontier Economics have recently worked with the Natural History Museum, London to put a value on digitising collections and believe that the economy could see a tenfold return on investment for digitisation.

UK collections holders have many different reasons for digitising their collections and face a diverse set of digitisation challenges. For instance, institutions that attended the introductory workshop cited a lack of funding and staff availability as key barriers to digitising their collections. For large organisations such as the Natural History Museum, the scale and variety of the collections is a challenge, and multidisciplinary institutions face additional challenges in prioritising natural science digitisation over the digitisation of their art and historical collections. Understanding the drivers and hurdles for each individual collection is crucial in building an effective strategy and business case for digitisation of these collections.

Digitising slide collections at the Natural History Museum, London

There are over 100 institutions holding natural science collections in the UK, and the Scoping UK Natural Science Collections Initiative hopes to obtain information regarding the collections for as many of these institutions as possible to ensure we have accurate estimations of the UK’s collections and a complete understanding of the needs of a range of organisations.

We are eager to support all organisations in the completion of these surveys and will be providing guidance documents and online sessions to guide participants through completion of the surveys and answer any questions.

The surveys and further information on completing the surveys are available until 3 December 2021 This will ensure organisations have enough time to complete both surveys.

If you are interested in participating or would like to learn more information about the project, please contact dissco-uk@nhm.ac.uk.

The Museum at sea

One person leans over to collect seaweed on the beach with the sky above full of clouds

Adventuring to the west coast of Scotland in search of DNA

Laura Sivess, Research Assistant for the Darwin Tree of Life project, shares the experience of being on a Museum field trip.

The Natural History Museum (NHM) Darwin Tree of Life (DTOL) team recently returned from Millport, Scotland, where in just over four days we encountered over 150 species and took 266 tissue samples for whole genome sequencing!

Continue reading “The Museum at sea”

Can biofuels solve the planetary emergency we are facing? | PREDICTS biodiversity team

In this post, masters student Sophie Jane Tudge details her research into biofuels.

Carbon-neutral energy sounds like it is exactly what the world needs right now. With the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) almost upon us, more people than ever are asking how we can halt climate change to protect our planet and, ultimately, ourselves. The greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels have led to many countries, including the UK, to make commitments to shift over to renewable energy sources. But renewable energy does not always mean that it is good for the environment. Let’s take a look at one growing form of renewable energy: biofuels. 

Continue reading “Can biofuels solve the planetary emergency we are facing? | PREDICTS biodiversity team”

The Carpenter Eozoon Collection, linking curation and conservation

Eozoon sample
Portrait of William Benjamin Carpenter (1813-1885). © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London, CC-BY.

The Natural History Museum houses the Carpenter Eozoon Collection. Collection that has been the object of a long controversy between evolutionists and “old-school” naturalists. The significance of Eozoon hinged on its Precambrian age, with some scientists regarding it as a foraminiferan (single celled shelly marine organisms) and hence the oldest evidence for life on earth, while others considered it to have an inorganic origin. Even Charles Darwin cited Eozoon in his work On the Origin of Species of 1866, accepting its identity as an ancient fossil. This Eozoon is now universally recognised as being inorganic in origin.

William Benjamin Carpenter (1813-1885) was an expert in the study of Foraminifera and this made him the chosen person to confirm that the Canadian specimens were indeed of foraminiferal origin. If this was correct, these specimens would be a cornerstone for the study of early life, contributing significantly to an understanding of the origin of life on earth.

Their microscopic structure initially gave no evidence of organic structure. But, in 1864, similar specimens were found in the Grenville Limestone near Ottawa. Thin sections were prepared and sent to Sir John William Dawson (1820-1899) who identified them as foraminifera. Thin sections were also sent to Carpenter who supported Dawson’s opinion. Subsequently, Carpenter accumulated a huge collection of rock samples from around the world containing Eozoon from which more than 1000 slides were made and presented by his son, the Reverend Joseph Estlin Carpenter (1844-1927), to the British Museum (Natural History) in 1892, almost seven years after the death of his father.

Since its deposition, the Carpenter Eozoon Collection remained untouched until 2014 when it was decided that the long overdue conservation and curation of this controversial and important historical material should be undertaken.

Specimen of the Carpenter Collection. © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London, CC-BY.

The unusually thick layer of dust on the specimens inside the cabinets attracted our attention and led us to search for other parts of the Carpenter Eozoon collection. This collection was found to be distributed in different buildings and contained in several cabinets. Part belonged to the Mineralogy Section and part to the Palaeontology Section, reflecting the early controversy over the inorganic vs organic origin of Eozoon. The Eozoon Collection is mostly distributed in the specimen drawers of the main collections, except for two small wooden cabinets that are kept inside of one of the larger collection cabinets in the Palaeontology Building. The latter material was the focus of a study combining curation and conservation work. The material contained in the wooden cabinets contains cavity slides, thin sections and hand samples. One of these small wooden cabinets contained specimens that were covered by a very thick layer.

During the cleaning process it became apparent that the dust covering the specimens inside one of the small wooden cabinets was different from the dust accumulation in the other cabinet, which was very dark in colour. This suggested that these specimens could have been stored in a different environment from the others and had a separate history. The dark coloured dust could have come from a domestic fire used for heating, an accidental conflagration, or from the smoking of tobacco as it has been seen on other specimens.

Wooden slide cabinet that contained the dusty Eozoon specimens. © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London, CC-BY

We collected several samples of dust from the outer part of one of the dirtiest specimens for SEM-EDX (scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy) analysis. At the same time, we investigated the history of the Carpenter Collection both before and after it was transferred to the NHM UK. We tried to match the results of the chemical analyses and the historical record, in order to shed light on the source of the unusually high density of dust. Chemical analysis of the dust revealed high contents of Ca and S, interpreted as indicating the presence of gypsum, most probably of anthropogenic origin (plaster?).

View of a tray with fragments of disaggregated specimens of Eozoon. © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London, CC-BY

The Eozoon specimens were housed in William Carpenter’s private residence from his retirement in 1879 until his death in 1885. It is during this time when Carpenter devoted most of his time to his Eozoon Collection, working on a monograph, accumulating further material and making drawings to support his interpretation of this “fossil” as a foraminiferan.

One possibility worth considering for the origin of the dust covering the specimens that it represents is soot and other debris resulting from the accidental house fire that led to the death of Carpenter in 1885. No details of the extent of the fire are known but it would have at least burned in the room where Carpenter kept the vapour bath for treating his rheumatism if not elsewhere in the house.

Lessons learned: The collections should be inspected and recorded their state upon arrival at the Museums, in order to take any remedial work necessary before their storage, avoid deterioration.

To know about this: Sendino M.C., Cuadros J, Allington-Jones L, Barnbrook JA (2015) Chemical Analysis of the Dust on a Historically Important Collection: The W. B. Carpenter Eozoon Collection at the Natural History Museum, London. Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals, 11 (4): 291 – 304.

Curator of Micropalaeontology | Diary of a Principal Curator July 2021

Giles in the field

This year I’m writing a diary entry each month for a typical week in the life of a Principal Curator at the Natural History Museum. In the July entry, I join a team carrying out fieldwork at a secret Jurassic location, analyse some interesting fossils from Vietnam, make a start on assessing and rationalising our collections documentation, submit a paper publishing a set of important microfossil images, and start a project studying micrometeorites.

Continue reading “Curator of Micropalaeontology | Diary of a Principal Curator July 2021”