Digitisation futures in Berlin | Digital Collections

Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections

31st Annual Meeting June 20-25 2016, Berlin

Report by Ben Price and Douglas Russell

Museum collections are rapidly evolving in response to new research questions, innovations in digitisation and molecular analysis, and major challenges for society.  It’s essential that museums work together to ensure that new ideas are exchanged and collaboration strengthened to make development more rapid and effective.


Photo showing the spirit collection at the Berlin museum - shelves of sealed specimen jars with fish and other animals preserved within
Fluid-preserved collections in the Berlin natural history museum

The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) is an international society whose mission is to improve the preservation, conservation and management of natural history collections to ensure their continuing value to society. The annual conference is one of the largest gatherings of museum professionals each year and it gives us museum and conservation folk an excellent opportunity to network and share the latest cutting-edge knowledge in our field.

The title of this year’s conference in Berlin was the ‘Green Museum – How to Practice what we preach?’ focussed on a number of themes around sustainability and access.  It was held in conjunction with the Global Genome Biodiversity Network (GGBN).

The European venue gave the Natural History Museum a fantastic opportunity to make a substantial contribution to the meeting.  In total we gave 11 presentations (~10% of the total) as well as showing a range of posters.  Museum staff were fundamental to discussion sessions, provided valuable input at committee meetings, and attended and contributed to several workshops – such as the SYNTHESYS iDigBio software training, and a specialist event on fluid preservation of specimen.

It was also an excellent forum for the NHM Director of Science, Ian Owens, to talk about the Museum’s thinking on future digital collaboration between museums and the opportunities of new technology.

One focus of this conference is on how to mobilise the information locked up in our collections, with many inspirational talks on digitisation and data sharing. The natural history sector is on the cusp of a huge revolution. Hundreds of years of collecting has resulted in a knowledge bank which is bursting at the seams with information relevant to some of the greatest conservation challenges we face today. We just need to find the quickest way to access and share this information on a global scale.

NHM Insect digitisation – Inselect

For example, we have approximately 35 million pinned insects at the NHM: when digitising them it is a lot quicker and safer to image whole drawers rather than each specimen.  However, the file sizes tend to be too large to share and we have therefore been addressing the challenge involved in rapidly distinguishing and separating images of individual specimens within a larger group (such as a tray of slides or drawer of insects).

Butterfly specimens in a drawer, showing data matrices for digitisation

To solve this we developed Inselect, which uses an advanced computer vision algorithm to automatically segment the high resolution images into smaller, more useful images of each specimen. We can then share these images and the corresponding metadata with the  community. Inselect is getting good coverage with talks from the lead developer and various end users as well as a training workshop, and lots of interest from the museum community to try it out with their collections

NHM Slide digitisation

In addition to using Inselect for pinned insects in drawers, it has been fundamental to the success of our Slide Digitisation pilot project, which was also presented at SPNHC. Over the last year we have focussed on developing the most efficient method of mass digitisation in our microscope slide collections as part of the NHM Digital Collections Programme.

We have succeeded in digitising more than 100,000 slides, with each slide imaged and the corresponding metadata uploaded to our database. More importantly this project has given us the opportunity to develop the most efficient mass digitisation workflow for slides. Now we know exactly what resources we will need to digitise the rest of the estimated 2 million microscope slides in the Natural History Museum’s collections.

Digitising birds’eggs

The NHM holds the most comprehensive collection of birds’ eggs available for research: one of the two largest in the world. In addition to imaging specimens we have been working to release in digital form all the original handwritten data from the collections in order to help answer fundamental questions of global concern.

spotted sandpipir

One example from the NHM given at the conference was of how egg collections can be used in research on anthropogenic climate change.  Climate change has widespread impacts on biological systems worldwide, including the timing of egg laying and arrival of migrant birds, and our collections can help us understand this by giving insight into historical trends, baselines and current patterns.  Predicting future impacts of climate change requires detailed understanding of past and current trends, and the mechanisms underlying them: collections digitisation produces big datasets that can be used by researchers around the world to pursue these questions.

Future prospects

The conference was extremely rewarding and we all learnt a lot.  One thing was clear – sustainability is a major focus for museums in the 21st Century.  Digitising the manuscripts and specimens held in natural history museums worldwide, involving increasing numbers of the public in the enterprise, will help provide universal access to our collections.  This is key to ensuring that our collections continue to be relevant and accessible resources.  Digitisation will help us illustrate, research and ultimately understand our changing world: that’s something all delegates at the conference are passionate about.

2 Replies to “Digitisation futures in Berlin | Digital Collections”

  1. So cool! I love projects around digitizing. I feel like it’s a wide open field with very little known about its prospects.

Comments are closed.