Open Access Week 2018 | Digital Collections Programme

October 22 – 28, 2018 is International Open Access Week during which collections and educational institutions will be discussing the benefits of giving open access to their data.

At the Natural History Museum, London, we provide open access by default in order to make our collections available to the largest possible audience, to inspire a love of our natural world and unlock answers to the big issues facing humanity and the planet.


Over 55% of the world’s natural science specimens are held within Europe. These include 115 collections with an estimated 1.5 billion specimens, representing 80% of the world’s species diversity. In May we posted about the DiSSCo initiative to integrate the work of these institutions, providing a single gateway to these collections as well as an array of digital services to support collections development. This Distributed System of Scientific Collections was formally approved by the European Strategic Forum on Research Infrastructures at the International Conference on Research Infrastructures in Vienna in September 2018. Work has now begun across partner institutions to unify a range of activities including the development of common operating procedures and developing a common framework for prioritising collections digitisation.

Underpinning DiSSCo’s activities are a series of national and European funded projects. One of the largest is SYNTHESYS which is led by the Natural History Museum London and has been operating since 2004. The fourth iteration of SYNTHESYS (SYNTHESYS+) will start in February 2019 and will provide a pioneering programme of physical and digital access to natural science collections. This includes a new programme of “virtual access” that will support research-led digitisation projects across multiple institutions. SYNTHESYS will also undertake research and software development on some of the systems and processes that are critical to the successful operation of DiSSCo. This includes the development of a European Loans and Visits System (ELViS) which is intended to become the common access gateway for European natural science collections, as well as the development of workflows supporting mass digitisation and DNA sequencing. These processes will test the concept of ‘collections as a service’ providing data on demand to users.

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Hymenoptera specimens that are being digitised by the Digital Collections Programme

Within the Natural History Museum, the Digital Collections Programme is an essential component of the Museum’s contribution to DiSSCo and SYNTHESYS. Established in 2014 to tackle the challenge of digitising and releasing the museum’s collections online, the programme has developed the capacity to digitise diverse natural science collections at a scale that was unimaginable just a few years ago. This programme is also working to develop a new audience for the scientific exploitation of digital collections. 

Key to delivering our commitment to providing open digital access to collections has been the Museum’s Data Portal. Through this gateway, data is made available in a series of human and machine readable forms, including linked open data. The Museum’s collections dataset also has links to other biodiversity data repositories, including the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and the Catalogue of Life. These links provide connections to associated information that generate new ways of exploiting collections data, as well as an aggregation of collection data and species observations from related efforts worldwide.

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The Museum’s Data Portal recently passed 4 million records, and at 4.1m specimens now represents around 5% of the Museum’s entire collection. Since 2015, almost 15 billion records have been downloaded during more than 170k download events. Since 2015 these data have been incorporated into more than 140 publications as part of research projects covering topics as diverse as climate change, invasive species, disease, agriculture and conservation, as well as an array of taxonomic and systematics research.

The Museum is keen to find new ways to interest all audiences in our digital collections and Museum developer Alice Butcher has written a program which can search and sort thousands of images of specimens from the portal on the basis of colour. We have used this algorithm to produce miniature portraits of visitors inspired by data and this was trailed during European Researchers night on 28 September 2018, when visitors could take home a digital image of themselves constructed from a montage of Museum specimens.

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Portraits of visitors made from digital specimens

Make use of our data by visiting the Museum’s Data Portal and tell us about it by following us on twitter or Instagram. Alternatively, visit the DiSSCo website to find out more about how we are transforming European collections.

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