Digitising the Collection in 2018

1) Cooper Collection
Hymenoptera from the Cooper Collection that have been imaged and rehoused during 2018

Over the past year the digital collections team have worked on incredibly varied projects across multiple collections in the Museum.

Our work has been featured at international conferences, in national and international press outlets and we have been showcased in 55 tours. The Museum’s Data Portal has over 4.19 million specimens equating to just over 5% of the collection and there have been 180 scientific papers citing our digital collections data. Since 2015 over 16 billion records have been downloaded over 180,000 download events.

As part of Open Access week we tried to see how many specimens it was possible to photograph during one working day. We broke all previous digitisation records at the Museum and imaged 4,621 specimens in one day across three workflows. Approximately 11,000 images were generated in that one day – these all needed to be processed, transcribed and moved to the Museum’s collections management system and then out to the Data Portal. While it was fantastic to achieve these rates,it also gives us important context around the planning and resources we would need to reach these levels of digitisation on a more regular basis.

This year we’ve been able to increase our digitisation team, allowing us to work on a broader range of pilot and larger-scale digitisation projects and react faster to new opportunities. The more projects we do enables us to collect better data on digitisation rates and costs associated with different digitisation workflows, needed to support future planning.

What have we digitised?

Microscopic pests

2) Slide
Psyllidae microscope slide

During 2018 we have digitised 35,000 slides of crop pests, focusing on Psyllidae (jumping plant lice) and Aleyrodidae (whiteflies). We are currently carrying out specimen level imaging the Psyllidae type material and completing the transcription of our parasitic louse collection. With each collection we have continued to improve our slide digitisation workflow. For example, for collections that are organised by both species and country we included an additional barcode in the image that encodes the country information, which would otherwise have to be transcribed at a later date. By using a collection’s curated structure to help capture as much information as possible during the imaging process we can provide more information about the collection to curators and researchers thus increasing accessibility of the collection in a shorter time frame.

Botanical Beauties

3) Botanical
Digitising Herbarium sheets

We have also imaged 30,807 herbarium sheets relating to the Order Brassicales, which includes important food crops such as kale, cauliflower and broccoli. This project was carried out in collaboration with the Botany curators and their volunteer team who create the specimen records. This project has set the foundation for us to improve our herbarium sheet workflow through the Defra-funded collaboration project with Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This project, which will continue into 2019, aims to support food security and timber management in countries listed for Overseas development assistance, will digitise  the collections of Dalbergia, Pterocarpus and Phaseolinae herbarium specimens held in the three institutions.

Pinned Insects  

4) Wallace Collection_Drawer 25 1000px
Beetles collected by Alfred Russel Wallace

We have completed multiple pinned insect projects over the last year including digitising 5,000 species of insects found within the Malaysian region in a collaborative project with the NGO Ecotourism and Conservation Society Malaysia (ECOMY). A total of 13,476 specimens were imaged for this project, including some of Alfred Russel Wallace’s collections. We also digitised, and full transcribed, 14 species of British bumblebees as well as the Museum’s Madagascan Lepidoptera type specimens. We are currently working on the British and Irish pyralid moth collection as well as the Museum’s Birdwing butterflies, which include some of the largest butterflies in the world.

ALICE takes six images simultaneously of the specimen with the labels and could provide a breakthrough for pinned insect digitisation

We have also been running a pilot project to test our Angled Label Image Capture and Extraction set up, known as ALICE. Unlike our other pinned insect digitisation workflow, where the labels are removed from the pin and place next to the specimen, ALICE takes six images simultaneously of the specimen with the labels still on the pin: a dorsal (top), lateral (side) and four angled images of the labels. Our Informatics Team and partners have developed software that identifies the labels within the images and combines them to create a single image with no obstructions such as the pin. This single label image can then be used for transcription either manually or through automated data extraction such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR). We can image over 1,000 specimens per day using this set up, so testing and perfecting this workflow could provide a breakthrough for pinned insect digitisation that is faster and requires less specimen handling.

3D Digitisation

6) Megatherium_Scan__04_09_18_44[1]
Surface scanning part of a Megatherium fossil
After completing small pilot projects to 3D surface scan cetacean (whale) skulls and Darwin’s fossil mammal collection with the Museum’s Imaging and Analysis centre.The Darwin Fossils and Cetacean projects lent themselves to various press opportunities and engagement events. We were asked to present the models at events from Members evenings, to a Natural History Museum Takeover at the Visa offices. The Toxodon skull has had over 2.8k views on sketchfab.com and the Megatherium reconstruction video has had over 6,700 views on twitter. These models been used at educational outreach events in the Museum and elsewhere including by researchers at in the Western Science Centre in California, the United States during talks to English Heritage at Down House and at the Chilean Congress of Palaeontology. With these collections we are able to reach new audiences outside of our usual science audience are interested in interacting with specimen data. We are hoping to do more 3D surface scan projects in 2019, which will enable us to developing these skills within our digitisation team.

Digitisation Publicity

8) Commonwealth visit
Talking about our Malaysian Digitisation project at the Commonwealth Spousal Event.

In addition to the press received for our 3D projects the programme has been featured in WIRED magazine and video, the Museum’s members magazines for both adults and children, and had articles on Sketchfab.com and the Museum and Heritage magazine, Advisor. We have taken part in over 25 events including the London Design Festival, National insect week, a Commonwealth Summit event and European Researchers Night, where we turned visitors into digital specimens in the image below. Our blogs have been read 5,000 times and our twitter has grown from 2,730 to 3,850 followers since April 2018. At the end of September we launched a brand new instagram channel @nhm_digitise, which we hope will challenge us to be more creative and visual with our outreach to new audiences.

7) ern square
For European Researchers Night we produced portraits of visitors using digital specimens.

If you have been following our journey over the last year we want to thank-you for your support. To keep up with our news make sure you follow us on social media. We would love to hear from you if you are using our data or if you have any ideas about what you would like to hear from us about in 2019.