Over half a decade of digitisation  | Digital Collections Programme

Award winning digitisation

Blog 1

The Natural History Museum Digital Collections Programme has just received a lovely Christmas present! Following our November win as best Not for Profit project of the year in the UK IT Industry Awards, we’ve just been notified that we are also winners in the Culture and Tourism Category of the World Summit Awards. These are global awards that promote digital innovations that improve society – so we’re particularly pleased to have the impact of collections data recognised in this way. Winning these awards is a great way for us to celebrate over five years of mass digitisation at the Natural History Museum.

To draw this year and this decade to a close we thought we would share some of our memorable moments, and some of our most used resources:

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The Museum’s Data Portal now has close to 4.5 million specimens. This is an increase of 74,000 new records over 2019. In addition to creating new records we have also improved thousands more records already on the portal by adding transcription data or specimen images. Some of this year’s project are highlighted below. If you want to find out about the latest data portal upgrades and how this could help with your research check out our latest blog: The Data Portal grows up.

What have we digitised?

Tiny threats to our food

Microscope slide of Coccus viridis, a major pest of coffee crops around the world.
Coccus viridis, a major pest of coffee crops around the world.

In 2019 we started digitising the Museum’s scale insect collection. This collection is estimated to contain 100,000 microscope slides, making it the biggest slide digitisation project we’ve undertaken so far. We have achieved some of our highest rates of digitisation during this project as the team digitised 2174 specimens in a single day!

Scale insects range in length from 1 – 25mm and can cause severe damage to plants including the commercial plants such as coffee, citrus, grapevines and olive trees. The Museum scale insect collection contains unpublished distribution and host-plant species records. Digitising this collection and sharing this valuable data online will increase researchers’ knowledge of where pest species occur and what crops they attack, to come up with environmentally sustainable solutions for the future. Find out more about scaling up digitisation in one of our blogs.

(Buzzing about) Bee types

Adrena albocinerea, the abominable snowman of the bee-world

We are digitising 4,600 bee types dating back to the 1800s. Type specimens are the designated specimens from which new species were described. For every specimen we take a photo from the top of the bee and their labels. We also take a shot from the side, and one of their face. We use focus stacking, capturing a series of images at different focus distances to create a high-quality image to share online. This provides researchers around the world access to study the diagnostic features of these important reference specimens without needing to visit the collection.

Fantastic flora

herbarium sheet of Cola acuminata
‘Always Cola acuminata’: the kola nut is thought to have featured in the original coca-cola recipe

We have also been working to image 30,000 herbarium sheets relating to the Order Malvales. These are an order of plants that include cotton, okra and chocolate. We can image around 1000 herbarium sheets each day, and these take around three days to work their way through our collections management system and be released onto the Data Portal. Check out the Malvales currently available on the Data Portal.

Beautiful Butterflies (and moths)

This year we imaged 1000 of the Museum’s butterfly types covering 220 species. Over 90% of these specimens were designated as types in the 21st Century, but this is the first time that images of many of these species have been freely accessible to the global community. Find out more in this blog. We also digitised over 8000 birdwing butterflies including the most endangered butterfly on Earth, the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae). As part of this project, a display of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwings was been developed and is on display at the Natural History Museum at Tring until January 2020, alongside images of letters between Karl Jordan and Alfred Meek.

In addition to beautiful butterflies we have digitised thousands upon thousand of little brown moths; Pyralidae and Crambidae collected in UK and Ireland. These small moths join the 180,000 British and Irish Lepidoptera already available on the Portal. Find out why these are so much more than little brown moths in a previous blog.

Speeding up digitisation

Ctenochares bicolorus, part of the Ribes Collection, a recent acquisition to the Museum has been imaged using ALICE

ALICE takes six images simultaneously of a specimen with its labels and provides a breakthrough for pinned insect digitisation

We have also been using our Angled Label Image Capture and Extraction set up, known as ALICE. We have used ALICE to digitise several collections on acquisition, including the Ribes and Bennet collection of hymenoptera and the Agromyzid fly collection. 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. Software 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 800-1,000 specimens per day using this set up. Find out more about our digitisation methods on the website.

Digitisation Publicity

Over the past year the digital collections team have published scientific papers, featured at international conferences, in national and international press outlets and showcased our work in more than 65 tours and events. Our blogs have been read 5,000 times and our twitter has grown from 3,850 to 5,600 followers.

We have also had external interest in our work, winning the two previously mentioned awards, been featured in 15 online and printed articles, two podcasts and had three mini-documentary films including this excellent video by LEGO as part of their #rebuildtheworld campaign.

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 instagram and twitter. 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 2020.


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