Joining the digitisation team – in the middle of a pandemic | Digital Collections

Laura Jacklin is on secondment as the Communications Manager for the Digital Collections Programme. A few weeks in, she shares her first impressions. 

I’ve worked at the Museum for three years, but moving from the marketing team to the Digital Collections Programme has felt like I’ve entered a parallel universe – it’s the Museum, but not as I know it!  

I’ve also joined the team in the thick of the pandemic, so I’ve never met my new colleagues in real-life, and can’t be sure when I will. This puts me in the odd position of not knowing what time they have their morning coffee or what their commute is like, yet I know their pets and what their living rooms look like. 

Even though working from home has taken away the spontaneity of swiveling around in my chair to ask questions as and when they arise, my new team have been brilliant in introducing me to the world of digitisation.  

Digitisation is one of those words that I’ve heard in Museum presentations and I knew it was an important activity for us to be doing, but if I’m being completely honest, before deciding to apply for the role it wasn’t something I thought a huge amount about. I’m now a few weeks into my secondment, and thought I’d share what I’ve learnt so far about what digitisation is all about, and just why it is so exciting and important. 

Himalayan giant honey bee, Apis laboriosa

What is digitisation? 

There are 80 million specimens in the Natural History Museum collections – and this number is always growing. Digitisation is creating a digital record of specimens that can be accessed on our Data Portal by anyone in the world, wherever they are.  

A digital record of a specimen depends on what information is extracted, and as I am discovering, the possibilities are quite literally endless. Some of these specimens may be 250 years old, but cutting-edge science is able to reveal some of the secrets they hold.  

The information we can gather and extract from specimens and their labels includes images, geographical and historical information about where and when they were collected, along with genomic, ecological and chemical data – to name just a few. With scientific techniques and analyses advancing all the time, who knows what other information could be unlocked from the specimens in the future.  

A digitiser in action!

Coronavirus and climate change  open data can tackle the big issues 

So, why do we need all of this data? Although the digitisation team have an enormous task on their hands, the potential use of all this data is just as enormous.  

I think it can sometimes be tricky for people outside of the Museum world to see the relevance and importance of natural history museum collections – with the taxidermy, Victorian architecture and affectionate yet misleading reference to them as ‘dead zoos’. Old and dead as the collections may be, but the amount they can tell us about the living world around us is astonishing. Digitising these collections and making them accessible is helping the collections reach their full potential in tackling some of our biggest challenges. 

One of the new terms I came across in my first few days was ‘open data’, a key aim of the Digital Collections Programme. As a public institution, it is part of the Museum’s legal duty to make our collections available and safeguard them for the future. Digitising is one way of fulfilling this, but open data goes far beyond being just an obligation. By making our collections accessible to everyone, a researcher on the other side of the world can access data they might need for a project. Digitisation is a step towards making research fairer and more accessible, reducing its carbon footprint, and joining our data with those of other museums across the world to provide an even more powerful tool in understanding planetary diversity. 

Hearing about the huge potential impact of digitising our collections and the uses of our data has been the most exciting part of the role for me so far. On my first day, I learnt about a project to digitise a select group of our bat specimens, which will help create a knowledge base to identify material currently preserved in collections that can be used for the study of coronaviruses. 

The data made available through digitising our collection of endangered Birdwing butterflies can be used to help plan land use and support the conservation of these species for the future. 25 billion records have been downloaded across the world from our Data Portal over almost the past six years, and used in publications ranging from investigating the impact of different climate change scenarios on the distribution of certain types of fish, to the potential effects of climate and human influence on legumes in Kenya. 

Wallace’s golden birdwing (Ornithoptera croesus)

From science to art 

Having an anthropological background (sometimes suggested as ‘the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities’), I have loved seeing how digitisation can be truly interdisciplinary. Like much of the work at the Museum, just getting the data to the stage of it being useable is a task that spans many specialisms. Digitisers, scientists, developers, project managers and communicators are just some of the roles involved in freeing the data held in our collections. 

The uses of the data are also wide-ranging. Of course there is the science, but we have seen lots of instances of beautiful (and arguably not-so-beautiful!) specimen images being used as inspiration for artists across the globe.  

A colleague told me the other day about genealogists using our Data Portal to see a specimen that one of their ancestors collected. Digitisation enhances the interdisciplinary uses of our collections and brings the wonders of the natural world just that little bit closer to people, however they want to use and be inspired by it. 

I might not be physically in the Museum starting this new role, but for a programme that is all about making the Museum collections accessible wherever you are, it also feels quite fitting. With the Digital Collections Programme’s role in freeing our collections and data for use in tackling big world issues, its global approach, and with NHM@Harwell on the horizon, it has become clear to me over the last few weeks just why digitisation is an incredibly important part of the Museum’s future, and indeed the future of the study of the natural world. It’s a really exciting part of the Museum to be working in, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next few months hold! 

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