Unlocking UK natural science collections | Digital Collections Programme

A Guest Blog by Ella Howes

Bird collections at the Natural History Museum at Tring

The UK’s museums and botanical gardens hold exceptional and diverse natural sciences collections ranging from mites to meteorites. The estimated size of this national collection is over 150 million objects.

These collections can be used to examine billions of years of planetary change and centuries of biodiversity, supporting research across a broad range of topics from human health and food security to ecosystem services and conservation. Currently, most of this work is undertaken in person, requiring researchers to travel or for specimens to be shipped all over the world. 

Digitisation is the process of converting physical information into a digital form. It has the potential to open up collections data to unlimited numbers of scientists, researchers and artists around the world, creating a sustainable, freely accessible resource. The digitisation process can be complex and will differ depending on the type of collections and the level of information that is required. Some UK organisations have already begun digitisation efforts, however the scope of the task is enormous and requires significant investment. 

15 logos belonging to the partner organisations
The project partners

A new programme, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, will begin to address the challenges of digitising UK collections. A group of 15 museums and botanical gardens*, in addition to the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA), have come together to coordinate the programme, which will be split into three stages:

  1. Understanding the challenge
  2. Training
  3. Planning for the for the future

Understanding the challenge

The first step is to understand the scale and nature of the collections that will form part of this UK digitisation community. The programme will reach out to collection holders to assess the type of collections, as specific methods are required to digitise different specimens. Organisations’ digital capabilities will also be assessed to gain a better understanding of infrastructure and training needs.

Training 

The programme will also enable knowledge exchange, building a pool of experts and providing a repository for existing learning materials. A digitisation and data mobilisation training programme will be developed and piloted to build capability across organisations. As UK collections holders are at many different stages of digital readiness, one size will not fit all when it comes to training. The training programme will be informed by the different needs identified during the scoping phase and work on a ‘train the trainer’ basis to maximise reach and build relationships between organisations.

Planning for the future

Finally, the project will lay the groundwork for long term digital collaboration in the UK. Through consultation and workshops, we will develop a shared UK strategy for digitisation and data mobilisation in natural science collections. The strategy will build on aspirations for a national digitisation centre and provide the blueprint for a UK natural science collections data portal and application of new digitisation approaches.

We are kicking this work off with a workshop at the start of October during which we will share more detail on what we have planned and discuss ways to get involved. If your organisation is interested in attending, more details can be found on Eventbrite.

*Project partners: Birmingham Museums, Bristol Culture, Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, Great North Museum, Horniman Museum and Gardens, Manchester Museum, National Museums Northern Ireland, National Museums Scotland, National Museum Wales, Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA), National Geological Repository, Natural History Museum London, Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew