What’s in our UK natural science collections and why does this matter? | Digital Collections Programme

A guest blog by Tara Wainwright

Botanical sheets from Kew ©RBG Kew

The UK holds hundreds of millions of natural history specimens of scientific importance. Exactly how many specimens and what those specimens are, is currently unknown. Unveiling the contents of the UK’s collections will open the door to further digitisation and unlock the full scientific potential of UK natural science collections.

Digitising, the process of converting physical information into a digital form, the UK’s natural science collection, opens up a unique and valuable national resource to the world and enable the UK to be part of current and future scientific collaborations to find solutions to the biggest challenges of our time.

As part of a wider programme of investment in national digital research infrastructure, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is committed to developing a sustained, multi-year programme for science collections digitisation, starting with the Scoping UK Natural Science Collections Initiative. The initiative has created a partnership between major UK museums, botanic gardens, and the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA), with the goal of gaining a richer understanding of the UK’s natural science collections.

The knowledge gained will inform a strategy to create a digital natural science collection for the UK; encompassing collections from insects to mammals, extinct plant fossils to currently endangered plant species, and UK sourced minerals to meteorites. This project will help to establish a UK network, providing better links between natural science organisations and allowing expertise and resources to be shared more readily.

What’s in the Cabinets?

While the full number of specimens are currently unknown, it is currently estimated that there are at least 150 million items in UK natural science collections. The first step towards digitising this national collection is understanding the breadth and depth of what the UK holds. To do this, surveys are being sent out to organisations across the UK to find out more about the collections held and how ready they are to be digitised.

There are two surveys. The first is divided into eight disciplines: Anthropology, Botany, Extra-terrestrial objects, Geology, Microorganisms, Palaeontology, Zoology Invertebrates, and Zoology Vertebrates. Participants are asked to provide the number of specimens held under each discipline and the extent to which these collections have been digitised. The second survey will focus on each organisation’s digital priorities, their ability to digitise their collections, the management of their data, and the challenges digitisation poses.

The feedback from these two surveys will provide an up-to-date picture of what is held in UK collections so that all partners can collaborate on a strategy to digitise the UK science collections. The results of the surveys will be used to build a business case to increase funding, support efforts to improve the digitisation of our natural science collections, and provide the basis for training resources. What training is required, and how this will be delivered, will depend upon the responses from the surveys.

Digitising butterflies at the Natural History Museum, London

Why do we need to unlock the UK’s collections?

Unlocking collections will aid in scientific breakthrough, with specimens being used to discover new species, to uncover the origins and evolution of diseases, to track biodiversity changes, and to assess conservation efforts. Recent evidence also suggests that digitising natural science collections not only has scientific value, but also societal and economic value. Frontier Economics have recently worked with the Natural History Museum, London to put a value on digitising collections and believe that the economy could see a tenfold return on investment for digitisation.

UK collections holders have many different reasons for digitising their collections and face a diverse set of digitisation challenges. For instance, institutions that attended the introductory workshop cited a lack of funding and staff availability as key barriers to digitising their collections. For large organisations such as the Natural History Museum, the scale and variety of the collections is a challenge, and multidisciplinary institutions face additional challenges in prioritising natural science digitisation over the digitisation of their art and historical collections. Understanding the drivers and hurdles for each individual collection is crucial in building an effective strategy and business case for digitisation of these collections.

Digitising slide collections at the Natural History Museum, London

There are over 100 institutions holding natural science collections in the UK, and the Scoping UK Natural Science Collections Initiative hopes to obtain information regarding the collections for as many of these institutions as possible to ensure we have accurate estimations of the UK’s collections and a complete understanding of the needs of a range of organisations.

We are eager to support all organisations in the completion of these surveys and will be providing guidance documents and online sessions to guide participants through completion of the surveys and answer any questions.

The surveys and further information on completing the surveys are available until 3 December 2021 This will ensure organisations have enough time to complete both surveys.

If you are interested in participating or would like to learn more information about the project, please contact dissco-uk@nhm.ac.uk.

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