Digitising Pollen: A Museum Studies Placement | Digital Collections

Guest blog by Emma Bonzo

From California to digitising the Museum’s pollen collection, read about Emma Bonzo’s internship with the Museum’s Digitsation team.

During my senior year at college in California, where I was studying for my bachelors in anthropology, I had started a short-term internship at my university’s local Anthropological Studies Centre where I became a collections management intern. Unfortunately, the internship was cut short due to Covid, but I could immediately tell that this type of work I wanted to do in the future. After long hours of research and a year’s worth of saving, I started my master’s in museum studies at the University of Leicester. One of the more exciting elements of my course was being presented with the opportunity of attending a placement for eight weeks, which has now led me here at the Natural History Museum where I have spent my team working together with the digitisation team. 

Emma working in the Digitisation Lab

This particular placement drew me in because of its work in digitising their collections to be uploaded to the Museum’s Data Portal to be openly accessible to anyone in the world who wants to use this. I think with everything that has happened recently in terms of lockdowns due the pandemic and an increased awareness that we need to minimise the use of fossil fuels for travel where possible, it’s important for museums to think more about alternatives on how accessible their collections can truly be.

Digitising Pollen

By digitising the pollen slides we will understand what we have in the collection and share this online to be used by researchers around the world. The collection includes pollen from plants used as medicines, plants that are important for feeding insects, animals and humans and plants that anchor the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Pollen is also a common allergen. Researchers have been analysing pollen to try and offer hope to those who suffer from hay fever, as 2018 marked one of the most severe cases of pollen season. Developing a better understanding of pollen can help to predict the prevalence of certain kinds of pollen and how people can better prepare themselves, detailing the concentration of specific kinds that are affecting an area. Providing further research can help to bring relief to the millions who are affected every year.

My Workflow

The bulk of my work is to image the pollen slides of which there are around 20-30,000 in the Museum’s collection. Before I begin taking pictures, I prepare my workstation. I cut out temporary metadata labels which have information encoded in their barcodes the taxonomy, type status and the slide’s location in the collection. These temporary labels are then photographed alongside the specimens.

This enables us to create an inventory specimen record through semi-automated processes, which speeds up the process and reduces the potential for human error. Once that is done, I will start imaging the slides. I will take a group of them out at a time so I can have them all laid out conveniently for me to work. It’s important to make sure that I keep the slides in the same order as I work so that they go back into the collection in the same order. If you take a closer look at them, you can find information written on them such as genus and species, location, date collected. This is the important information that we want to capture and release online. The modern slides are very delicate, but every now and then there will be a few that I come across that standout with an antique look and a moderate weight in comparison.

I have my desktop set up with three separate folders as the images come through. These are titled input, renamed, and exceptions. Input is essentially what the image first looks like as you take it in its upside down, uncropped glory. After getting though all of that, then the image will move over to the renamed folder, where you can now see how they will appear on the collections portal. On my best day, I imaged 650 slides in 7 hours. With a team of digitisers all working to digitise different parts of the collection at the same time, you can imagine how much data this produces.

At the end of the day, I can copy and paste all the images onto a macros excel sheet that will run through and point out if there are any discrepancies such as missing numbers or duplicates. Every image captured under renamed and exceptions is saved in their respective Final and Additions folders. Over the next 48 hours this will be uploaded by our data management team to our collections management system and then released onto the Museum’s Data Portal.

New skills and experiences

Working in the digitisation department requires me to have a high attention to detail and level of delicacy in proper collection handling. I’ve been fortunate to have been given the chance to be trained across multiple variants of specimens housed within the museum outside of slides, including herbarium, entomology and spirit collections. The job is heavily IT based, introducing me to multiple aspects of performing different kinds of functions and formulas on excel sheets, in conjunction with cataloguing and databasing that I am happy to use as practice and build upon my skills for future field opportunities.

I have also enjoyed other benefits of being able to work at the Natural History Museum outside of my work. Since my hours allow for me to show up between 8 and 10 am, I can treat myself to an early, quite access of walking around the Museum, having the chance to beat the daily crowds and explore any of the exhibitions, along with free access to exhibitions across a fair number of museums in London. Weekly science coffees are a nice break to get together with the rest of the team and catch up on everything that is happening, learning more about the different sets of projects and workflows being performed. Any chance that I’ve had to explore the various roles of the museum, each person in charge has been incredibly welcoming and helpful in showing me their practice and given me insight of what I could expect should I ever find myself working here.

I look forward to staying in touch with the team and can’t wait to see the project that I have worked on this summer fully completed and all of the records available on the Museum’s Data Portal. To hear more news from the digitisation team make sure you follow us on Twitter and Instagram to hear about our latest project updates and job opportunities.

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