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Delving in to Dippy – using the Archives to research our favourite colleague | Library and Archives

For Explore Your Archive Week Jordan Risebury-Crisp, Internal Communications Officer at the Museum, recalls how the Hintze Hall redevelopment prompted his own adventure in to the Museum’s past.

The Museum has seen a number of changes in the last few years. In 2015 it was announced that the much beloved and iconic Diplodocus cast, affectionately called Dippy, was to be removed from his position in the Museum’s Hintze Hall where he had stood proudly on display, greeting visitors as they arrived at the Museum for over four decades.

Black and white photograph of the Hintze Hall, taken from the main staircase looking toward the main entrance. Four lines of glass display cabinets line the main floor leading from the stairs towards the entrance. The specimen nearest the photographer on the second row is an adult adult and is facing away towards the entrance.

View of Hintze Hall looking South towards the main entrance, 1919 (PH/3/1/1827)

Following Dippy’s departure the entire hall would then undergo a multi-million pound transformation, involving renovation, re-imagining of displays and bringing our Museum into the 21st century; a tough feat to accomplish considering the hall has been open to the public from 1881.

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What’s the difference between a moth and a butterfly? | Digital Collections Programme

We are currently digitising the Madagascan Lepidoptera collection, a project that has been supported by John Franks and the Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust.

madagascan drawers

A drawer of Madagascan type specimens

The specimens imaged are ‘Types’ – specimens from which the relevant species was named and described.

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Lice taking over the land and the ocean | Digital Collections Programme

Map of louse collection sites

Map visualisation of louse collection sites

We have now finished digitising the Museum’s main parasitic louse slide collection – consisting of ~73,000 slides. We are sharing these openly with the global scientific community on the Museum’s Data Portal. Continue reading

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How Lego lends a hand in digitising 300 year old Herbarium books | Digital Collections Programme

The Museum is on a mission to digitise 80 million specimens. We want to mobilise the collections to give the global community access to this unrivaled historical, cultural, geographical and taxonomic resource.

The Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London

The Sir Hans Sloane Herbarium in the Darwin Centre Cocoon at the Museum in London

Carrying out pilot projects helps us to establish bespoke digital capture workflows on areas of the collections. Mercers Trust funded a small scale pilot project to digitise the more difficult to image herbarium specimens from the Samuel Browne Volumes of the Sloane Herbarium that contain specimens of medicinal plants form India. Dr Steen Dupont from the Museum’s Digital Collection programme has been leading on this project. Continue reading

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Tring BioBlitz | Identification Trainers for the Future

Our latest blog by Alex Mills from the current cohort of trainees takes a look back a few weeks to the BioBlitz in Tring, Hertfordshire:

‘What is it? What’s on me?’

‘Wow. It’s huge, Mum!’

‘What’s huge?’

‘Ah, cool. Hold still…’

Tring PlantWalk

Taking the Tring BioBlitz out into the field

Unconventional collection methods can work wonders during a BioBlitz. In this instance a mother accompanying her children on a minibeast hunt found herself functioning as a perfect interception trap for Stenocorus meridianus, a rather imposing longhorn beetle. The beetle was duly potted and admired. Everyone (including the mother/beetle trap…eventually) was transfixed by this magnificent beetle. And that was the order of the day at the highly successful Tring BioBlitz a few weeks ago: enjoyment and biological records, with kids and adults of all ages being transported by the natural world around them.

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13 The snakes of South Kensington | #NHM_Live

This week’s #NHM_Live featured the snakes of our collections in South Kensington, SW7. Joining host Alison Shean was Jeff Streicher, Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles, who showed off some of the serpent specimens and shared with us fascinating facts including what it is – exactly – that makes a snake a snake.

This was the final episode of #NHM_Live in this current series, but we will be back for a new series soon. In the meantime catch up with all the episodes and leave us review in iTunes. To hear more about our collections and the new episodes in the next series, be sure to follow @NHM_London on Twitter.

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Flying home: a volume of watercolours and its rather special 4,500 mile journey | Library and Archives

The scope of the Library collections at the Museum is truly international with many items already having travelled a significant distance to reach us. From the artworks of Cook’s Endeavour voyage, through to the Chinese illustrations of plants collected by John Reeves and the sixteen beautifully illustrated sketchbooks of Olivia Tonge detailing her travels in India, many of the items in our collections have undertaken and survived incredible journeys of their own just getting here.

Colour photo taken from above showing a bound manuscript volume sitting in a see through perspex book cradle. The book is sitting diagonally from bottom left to top right. The bottom left hand corner of the left face is out of the photo. Although not readable, it is clear that there is handwritten notes on the left hand page, at intervals from top to bottom. On the right hand page, in landscape, is a coloured watercolour of two small birds facing each other, sitting on a branch with leaves, only the outline is drawn in black. The bird on the left is crouched, has a light green breast, head, dark back and right wing. The left wing is not visible. The bird on the right hand side has an orange breast, dark head, back, left wing and tail. The right wing is not visible. There is a short piece of unreadable text directly underneath the image and another small drawing to the bottom right, but it is not clear what it is. To the right and underneath the perspex support, sitting on the flat cream surface, is an electronic temperature / humidity recorder. It is a small grey plastic box, with a digital display and short stubby aerial. To the left of it is come sort of small grey bowl.

Hodgson’s Birds of Nepal (Appendix 1-187) volume showing watercolour illustrations and accompanying manuscript notes

This is true of a special collection of bound volumes of watercolour illustrations of Nepalese animals that were presented to the Museum by their creator, Brian Houghton Hodgson (1800-1894) the naturalist, ethnologist and founder of the discipline of Himalaya Studies. This blog tells of a very special journey that one of the volumes recently made back to its place of origin. Continue reading

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Horrors of the Green Ground cemetery | Human anthropology

Crania from the Green Ground on Portugal Street

Crania from the Green Ground on Portugal Street

A team of Natural History Museum anthropologists have been digitising and analysing a collection human remains from London in order to learn more about the lives and deaths of people who lived in the capital.

While studying bones from a post-medieval cemetery known as the ‘Green Ground’ on Portugal Street, we dug deeper into the history of this cemetery.

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Freshwater microbiology and climate change in the Canadian Arctic | Microbial Diversity

The Arctic is warming at rates more than twice the global average, and much larger changes are projected for high northern latitudes by the end of this century. In our project we study freshwater microbiology to identify sentinel microbiome properties of northern freshwater environments that can be used to improve surveillance of Arctic ecosystem health in the face of these increasing climate perturbations. The project is funded by funded by a UK-Canadian partnership bursary and in collaboration with researchers from Laval University and Centre for Northern Studies (CEN) – and is part of Sentinel North.

Panoramic photo showing the landscape. Various shrubs, trees and bushes are visible on a rocky ground in the foreground. A pool stretches from the middle to the bottom of the image to the right of the centre. A scattering of coniferous trees are present at the rear of the image.

Sub-Arctic taiga landscape with diverse freshwater ecosystems near Kuujjuarapik-Whapmagoostui, Nunavik, northern Quebec, Canada

Of particular importance are cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, as they are keystone primary producers, contributors of bioavailable nitrogen, drivers of food webs and carbon cycling in Arctic freshwater ecosystems. However, little is known about their biodiversity in the Canadian Arctic. I therefore, visited Canada this August to carry out field work and collect samples from freshwater environments such as lakes, ponds and streams to carry out DNA sequencing analysis of the freshwater microbiology.

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A Flutter of Data | Digital Collections Programme

iCollections canvas

Examples of some of the Lepidoptera specimens available on the Data Portal.

The final batch of data from the iCollections project has now been released through the Museum’s Data Portal – a total of 260,000 Lepidoptera specimen records, bringing the total number of Museum specimen records accessible on the Portal to just over 3.8 million.

What was iCollections?

In 2013 the Museum started to look at the best way to digitise Butterflies and Moths from the UK and Ireland, a collection estimated at half a million specimens. This was a pilot project to develop quick and efficient ways to digitise large Museum collections.

Digitisation Workflow

During the pilot project we trialled and adapted methods of image capture to suit the specimens, giving us an efficient workflow which can be used to digitise wider pinned insect collections. We place each specimen in a specially designed unit tray, with raised sides where we position the specimen’s labels and add a barcode encoded with the unique specimen number. We place each tray in a light box under a DSLR camera to capture an image containing the majority of specimen data. These images are ingested into a bespoke database, which allows species name and location (within the collection) to be added to the file. The database transcription interface lets us add additional data from labels.

collage

We photograph each specimen and its labels, and data is then added to the record via a transcription interface.

During the iCollections project, we became much more efficient with the time taken to photograph a single specimen, whilst ensuring that the damage to these precious specimens from handling is kept to a minimum. We digitised the entire butterfly collection of over 180,000 specimens and made a significant start on the moths by digitising over 260,000 specimens.

In 2016 we secured further funding to carry on the digitisation of the British and Irish moths with our refined workflow. Once this has been completed, further data will be released on the Data Portal. When complete we will have just over half a million Lepidoptera specimens accessible to anyone in the world with an internet connection. This enhances access to our collection, which traditionally will have been via visits or specimen loans. In some cases the researcher may only require a digital specimen, or the digital records could help a researcher narrow down the scope of what they may want to study on a visit to the museum.

iCollections enabled us to come up with an efficient and bespoke workflow for pinned insects which we have been able to re-use. We have published a paper on the iCollections method, to share this with the natural history community. We have also used the learning from iCollections to start new projects, such as our current project to digitise Madagascan Lepidoptera type specimens.

Why Butterflies and Moths? 

The British Lepidoptera collection contains over half a million pinned specimens collected in the UK and Ireland spanning over 200 years. It includes donations from important collectors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As we digitise the Lepidoptera collections we are georeferencing each record, mapping the distribution of species and revealing collecting trends since the mid-nineteenth century.

By providing access to this unrivalled historical, taxonomic and geographical data we can equip more scientists to conduct new research in new ways. For example, Museum scientists, Steve Brooks et al. have been able to compare butterfly data to historical temperature records and found that 92% of the 51 species emerged earlier in years with higher spring temperatures.

‘The warming climate is already causing butterflies to emerge earlier – and unless their food plants adapt at the same rate, the insects could emerge too early to survive.’ (S.Brooks et al., 2016)

When it comes to digitising Lepidoptera, our digitisers can now process up to 300 a day. They get to see and interact with the specimens up close and become extremely fast with a pair of forceps! Our digitiser Peter Wing told us “My favourite image to digitise was a Monarch Butterfly that was pinned with a sewing needle.” While digitising, we uncover some fascinating stories behind the collection. We have been sharing some of these enlightening moments by using #MothMonday on twitter.

peter

Our digitiser Peter with his favourite specimen

Who’s using our data?

We are on a mission to digitise the Museum collection of 80 million specimens. We want to make available our unrivalled historical, geographic and taxonomic specimen data gathered in the last 250 years available to the global scientific community. These data, along with associated specimen images are released through the Museum’s Data Portal.

Through the Data Portal and those of our partners like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), more than 5.9 billion records have been accessed in over 115,500 downloads since April 2015. Through GBIF we are also able to see which scientists are using our data as part of their papers and through Altmetric how many people are talking about our data online. So far we have been cited in 44 papers and referenced over 100 times online.

The Data Portal currently has around 200 non-museum users each day and contains more than 700,000 species-level (index lot) records and over 90 research datasets uploaded by NHM staff and other institutions. This includes 3D scans, images and audio recordings as well as more traditional data.

Critical information is currently locked away within hundreds of millions of specimens, labels and archives in collections across the globe. Our ultimate goal is to unlock this treasure trove of information so that scientists, researchers and data analysts from around the world can use this information to tackle some of the big questions of our time.

To make use of the Museum’s iCollections data please visit the Data Portal To hear more stories behind the Lepidoptera collection you can follow our #MothMonday content on twitter or keep up to date with the Museum’s digitisation projects on the website.

Newts in the Wildlife Garden

Pond in mid summer

The main Wildlife Garden pond in mid-summer © R Adams

At this time of year we start to prepare for our annual pond-clearing tasks which include pulling out some of the reeds along the pond margins and thinning water-lilies –  all to maintain our open water pond habitats.

In the meantime, volunteers Miles Äijälä, Rohit Bangay and Frances Dismore give an account of a very different pond activity in April this year:

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Open Access Week 2017 | Digital Collections Programme

October 23 – 29, 2017 is International Open Access Week and on this tenth anniversary of the event, institutions have been asked to discuss the benefits of making data openly accessible.

Photography of Vince Smith, Head of Diversity & Informatics in the Museum collection

Vince Smith, Head of Diversity & Informatics, the Museum’s signatory for the International data accord

Earlier this year, the Natural History Museum signed the International Open Data Accord stating that the Museum recognises the opportunities and challenges of the data revolution and adopts a set of internationally recognised principles support open access to our data. Continue reading

We need your help to set our collections data free! |Digital Collections Programme

We are asking for help to transcribe data from our Foraminifera slides in Miniature Fossils Magnified

We need your help to transcribe data about our foraminifera slides

On the 19-22 October, the Museum will be running a digital volunteering event in collaboration with the third annual WeDigBio event. WeDigBio is a four day event that engages global participants online and on-site in digitising natural history collections. Continue reading