Each butterfly has a new digital image and digital record of the specimen’s collector, place and date of collection and this data are already being used to work out the effects of climate change on UK butterflies.
This an amazing achievement and there is more to come. Over the coming months the moths in the collection will be digitised and the information made available.
The information associated with the specimens in our collections can provide important insights into the natural world and can be used to see how our world is changing.
When the project to digitise the Museum’s British and Irish butterflies and moths, – iCollections – started back in 2013 it was a pilot to develop quick and efficient ways to digitise large Museum collections.
So the race is now on to release digital information for all of the over 80 million specimens in Museum’s collections, not just the butterflies. Ambitious? Yes, but iCollections has shown how it can be done and more importantly what the data can be used for.
How did we do it ?
Tackling a large digitisation project required considerable effort and resources. For a start it was necessary build a dedicated team of people to carry out the digitisation. Not only did the digitisation team members have to be computer savvy, they had to be able to handle the specimens quickly and with care. Butterfly specimens are delicate and careless handling can lead to antennae, legs and wings dropping off!
But capturing the information is only the start of the process. The images and data have to be processed and stored, information checked and each location given an accurate georeference, and finally the dataset has to be in a form ready for release via the Museum’s Data Portal. All this needed input from a range of experts across the Museum.
Carrying out such a large project is not without its problems. At one time there were eight people digitising the collection. Each person needs space to work and finding an area suitable to layout large drawers of specimens was not as easy as it might at first appear. After much searching and planning a dedicated space was found and our ‘digitarium’ was established.
For the digitisers, reading the labels could at times be a real challenge. Some had cryptic symbols while on others the handwritten notes were nearly illegible. But gradually the team built up an expertise in recognising and deciphering the handwriting of different collectors. It is amazing the skills you pick up doing digitisation projects.
Collecting butterflies is no longer a popular past time. People prefer to record their sightings of butterflies, supporting annual censuses of butterflies organised by NGOs like Butterfly Conservation. But collecting was an early form of citizen science and those collections in the Museum are useful in showing what the butterfly populations were like as Britain changed and became more industrial. The collections are stunning not just because the butterflies themselves are beautiful but also because of the information associated with each specimen.
As we move to digitise more and more of our 80 million specimens, bringing all this data together tells us an exciting story of the natural history of our planet.
Dr Gordon Patterson
Digital Collections Programme