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No Specimen Left Behind: Opening the Collection to the World

Natural history collections have immense scientific importance. Specimens in museums, along with their associated data (where, when, and the conditions upon which they were collected), represent an incredible repository of information on biodiversity, ecosystems, and natural resources that can be used by many people—from a government official developing policy on land use, to another scientist doing scholarly research, to a student working on a school project.

The Museum is five years into a multi-year project to photograph and digitize every one of the 76,000 specimens in its Herpetology collection, some of which date back to the 1890s.

This is one of many efforts the Museum is undertaking to make its collections more accessible to the public.

Collections housed at natural history museums make up the primary resource for understanding biodiversity, defining habitats and ecosystems, and understanding the biology of individual organisms and how they live their lives. Traditional specimen curation still dominates the core functions of museums, but museums are quickly making their collections available in digital form.

The team already has more than 20,000 amphibian and reptile specimen photographs available online as part of the Amphibian and Reptile Atlas of Peninsular California—a major undertaking considering each specimen must be carefully removed from its jar, posed on the photo stand, and returned back to the collection.

At the same time, the herpetology team is busy scanning ancillary collections, including field notes, data sheets, and disassociated parts of primary collections to put online in the future.

One element that makes this digitization project more complicated is the expanded scope of natural history museums as a whole. Museums are no longer just collecting traditional specimens and ancillary data, but also tissue samples, stomach contents, histological materials, and representations of the organism in the form of photographic, audio and video recordings. Thus, museum volunteers and staff are also busy cataloguing, organizing, and archiving information in digital form.

Specimens and resources in our archives are not just of interest for their historical value; they are strikingly relevant today. Digitizing specimens safeguards these resources for future generations and makes the collection easily searchable and accessible around the world by international scholars, historians, researchers, and the general public. 


Posted by The Nat on October 22, 2019

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