Connecting Natural and Cultural Heritage

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by Tina Loo

When it comes to the use of natural sciences collections, everybody first thinks about fundamental and applied biodiversity research. In task 9.4 of ICEDIG however, a completely different use case for the rich collections in our institutions was investigated, the Link with Cultural Heritage, an effort to identify potential external interdisciplinary actors and their synergies. The scope of the task was limited to identifying synergies derived by humanities researchers using natural science collections, data and archives in a research capacity, particularly with respect to accession books and field notebooks. Researchers working at the interface of natural science and humanities were identified and surveyed to characterize their use of collections derived data, and use cases were compiled. These results were used to inform a subsequent roundtable discussion attended by representatives of ICEDIG, (digital) humanities and humanities (research) infrastructures.

Survey results and use cases demonstrated an explicit need by humanities researchers at this interface for using natural science collections data and archive resources, preferably integrated, however, the survey was not statistically significant and did not represent the entire demographic. Disciplines most likely to profit from utilizing these resources were anthropologists, archaeologists and historians looking primarily to 

  1. reconstruct social or historical relationships of objects, people, collections or events, and to, in some cases, establish correlations with human influence, and 

  2. use natural science collections in traditionally 'scientific' ways for its occurrence data, or for object identification and comparisons. 

For example, by identifying the wood species in a painting's frame, art historians can refine place and time and provide a painting with social and historical context. Establishing the identity and use of plant species in traditional medicines by ethnobotanists can lead to the development of new drugs and possibly help in defining strategies for conservation or recuperation of residual forests. 

Even natural scientists and other museum personnel stand to gain by mobilized museum archives. This is powerfully illustrated by the recent publication of a pamphlet formerly lost to science because of its (at the time) shocking subject matter. The pamphlet, based on direct observations of Adélie penguins by the medical officer and biologist in Captain Scott's 1910-13 Antarctic expedition, documents the penguins' "sexual depravity" that was too shocking to publish and widely distribute at the time. Only recently was the pamphlet unearthed and published by a curator at NHM London. Adélie penguins are indicator species and the newly published literature and revised scientific understanding of their reproductive behavior are important to climate change research. 

It comes as no surprise then that humanities researchers highly prioritized digital access to and were potentially heavy users of almost all surveyed archive resources as well as most of the object's label data (collecting locality, scientific name, collection date, collector), and scientific fotos. Field notebooks and diaries (90%), collection catalogues (84%), and accession books (78%) were the most frequently used archive resources and underscores their importance in cross-domain humanities research.

Concerns were expressed during the roundtable regarding the need to quantify demand for an integrated collections data and archives resource, cost-benefit, and roles and responsibilities of natural science versus humanities research infrastructures in providing access and services. Nonetheless, the roundtable concluded that the potential synergy between the two domains was significant enough to warrant further exploration, although the organizational and financial means to do this remains unknown. Possible opportunities for early collaboration on (meta)data standards and interoperability could arise under the interdisciplinary emphasis of Horizon Europe, or in relation to global data accessibility of the European Open Science Cloud, or FAIR data. In these contexts, standards and methodologies could be adapted and synergies elucidated, while simultaneously ensuring the ability to establish future links. 

The full report from this task can be read here

 

Interdisciplinary research requires high investments in time and resources for highly unclear outcomes and may not fit the well-established scientific routines, efficiencies, or standards of research excellence.  

- J. Allmendinger,  2015 European Commission Research, innovation and science expert group

 

 

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