Where are all the fish? And other questions that curators are asked
by Quentin Groom
The general public do not often see collections of a museum (except for the items on display). They are stored in drawers, cabinets and boxes and amount to thousands-upon-thousands of specimens that, in total, document and classify the known life on Earth. However, on the rare occasions that they are visited by the public, the first question they ask is, how many specimens are here? It’s a good question, and not an easy one to answer. All sorts of people need an answer to this question, not just the museums curators, but their directors, scientists, science funders and anyone trying to digitize the collection. For example, if you want to fund the digitization of a collection you need to know the number of specimens, what sort of specimens they are, whether they are catalogued and what condition they are in. At a national level you need to know this for many collections so you can prioritize the work. You can only do this if you have a clear description of a collection. And you can only compare collections if these descriptions are standardized. If you work in the collections themselves, you also need to track the location, scope, use, and needs of each collection and curate the digital records about them.
Deborah Paul, photographer
In September 2019, a small team of data scientists met at the Natural History Museum, London to grapple with this issue and make progress towards a standard for describing collections of natural history. The team came from organizations such as Biodiversity Information Standards (TDWG), GBIF, Atlas of Living Australia, iDigBio, and CETAF, but also museums and herbaria from Europe and the USA. Some others also joined us remotely. Armed with a long list of use-cases they discussed what the standard should contain, how people would work with it and the workflows for collecting data.
Much progress was made, but this is just the start of the process. There are many more people to consult and developing standards need to be tested with real data. Standards are created with many iterations of development, testing and review. Even after the first release there will be new use cases that need to be accommodated. Standards evolve.
Hilary Goodson, photographer
Left to right, top to bottom: Dave Martin (ALA), Laura Tilley (CETAF), Sarah Vincent (NHM), Deb Paul (Convener, iDigBio), Maarten Trekels (Meise BG), Nicky Nicolson (RBG Kew), Wouter Addink (Naturalis), Matt Woodburn (Convener, NHM), Tim Robertson (GBIF), Quentin Groom (Meise BG), Niels Raes (Naturalis), Morten Høfft (GBIF)
This meeting was made possible by funding and support from SYNTHESYS+, TDWG, CETAF, GBIF, iDigBio, ICEDIG, DiSSCo and ALA.