About the project

‘South West Area Natural Sciences: Setting Natural Science Collections Data Free’, is a collaborative pilot project between South West Museum Development, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery (Bristol Culture & Creative Industries) and the Natural History Museum London. This project will enable museums to digitally share their natural science specimens and associated data and help researchers understand more about biodiversity, as well as the influence of humanity on our natural world on our rapidly changing planet.  

Project aims 

  • Build an understanding of the relationship between specimens, collection data and the digitisation process, which will establish recommended procedures to support its inclusion in research 
  • Build knowledge and understanding of how to digitise natural sciences specimens in accordance with best practice 
  • Seek an understanding of how operations impact participation and the factors or barriers for success 
  • Develop advice and guidance for the wider museum and heritage sector to support participation  
  • Engage audiences in the value of natural sciences collections 

We know from our previous ‘South West Area Natural Sciences Collections’ project that museums hold many unique specimens that are vital to unlocking the story of our natural world. Their potential is understood by natural science specialists, both in the South West and nationally. Our previous work with Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and partners laid the groundwork to connect natural science specialists across the region with non-specialists caring for natural sciences collections, a vital partnership to realise the ambitions of this project. 

Our pilot will work with Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Newton Abbot Museum, and South West Heritage Trust, to develop and test an infrastructure model which will enable regional museums to digitise their natural sciences collections. Our findings from this pilot will ensure that the needs of regional museums of varying scale are accounted for, in the development of an ambitious mass digitisation project. This will result in the creation of an online portal, housing the UK’s natural science specimen data made available to all. 

This work forms part of a bigger scoping-project led by the Natural History Museum,Setting natural science data free: scoping a UK collections approach’, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The UK holds some of the world’s most important natural science collections, with more than 130 million specimens stored in more than 90 institutions throughout the country. They are the gateway to inspiring a lifelong love of nature, and a treasure trove of scientific information that underpins most of our understanding of the natural world. The Arts & Humanities Research Council are supporting the development of a national infrastructure for digital innovation and curation, and Natural History Museum London are working with natural science collections around the UK to understand the size, diversity and significance of UK natural science collections and establish the digital infrastructure that will enable them to be used even more widely for research. 

“There is a huge demand for UK natural science collections data – with existing data being accessed every 4 minutes – but most collections lack resources and support for data mobilisation. This project builds towards a national research infrastructure to maximise the impact of collections and their data, building towards a future in which both people and the planet thrive.”

Helen Hardy, Deputy Head of Digital, Data & Informatics, Natural History Museum