Digitization and Diversity in Museum Collections.
Today I took my Ichthyology class to see the fish collections at the American Museum of Natural History.This place has been part of my research life ever since I was an REU there in 1999 and I love taking a new group of students there each time I teach this class.
What are collections? Put simply, collections are the foundation of a natural history museum. They most frequently consist of a whole organism that was collected in the wild, with a specific date and location, that has been preserved for long-term study. For fishes this typically means accession into a ‘wet’ or alcohol collection, which preserves their external and internal morphology allowing data to be collected many decades to centuries after the organism has been placed in the holding. For example, in 2011 I took data off of a fish that was collected in Samoa about 20 years before my grandfather was born. Starting about 20 years ago, many museums also created a complementary frozen tissue collection to preserve the DNA and other genomic resources from the holdings (the fixation of samples in formalin often shreds the DNA so that it is difficult, but not impossible, to get DNA out of wet collections update, this may help).
The value of collections:
In 1910 Joseph Grinnell, founder of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (and pipe smoking hunk), wrote about what value of the collections in his fledgling museum might have. Grinnell played the long game,
and was aware that collections made today will have their value increase as time goes on. I quote at length:
“I wish to emphasize what I believe will prove to be the greatest value of our museum. This value will not, however, be realized until the lapse of many years, possibly a century, assuming that our material is safely preserved. And this is that the student of the future will have access to the regional record of faunal conditions in California and the west wherever we now work….. Right now are probably beginning changes to be wrought in the next few years vastly more conspicuous than those that ove occurred in ten times that length of tie preceding. The effects of deforestation, of tree planting on the praries, of the irrigation and cultivation of the deserts, all mean that the rapid shifting of faunal boundaries, the extension of ranges of some animals, restriction in the ranges of others, and with no doubt whatever, the complete extermination of many others as in a few cases already on record.”
I’ve written before about the value of collections, (and for a video about it see here) but to summarize – natural history collections represent biodiversity time capsules. They allow us to travel back in time and across space to view what species were present at a particular time and place. These data can help us understand modern day conservation problems, like whether low species richness on a reef was degraded by human impacts or not. They can help us understand how evolution has experimented with familiar themes, like the three different ways dinosaurs evolved flight. Moreover, collections can help us understand pressing societal issues such as climate change – scientists at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, (fulfilling Grinnell’s own prediction) tracked the changes in small mammal abundance over 100 years in Yosemite and found that species were moving up mountains to keep up with climate change. Museum holdings are also important for human health as they allow us to track the extent of diseases over historical times, allowing us, for example, to identify new or cryptic locations of zoonotic diseases. Lastly, museum holdings provide a window into some of the amazing yet hidden facets of natural history, like a cryptic species of crocodile that was discovered in mummified Egyptian remains (or perhaps my favorite using shark toothed weapons to identify extirpated populations of Central Pacific reef sharks).
Digitization and bringing science to the people
For centuries museums have been physical repositories for the wealth of information about life on earth. They have stood, steadfastly, providing a resource for generations of scholars to understand the complexities of evolution, biogeography, and natural history. They have served as places of inspiration, of hope, and of beauty. But as valuable as they are, they have (and in many cases continue to still) required a voyage to visit the physical location of the holdings. And while many museums support this travel, especially for graduate students, but this still represents a bottleneck in the scientific pipeline. Quoting Grinnell again
“The value of a museum’s… specimens and facts increases in direct ratio to the extent to which they are used”
There has been a digital revolution in the way museums have viewed their holdings over the past 15 years (see an excellent piece in the New York Times). An increase in computing power, Internet connectivity, and database infrastructure combined to make it possible for many museums to digitize their holdings. When a museum digitizes a specimen the information about the specimen, including the taxonomic designation, the collection date and location and all of the metadata associated with the specimen (up to and including scans of the original field notes) are placed together in a single, searchable, on-line record. Often these records include a digital image of the item providing even more data to the remote researcher. These records can be aggregated, allowing for nuanced searches. For example, geographic specific search engines, such as fishnet2.net allow the user to delineate a geographic area and search holdings of museums from within that polygon. Absolutely a game changer for biogeography and historical ecology.
I am excited about digitization because it represents a real opportunity to improve global scholarship and diversity in STEM. No longer will students have to travel to museums to access their information. Researchers in developing countries, for which travel to the major natural history museums (which are predominantly, but not exclusively, in more developed countries) may prove to be prohibitive, may use digital collections to gather preliminary data to apply for grants, while resource managers can access detailed keys and descriptions to track invasive species or to conduct biodiversity inventories. Lastly, digitizing museum collections means increased accessability to those who may have physical disabilities which would exclue them from either traveling to the museums, or taking data from the actual physical
collections. For this and many other reasons digitizing museum holdings is a concrete step we can take to improve the diversity within our community.
Why hasn’t every museum expanded digitization practices? A recent survey in the journal BiodiversityInformatics by Vollmar et al. suggested, “the overwhelming barrier to digitizing collections was a lack of funding or issues directly related to funding.” Raising funds for digitization can be difficult and thankfully the National Science Foundation has stepped in to help through a competitive granting process, the Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections. One might fund digitization as part of the collection process and write in funds to cover that accordingly, however funding is still going to be limited. In many cases any dollar on a grant spent on digitization is one less to be spent building collections. Perhaps there could be a greater call for institutional support with dedicated funds coming from the museum to support digitization in the same way that they support IT. But of course, museums face the same challenging funding environment that universities do as well.
This is clearly a challenging issue, but in a time when collections are under threat and are viewed as “dusty” or “obsolete” or even worse – being a waste of space, doesn’t it make sense to digitize them? Digitizing collections generates a greater intellectual return on our fixed costs. We can ignite scholarship across geographic restrictions and we can do our best to make our museum community a more diverse and inclusive one. Those are reasons enough for me.