Which species of bat transmits which virus? What can plankton tell us about the climate of the future? How can 100-year-old bumblebees help us to understand insect mortality? And how should we best take responsibility for the collection’s political history?
Research into these and other questions is not only scientifically fascinating, but also important for understanding nature and creating a sustainable world. Researchers produce insights by examining fossils, models, or archive materials from the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin’s collection. Each of the 30 million objects contains valuable knowledge. With this knowledge, we can discover what holds our world together, biologically and geologically. The collection contains many answers to the big urgent questions, such as climate change, evolution, and biodiversity. It also provides the stimulus for numerous innovations in medicine, technology, art, and media. And it is constantly growing, both through the acquisition of new specimen and through our research activities and project collaborations.
To research an object or use it for inspiration, it must be well-preserved. Around 80% of the collection is still kept in historical cabinets and unmodernized exhibition rooms. To date, only a fraction of the collection has been digitized. Many specimen contain information that can only be accessed with advanced technologies.
We are aware of our global responsibility. To facilitate the extensive use of the collection, one part of our Future Plan is to make it accessible – that means securing the collection in terms of conservation, digitally recording it, and creating innovative ways to use it. We want to expand the collection and create the structures needed for its use. We will be dedicating a substantial portion of the Future Plan funding to this work. Over 100 employees from the Science Program Collection Future and many others are working on this project, which will implemented from 2020 to 2028.
We digitize the collection
It is a Herculean task: the smallest objects are the size of a grain of dust, the largest are meter-high dinosaur fossils. We take every object, clean it, check the state of its preservation, digitize the associated information, and store it in secure and modern storage systems. Each specimen is assigned a digital identifier. People from all over the world can then access the collection via data portals and retrieve the information associated with the objects. Until now, this information has been kept on index cards and historical labels, but in the future it will all be recorded in digital databases: what species is it? Where is the object from? Who collected it and when? Depending on the type of object, there will also be additional content such as high-resolution photographs, 3D models, recordings of animal sounds, DNA sequences, or relevant research publications.
A knowledge infrastructure will thus be created from all the data and its connections to existing information. We want to fully integrate it into the global infrastructure landscape. Knowledge about the collection will be enriched by reference systems with quality-checked information and supplemented with user-generated content from citizen researchers. This will create a gigantic networked cloud of knowledge that can be constantly enriched by ever-changing perspectives on the objects.
We make the collection accessible to everyone
This kind of information is indispensable for research in various disciplines, such as evolutionary biology, environmental science, and the history of science. Scientists in Munich, Japan, Argentina or other far-flung countries can examine the objects via their digital images without having to board a train or plane. But these scientists won’t be the only ones to benefit. We want to make our collection accessible to everyone. In future, interested members of the general public, medium-sized companies, art students, and many other user groups will be able to access the collection and its research data at any time wherever they are in the world, and thus find new impetus for innovation.
An object can thus become the departure point for a virtual journey and the creation of completely new possibilities. For example, if a bumblebee is digitized at the Museum für Naturkunde, a researcher in Japan can examine it on the computer and generate new insights into the species. Or the bumblebee specimen can inspire debate about, for example, the loss of biodiversity. An interested person could also extract information from the collection about which objects were collected by women, which objects come from a certain latitude, or which objects have a colonial context. Or they could produce a creative mosaic picture from thousands of photos of snail shells.
In addition, we want to pass on our expertise in the digitization and development of collections, both within the museum and to other institutions and individuals. In the "Center for Collection Future", an innovation center, we want to conduct research, but also offer training and services. We are developing initiatives such as Digitization on Demand, offering consulting services, delivering specialist training in sample analysis and preparation, and renting out equipment and techniques.
We want to let people participate in our work and make the research process visible and tangible instead of just presenting its results. Since the opening of the digitize! special exhibition in the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, visitors have been able to follow live as several thousand wasp, bee, and ant specimens are sorted into new housing systems and digitized. They can see on site what it means to digitally develop an extensive natural history collection and to generate scientific knowledge. Other formats for participating and thinking together will be coming soon.
Our project goals can be summarized as:
- the modern and sustainable storage of all objects
- the permanent archival of knowledge about the objects in a digitally referenced catalog
- the preparation and management of physical and digital objects using internationally compatible standards
- knowledge networking and opportunities for quality-checked data enrichment
- the development of barrier-free, holistic access to the objects for as many user groups and as broad a range of applications as possible
- the provision of appropriate services and infrastructures
To achieve these goals, we have divided the project into four complementary subprojects, which address different aspects while pooling the necessary expertise. These subprojects are:
- Collection-based Research (research clusters)
- Information Management
- Access, Innovation, and Networking