The Natural History Museum in London opens its online doors

Home to over 80 million specimens from across the globe, the Natural History Museum is on a constant mission to make its collections more accessible by taking them from physical drawers to digital catalogs. To support their online collections, the Museum has developed specialized resources, like Inselect—a cross-platform, open source desktop application that automates how scientists digitize specimens. Using Inselect, researchers can crop images from whole-drawer scans, as well as similar images generated by digitizing museum collections.

Speeding up a creepy-crawly process

The museum initially developed Inselect for a simple purpose: to identify individual specimens from a drawer of samples in order to digitally categorize each. This isn’t a quick task—the Natural History Museum houses an estimated 33 million insect specimens in 130,000 drawers. Processed manually, it takes about an hour to categorize a drawer of specimens. Inselect, on the other hand, can do the same job in five to 10 minutes, depending on the complexity of the drawer.

Open source, open access

Despite its name, Inselect isn’t just for insect specimens. Researchers and archivists can use the application for all sorts of projects that require cataloguing and categorizing for digital collections. In addition to working across a range of digital collections, Inselect operates on Windows and macOS under an open source license, allowing scientists and research institutes anywhere instant access rare specimens and providing a significant boost to the Natural History Museum’s digitization plans.

The Natural History Museum is by no means short of material to digitize. Researchers have adapted Inselect to look at slide digitization and have used to catalogue around 100,000 microscopic slides. The Digital Collections Programme at the museum is looking into digitizing more than just insects; they plan to make much larger artifacts such as fossils and skeletons available online, too. The scale of these artifacts, however, presents an entirely different challenge—but one that future open source software may well be able to solve.

By open sourcing Inselect, the Museum has provided a tool for other organizations to use, too. They’ve endorsed the Science International Open Data Accord and operate an open-by-default policy on their scientific collections. One result is the University of Sheffield’s project ‘Mark my bird’—a research project on the diversity of bird bills based on birds from their collection.

See Inselect in action

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