The museum digitizes five million specimens to reveal the secrets of the collection

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Learning from the past

When Sir Hans Sloane died in 1753, the British Parliament purchased the 71,000 objects Sloane had collected during his lifetime. This collection formed the basis of what would become the Museum, the British Library and the British Museum.

Since these beginnings, the Museum’s collections have grown considerably to include some 80 million objects from all over the world and even beyond. From meteorites to marmosets, from mahogany to manuscripts, these specimens affect all areas of life and all the continents of the Earth.

The information in the collections spans hundreds of years and is still vital for research today, telling scientists how humans have changed the planet and preserving species that have become extinct as a result of our actions.

All of this information is recorded on labels, notes and in the specimen itself, but this means that it is often only accessible to those who can physically access the Museum. In 2014, the digitization of the collections began to make the wealth of specimens in the Museum’s collection freely accessible online.

“To digitize a specimen, we post the data about the specimen, where it was collected, what species it was and who collected it, available online so researchers know what we have in our collection” , declares Jennifer Pullard, responsible for the communication of the digital collections.

“In addition to this basic registration, we can also take photographs of the specimen and its tags, as well as provide detailed information about the specimen, such as genomic and chemical analyses.

“We are passionate about providing free and open access so anyone in the world can use this data for their own research.”

So far, 1.7 million insects, 900,000 plants and 500,000 fossils have been digitized and published on the Museum’s data portal.

To date, 30 billion records have been downloaded as people around the world use the digitized specimens, while over 1500 research papers have cited data from the portal.

The information can be used in many ways that can boost the global economy, including drug discovery, the fight against invasive species and the preservation of biodiversity.

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