Jen here –
I started a job as a Research Museum Collection Manager in September and a large part of it is specimen based. I handle donations, reconcile loans, look for specimens for researchers, organize the collection, and manage other types of data. Now that my job has moved to largely remote I wanted to share some of the things my museum techs and I have been working on to keep our projects moving forward.
When we think about museums we immediately think of the beautiful displays of mounted dinosaurs and ancient deep sea dioramas that transport you through time. However, there are many research museums that are essentially libraries of life (thanks, Adania for that phrasing). Similar to libraries with books, these institutions hold records of life on Earth and they are massive. At the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology we have over 2 million invertebrates, 100 thousand vertebrates, and 50 thousand plants. Each of those specimens is tied to other records and data!
Digital databases allow for the storage of data related to the specimen including location, time period, taxonomy, rock formation, collectors, and much more! Depending on the type of database the structures are slightly different but the overall goal is the same: create an easy way to explore the specimens, see what is on loan, where they are located in the collection, and if they are on display!
Databases, like regular software, get updates over time. The database I’m working in was started ~10 years ago and there have been a lot of updates since then so we are working to upgrade the way the data are organized. For example, now there are different fields that didn’t exist before so we are making sure the data are appropriately entered and then fixing these fields. We are also digitizing our card catalog to verify that the specimen data in the database matches the physical records. We have three card catalogs: Type specimens, Alphabetical taxonomic groups, and Numerical. I spend time scanning in these cards and my museum techs help transcribe and verify the data with our other records.
I have quite a few donations that have new specimens that need to be put into the database. To do this, I format the dataset and upload it to the database. Seems straightforward but it takes some time and isn’t the most fun task so I have a stockpile of them to get through while I continue my remote work.
One of the tasks we had started before the COVID-19 crisis was to digitize our loan documentation. We have documentation for specimens that we loan out to other institutions, for specimens we bring in to study, and any transfers that may occur. This information had not been digitized so our first step was to scan the paperwork and transcribe key information such as: Who were these specimens loaned to? How many specimens were loaned? Were specimen numbers listed? Where these specimens returned?
We now have a large spreadsheet which now allows us to search this information rapidly. For example, when we are working in the collection sometimes we find specimens with paperwork or that are out of place. Now we can search the number, see if they were on loan, and make sure we close this loan as being returned. In some cases, we cannot find specimens so I have to reach out to colleagues at other institutions to see if they have a record that the loan was returned. Then it’s up to us to find the specimens in the collection and get them into their proper storage places.
The last big project we are working on is to get new fossils ready for our online fossil repository: UM Online Repository of Fossils. This involves some on site work at the collection space and lots of post-processing of the fossils. We use a camera to image a fossil from many angles (photogrammetry) and then stitch the photos together to create a three-dimensional fossil. If you are interested in our protocol and set up please check out our website by clicking here. Most of this work has been done by me alone but I am working on ways to incorporate our museum techs into different aspects of the process that can be done at home, such as cleaning the output model and orienting the specimen for final display on the website. Check out our most recent invertebrate addition: Hexagonaria percarinatum.