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Museum drawers go digital

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Science  13 May 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6287, pp. 762-765
DOI: 10.1126/science.352.6287.762

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Summary

No one knows exactly how many natural history specimens exist in museums and other research institutions worldwide, but some calculate it's on the order of 3 billion. In most cases, the displays seen by visitors make up a tiny slice of this treasure; museum curators estimate that more than 99% is stored away from the public gaze. Researchers have for decades used museum specimens to answer questions about how species diverge, where they move around the globe, and how they respond to changing conditions. But they have traditionally had to travel from museum to museum in person, or else request that the specimens be mailed to them. Now, even as museums struggle with funding woes that limit their activities, many around the world are working to put specimen photographs and related data online where anyone can view them. Until recently, these efforts were slow and painstaking, barely chipping away at the staggering amount of data in collections. Now, technological advances and innovative workflows are allowing institutions to think bigger, ushering in a new age of mass digitization. A new conveyor belt system at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., will allow the digitization of 650,000 specimens within the period of a year, each one costing just $1. As digitization grows faster and cheaper, more governments and institutions are investing in it. Since 2011, the U.S. National Science Foundation has devoted $10 million per year to digitization efforts in nonfederal collections across the United States. But even with these new funding opportunities, museum officials and curators stress that there is still far too little money to make all specimens digital.

  • * in Washington, D.C.