Earlier this year my son asked me, “Daddy, what does your museum collect?”
I quickly responded that the Canadian Museum of Nature collects natural history specimens, material culture artifacts, and library and archival fonds which reflect the changing biodiversity of the planet. Of course he was mostly interested in hearing more about the natural history collections; but as the days and weeks went by, I wondered if the simple answer that I’d given to my son was only a partial truth. Is there something more that we collect?
Since that conversation, I have come to realize that what the museum collects above all else is data. While the museum’s collections are great in and of themselves (check out our online collections – go ahead, I will wait…), it’s the data associated with them, such as collection location, date and collector, that gives researchers the ability to analyze and understand them. Without this data, the specimens, artifacts and fonds are just pretty things. So, it is this information, or metadata, which is a museum’s real stock and trade.
If data is what we actually collect, then we should be working hard to make it all available. Not just the information about a particular specimen, but the information about how that specimen moves through the research community and is used as a tool to build global scientific research networks.
To this end, I’m working with a Museum volunteer Rick Leir to analyze the collection’s digitized acquisition and loans information. Our goal is to visualize the data in a new way with the intent of getting others to see this rich data complimenting the physical specimens.
We decided the best way, initially to present this information is as maps and globes and let users start to tease-out new conclusions from the information. At a glance, Rick and I were able to identify the museum’s biggest collection collaborators, their locations, and how often we’ve collaborated with them.
This new data sharing adds to the museum’s already extensive collection and specimen data sharing through our online collection (seriously, go look!), the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, WorldCat, Citizen Science projects (zooniverse), our work with university classes through Cultural Heritage Informatics, and our publications.
Information like this goes a long way to supporting the museum’s mission of saving the world for future generations—by showing just how involved we are in it.