Public Domain Alice Sheppard

Project of the Week #12: Digitising the Natural History Museum

What does this project do?
London's Natural History Museum contains over a million specimens. They are working to digitise these - creating thousands of images and all available information about them to be made open to anybody, anywhere in the world.

What do I have to do?
If you are in London and can spare a day: Fill in the "Visiteering" form on this page. You'll be invited to a whole day to take part, with a few other people, in transcribing the labels of a set of slides onto a computer. You'll also get a talk about the types of organism you'll be transcribing, free lunch and a tour of parts of the museum that visitors don't normally get to see, such as the room in which thousands of slides are kept. (There's a waiting list, so your invitation may not come immediately.)
If you are elsewhere and/or cannot spare that time, there are several citizen science projects available - some online, some not. For example, Big Seaweed Search and Earthworm Watch take place outside. Online projects include Notes from Nature text: Notes from Nature) and Miniature Fossils Magnified.
Notes from Nature is a Zooniverse project for the transcription of museum specimens very similar to the Visiteering day. For this and the Visiteering, we recommend you get a Zooniverse account. It'll be exactly the same account as the one used for our previous Project of the Week "The Plastic Tide", and all other Zooniverse projects. You just need a username, password and e-mail address.

Where can I find out more?
Natural History Museum: Digital Museum; Citizen Science
Blog: "Citizen Science" tagged
Twitter: @NHM_Digitise
Notes from Nature: About

What’s the Citizen Science Project of the Week?
Citizen Science Project of the Week is a regular Monday feature at Doing It Together Science. What project would you like to see featured? Please let us know on the contact form, Facebook page or email us at Please put "Project of the Week" in the subject line and send us a link to the project, some information about it and why you'd like it featured. If you want us to, we'll credit you and tag you on Facebook!

More details
Alice went Visiteering on Friday 20th October. It was a fascinating day, involving transcribing two sets of slides: seal lice in the morning and marsupial lice in the afternoon. Every Visiteering day will involve transcribing a different species. The Zooniverse and DigiVol platforms were both tried out, to see if we preferred one over another. During the day, we discovered the following:

  • The Natural History Museum contains about 80 million specimens in slides. So far, they have imaged 3.5 million. The room where they keep them (pictured above) needed a reinforced floor as slides are made of glass and are thus heavy.
  • There are various techniques for imaging. It is possible to image 1000 slides at once, but as they are not all a standard shape and size, this is hazardous - so even with very expensive equipment, it is better to do them one by one.
  • A scientist can image 1000 slides per day. The whole slide is photographed. But for specimens which are declared to be "type specimens", or the best sample of the collection, these will be imaged separately and in more detail. It's really exciting if you get one of these to transcribe: this is the specimen that every scientist will start with when they examine the species.
  • There are two square labels per slide, usually one written by the "determiner" (the scientist in the field), the other the collector. There are standard places on labels for writing each piece of information. Determiners and collectors' handwriting may be beautiful or atrocious.
  • Collections of specimens that are too small to be put on a public Zooniverse interface - of a few hundred specimens, for example - are transcribed on Visiteering days. They aim for 3 people to transcribe each slide. This way, any individual mistakes are likely to be averaged out, in the same way that other Zooniverse projects work.
  • Yes, seals have lice! Almost every terrestrial species of animal does. Lice are insects. Their ecological niche is usually filled by crustaceans in the ocean; however, seals originally evolved as land mammals, then got infested with lice, then returned to the sea and their lice coevolved with them.
  • Seal lice (the breed we were transcribing is called Antarctophthirus Ogomorhini have adapted to marine life by breeding very slowly while the seal is at sea, but much faster when the seal comes on land. They are much more sensitive to changes in their environment, such as temperature, than most species of lice. When a seal pup is born, it will be infested with lice within three hours.
  • They also grow long hairs to trap air bubbles around themselves, as they cannot breathe under water, and induce the seal to secrete sebum to keep them warm.
  • Walrus lice are even more specialised, as walruses can spend three months at sea. For example, they prefer to infest the flippers, which receive the most blood supply (a walrus's skin will be very cold in the ocean).
  • If you are itching or scratching now, that is OK. Most people do when the subject of lice comes up.
  • Nits - the eggs of head lice - are more commonly found in children than adults because children's games often involve close contact and the touching of hair.
  • Scientists in the field have been taking samples from the natural world for centuries (Darwin was not the first). One slide was inscribed "From between the flank and hindquarters of a male Common Seal".
  • Lice that live on marsupials are chewing lice. You can check them out at the Natural History Museum's citizen science project DigiVol.
  • There is a family of marsupial lice called "Boopidae", with specimens being labelled "Boopia". Google does not know about types of Boopia.
  • At some point in the 19th century there seems to have been a place in Australia called Mbanjambanja, where a specimen was taken. Modern technology and Twitter were unable to find it for us!
  • Lice are classified as male, female or nymph. A nymph symbol is a circle with a dot: they are too immature for the gender to be apparent.
  • The slides have to be kept at a low temperature and outdoor bags and coats may not be taken near them; both these measures are to stop local insects from contaminating the specimens.
  • Visiteering days are usually roughly every month, but can be more frequent. They were very frequent last week as it was WeDigBio - a four-day event encouraging mass transcription of specimens. Several groups, such as other universities and Kew Gardens, regularly greeted each other on camera! You can follow the hashtag here and here - and please visit the
  • The room in which specimens are transcribed has a large window and speaker so that museum visitors can see "scientists at work" and ask questions when the speaker is turned on. A primary school group provided and received great entertainment!
  • The Natural History Museum considers the specimens it is keeping as in their trust, rather than their ownership. They wish to make all the images and all information that comes with them available to anyone around the world who wishes to access it.