From rows of tiny pinned insects to drawers of stuffed birds of prey, the holdings of natural history museums are as varied as the biodiversity they collect. However, accessibility is often a problem, as is the connection of data across institutions. A project between museums in Europe has put over over 2 million items into a connected resource that is aiming to cross barriers of distance and language.
OpenUp! (exclamation point included) started in 2011, with a three-year push completed this February, although all the data sets remain active online through the Europeana cultural heritage platform. Funded by the European Commission along with some of the continent’s natural history institutions, it also links in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility infrastructure, thus offering one point for a multitude of datasets.
The collections include beetles from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, plants from the Institute of Botany of Slovak Academy of Sciences, natural history object photographs from the Natural History Museum, London, butterflies from the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, thousands of insects from the Zoological Research Museum Koenig, moths and mushrooms from the University of Tartu and the Museum of Natural History Berlin, and natural history art from the Rijksmuseum. As OpenUp! notes, “Europe’s collections cover most of the world’s described organisms, ranging from common and famous species to those that have already gone extinct.”
While its enthusiastic but vague name perhaps doesn’t hint much at how extraordinary the project is, OpenUp! does point at what’s most important even beyond the merging of data: accessibility. Most of the images, video, and audio is for attribution use, an incredibly valuable resource for exploring the biodiversity of the world. Much of this material has long been only available to a few researchers, let alone known about, and can reveal details of taxonomy and common names across European languages.
Of course, just covering Europe is still only part of the grander scale of what museum collections can reveal about biodiversity, yet it does offer an intriguing portal in time and place. “As a result of Europe’s colonial history, these specimens have been collected from every corner of the world over a period of more than three centuries,” the site states. The hand-drawn labels from historic expeditions and specimens that are often over a century old, are joined by gorgeous naturalist illustrations of a wild that is often now much changed. Together they give access to the legacy of collecting in these museums and their connection to the greater history of our interactions with nature.
The OpenUp! project has all of its data sets available through the Europeana portal.