Digitisation programme

A woman walks a corridor with herbarium specimens to be digitised

A digitiser at work in the Museum's Herbarium

In 2021-2022, the Museum's Digitisation Team reached the landmark of five million specimens digitised.

Natural history collections hold the data we need to tackle future challenges, such as conserving the biodiversity on which our wellbeing and our planet's health depend.

In the last year, the team have digitised more than 310,000 specimens, which means there is now more than five million specimens available on the Museum's Data Portal. There have been more than 30 billion records downloaded in more than 470,000 download events, as well as more than 1,700 scientific papers that cite the Museum's data.

An small insect on a pin and styrofoam

A tiny stone fly specimen being digitised

Studies that use this data range from using digitised butterflies from Britain to understand how their size changes in relation to temperature, the global assessment of the distribution and conservation status of medicinal plants, to understanding the factors that drive the invasion risk of bee species.

The five millionth specimen to be digitised was the stonefly Stenoperla prasina. The digitisation of this specimen was part of a project to digitise three orders of freshwater insects: Ephemeroptera (mayflies), Plecoptera (stoneflies) and Trichoptera (caddisflies), which are found in freshwater systems across the world. Species within these three orders are important bioindicators, which means that their presence and the size of their populations can give us an idea about the health of a freshwater habitat. 

So far the team has digitised 1.7 million insects, 500,000 fossils and 900,000 plants, including information on where and when they were collected. These specimens provide baselines from before widespread the intensive farming, industrialisation and levels of climate change we see today.

Our supporters are key to reaching these milestones - we give special thanks to Dr. Ned F. Kuehn and Ms. Lisa T. Kuehn for generously supporting the digitisation of our bird collection. Of particular note, with the kind support of the Charles Hayward Foundation and The Hartnett Conservation Trust, we were able to complete our digitisation collection of mammal fossil specimens collected by Darwin that were instrumental in informing his theory of natural selection.

The value of a digital natural history collection

Natural history collections are a unique record of both biodiversity and geodiversity going back hundreds of millions of years.

The Museum collaborated with the economic consultants Frontier Economics to explore the economic and societal value of digitising natural history collections. They concluded that digitisation has the potential to see a tenfold return on investment, creating benefits worth more than £2 billion over 30 years.

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The Natural History Museum's collection is a real treasure trove - which, if made easily accessible to scientists all over the world through digitisation, has the potential to unlock ground-breaking research in any number of areas.

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Dan Popov

Economist at Frontier Economics

Digital Collections blog

With 80 million specimens to digitise, we have 80 million stories to share.

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