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Science News

August 2013

Research opportunities in Myanmar

Dr Celia Russell, Mimas, University of Manchester


Tuesday 3rd September - 4.00 pm - Mineralogy seminar room

After decades of isolation, universities in Myanmar (Burma) are gradually re-opening to the world, and the country is teeming with possibilities of research and teaching partnerships.  Myanmar is a country rich in natural resources with a unique geology and an exceptionally rich biodiversity.

Dr Celia Russell from the University of Manchester, who has recently returned from a scoping mission to the country, will be providing an overview of the areas in which Burmese universities are seeking to establish research partnerships.

With few university websites, email systems or bank accounts, the session will also give a brief overview of the processes, red tape and communication issues around working in Myanmar, as well as sources of help and support. This meeting also aims to create a network of contacts, to enable sharing of existing links and experiences and create an opportunity to discuss a way forward for improving museum engagement in Myanmar.

An invitation is extended to all colleagues who have an existing research interest in the country, or wish to find out more about developing a partnership. There are few financial resources available within Myanmar itself, but sources of international funding are available and the potential research rewards exceptional.


A consortium led by Dr Rob Huxley, NHM, has been awarded a grant of €289,460.19 towards the development and testing of  a competency framework for natural history collections management staff in Europe. The  project is 75% funded by the EU  Leonardo da Vinci Programme, Transfer of Innovation (TOI) strand and runs for two years from 1 October 2013.

The project aims to create a system, based on standardised European competencies, to assist organisations identify the competencies required for individual roles. For individuals, the system will identify their current level of competency and their vocational and educational training needs.  TOIs, as the name clearly indicates, allow organizations to work with European partners to transfer and adapt innovative vocational education and training materials and methods. In this project we will transfer the uniquely comprehensive Collections Competency Framework developed by the NHM and in use since 2007. This system has demonstrated advantages with staff progression, consistency of approach and has proved a valuable tool in developing staff development and training needs. By mapping job requirements against the competency framework, staff are able to identify gaps in their knowledge and skills and use this information to identify their personal needs. 

This TOI  project will pilot a set of multi-language, standardised core competencies derived from the NHM framework that can be chosen and arrayed to suit the needs of museums of varying size, focus, culture and governance. To assist staff and trainers to meet their competency needs the project will also establish a curriculum of collections management training and development opportunities.   These common standards of competence will inform staff development,  recruitment and encourage mobility of staff across Europe and in a wider context will contribute to developing  a consistent level of best practice in collections management across the major collections based organisations with consequntg benefits to research and educational access.

The core partners in the project are: NHM, London; Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences,  Brussels; Vriej Universiteit Amsterdam; Collections Trust, UK ; Museum fur Naturkunde, Berlin; The National Museum, Prague; Muséum National d'histoire Naturelle,  Paris.  Associated partners are: Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden; Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Madrid; University of Florence Natural History Museum; Rathgen Research Laboratory Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; HTW Berlin University of Applied Sciences.


We have around 80 million items in the Museum collection.  This makes us one of the world's greatest natural history collections and there is a huge amount of expertise, organisation, investment and thinking goes into caring for this resource and making it available to scientists and to many other users, including the general public in the UK and worldwide.


A basic characteristic of any item in the collection is that we know what it is, where it comes from and when it was collected.  Without this information, its value for science is much reduced.  However, because collecting has been in progress since the 17th Century, most of the information that accompanies the specimens is written on paper: on labels or in books, record cards and registers.  A scientist wanting to know whether we have particular items or to find out more information would need to talk to NHM curators or visit us to look at the information resources first-hand.


But in the last ten years in particular, we have been developing electronic databases of the collections.  It's a major task with a lot of experimentation with the best techniques and tools - how do we transfer tens of millions of information points from paper to databases to enable online searches and research resources?  We've got basic information for around 400,000 specimens on our main database at the moment but we need to move faster, and we are trying out different approaches.



a plot of 400,000 specimen records that have been databased, showing origins


A new initiative is to involve members of the public in copying information from the registers online - crowdsourcing.  We are doing this at the moment for our bird collections and would like as many people as possible to join us in this effort - we'll then be able to move more quickly to online information on which bird specimens we have, with information on their place of origin and dates.  Sometimes this information can be used to do research on where bird species once occured but where they have now disappeared because of habitat loss or other factors.




a snapshot of one of the register pages


Have a look at the online ornithology registers on the Notes from Nature site and have a try - you can attempt one-off transcriptions, or register and create an account that allows you to track your contribution to this effort.