Digitising botanical collections: a pilot for an Open Herbarium

We successfully created digital images of 70,000 plant specimens stored on herbarium sheets, using a conveyor-based workflow.

The high speed digitisation of herbarium sheets was developed in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBGK) and Picturae.

This was a pilot project for an unprecentented plan to digitise millions of plant specimens from both our collections.

Collectively our two institutions hold over 11 million specimens, an unparalleled resource for studying plant diversity worldwide.

The digitisation conveyor belt for botanical specimens in action


We used state-of-the-art high-speed conveyor-belt imaging technology in collaboration with a commercial provider (Picturae) to create images of herbarium sheets.

We tested workflows and develop a long term method for UK herbarium digitisation using a relatively small selection of material from both institutions – totalling 70,000 specimens.

We also transcribed the data labels from each of the specimens to mobilise data for scientific research.

Open Herbarium

Building on the successful pilot of the conveyor-based workflows, we are now developing a plan to create a digital ‘Open Herbarium’: a unique, large scale record of plant diversity.


Digitised collections are being used to answer important questions for science and society.

Researchers at Kew and the Museum are using the digital records of the 70,000 plants to investigate

  • how species look different in different environments
  • how they respond to environmental stress
  • the conservation status of plant species worldwide

Solanum (nightshade)

Solanum (nightshade) images will be used to

  • track leaf shape and size changes within species in relation to environment, especially in relation to El Niño years on the west coast of South America 
  • to look at the variability in size and shape of leaves in eggplant wild relatives in Asia.

Both institutions are using data on distribution from transcribed labels to assess the conservation status of plant species in these groups worldwide.

Project summary

  • Focus: Developing high throughput digitisation pipelines; mobilising data and images to track morphology changes within species in relation to environment
  • Start date: 5 Jan 2015 
  • End date: 16 Sep 2015 

Project team


Digital Museum

We are digitising 80 million specimens from our collections to an online data portal.

Digital collections programme

High-throughput digitisation for different collection types.

Botany collections

Explore our botanical collection of an estimated six million specimens from around the world.