NHM Vienna participates in global natural science database initiative

24. March 2023
The results of a global initiative aimed at making the collections of the world's largest natural history museums accessible to everyone are now being presented in a new scientific publication. The initiative’s objective is to create a uniform database that leverages the collections of 73 museums in 28 countries. Under the leadership of CEO Dr. Katrin Vohland, the Natural History Museum (NHM) Vienna takes part in this initiative.
Natural history museums around the world are prolific archives of the history of our planet and our solar system, offering comprehensive insights into the past that are increasingly harnessed for forecasts about global challenges such as climate change, the loss of biodiversity, pandemics, food insecurity or wildlife conservation.
A group of natural history museums, including the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, the American Museum of Natural History Museum in New York City and the Natural History Museum in London, has now mapped the entire collections of 73 of the world's largest natural history museums in 28 countries. This is the first step in a major stock-taking of global collection holdings, which will be made available as a shared database, freely accessible to society at large, the science community, policy-makers and business.
The results of the study were published in Science under the heading “A Global Approach for Natural History Museum Collections”.
The Natural History Museum Vienna is participating in both the study and the initiative. “Collections in Austria are also being preserved, inventoried and opened up in order to leverage them for research into diseases and ecosystems or the development of sustainable materials,” explains Dr Katrin Vohland, CEO and Director General of the NHM Vienna and co-author of the study.
In order to gain a better overview of the momentous resource that are the collections of the respective international museums, leading researchers have created a simple framework structure using unified terminology that enables them to quickly assess the scope and composition of the collections. “The central element of this study is the agreement on uniform terms to categorise the types of collections in order to facilitate comparisons,” notes Dr. Birgitta Schmid, Deputy Head of the Science Communication Department at the NHM Vienna, who is another co-author of this publication. More specifically, this means that all natural history collections have been assigned to 19 categories, including “botany” for all plants, “mammals” for vertebrates or “archaeology” as part of anthropology, even if individual museums use a slightly different ordering system.
The survey showed a total number of more than 1.1 billion items, managed by more than 4,500 research staff and nearly 4,000 volunteers. Although this represents a huge global collection, the study highlighted a global imbalance between the great number of collections of the Global North and the significantly lower number in the South. The result also revealed the categories that still feature large gaps, a particularly important one relating to insects. Filling these gaps could be helped along by developing a roadmap for coordinated future collection efforts.
“Scientific collections represent a global research infrastructure,” notes Dr Katrin Vohland.
For this reason, the NHM Vienna is joining efforts with partner institutions from all over Austria in the OSCA (Open Scientific Collections Austria) consortium in order to translate the ambitious ideas into reality. This consortium can draw on international projects that are also mentioned in the study. One of them is the European DiSSCo (Distributed System of Scientific Collections) initiative, which is building a European infrastructure for natural science collections.
In keeping with the theme, the “Diagonale” film festival in Graz will screen the film Archiv der Zukunft by Jörg Burger (director) and Constantin Wulff (producer) on Friday, 24 March 2023. The film offers exciting insights into the inner workings of the Natural History Museum and the activities of its staff.
The Science article “A Global Approach for Natural History Museum Collections”:

More information:
OSCA: https://osca.science/
DiSSCo: https://www.dissco.eu/
Diagonale Graz / Archiv der Zukunft: https://www.diagonale.at/filme-a-z/?ftopic=finfo&fid=11842

Collections at the NHM Vienna
© NHM Wien, C. Rittmannsperger
Collections at the NHM Vienna
© NHM Wien, C. Rittmannsperger
Collections at the NHM Vienna
© NHM Wien,  K. Kracher
Collections at the NHM Vienna
© NHM Wien, K. Kracher