Based in Kensington, London, the Natural History Museum  is housed in a building of palatial size and architecture. The museum houses one of the largest collections of naturally- occurring objects in the world, its holdings running to 68 million objects, a collection so large that less than a tenth of one percent is on display at any one time. Every conceivable type of animal, plant and mineral is represented, as well as a surprisingly large collection of books, art (one of the largest collections of art on paper in the UK), journals and other literature.
I spoke to Ray Lester, the Head of Library and Information Services (formerly Librarian at the London Business School), and Neil Thomson, Head of Systems and Central Services, about the current philosophy behind the network and information infrastructure in the museum. A massive task in organising information access within the museum is currently underway. “The various departments of the museum have tended to work autonomously when it comes to information provision” remarks Lester. “The first and main task of Information Services is strategic coordination of information across the museum, so that the needs of the museum’s staff, as well as its users, can be met efficiently.”
A major problem for Information Services is how to structure an information system to allow for the retrieval of all relevant objects in all departments. For example, an inquirer looking for information on an extinct bird, say, may be interested in textual descriptions, sketchings, and a replica - all held by the museum, though in different departments. A unified search across all object types and instances is required. This is clearly a challenge for those currently engaged in metadata research - although the absence of an eLib-type programme for the museum world means that, inevitably, progress is slow.
At present, each department within the museum has its own idiosyncratic database. Investment is now being made in a single massive database management system to provide for the whole museum. This system will have image recognition facilities, as well as the ability to store multi-dimensional information about objects, allowing sophisticated searching even across time periods.
The museum’s Web master is David Polly. The Web pages are proving to be popular, with some 25,000 to 30,000 different IP accesses every month. These accesses come from all over the world, with a significant proportion from the US. The server is connected to JANET through Imperial College  (hence the ‘ac.uk’ in the site’s Internet address). A connection to SuperJanet , coming soon, will greatly assist in providing network-based services to the outside world. “A Web site for a national museum has obvious potential” states Polly. “Multimedia can be used to show samples of the exhibits in a number of ways. Currently, the site contains a large and diverse collection of material, including a virtual reality section which lets users manipulate fossilised trilobites - tiny marine invertebrates of the Palaeozoic era. The potential is difficult to imagine. At present, we haven’t even scratched the surface.”
Most of the staff of the museum now have Web access, though it is unclear how many of them have the resources to answer external queries. Several maintain their own network-based resources (I was introduced to a mailing list for palaeontologists, by way of example). The development of a Web-based service, and other remote services such as enquiries by e-mail, bring into the open the issue of funding and charging for access to information. The appeal of networked services based on the museum’s resources is easy to imagine. Classes of children from all over the country, recently wired up in their schools, could easily provide the museum with a long shopping list of network services, in addition to those currently being developed. But these must be paid for. In a situation in which the museum has to raise an increasing amount of its own funding, the provision of value-added Web- based information services at a cost is clearly something which the museum must consider. Dissemination of the museum’s objects and collections in multimedia representation also has potential commercial value. The museum’s management is currently reviewing its options in these areas.
A tour of departments revealed many different applications of IT to the collections. The Botany Department has a large holding of highly detailed drawings and paintings of plants. These images are currently being transferred to CD-ROM, a process which suits the aim of preservation as well as dissemination, since the original objects do not have to be handled so often, and a ‘fresh’ copy of the image can be permanently kept. It is hoped that these images, and those of the manuscripts, may be made available over the network. But the museum is concerned about its copyright in the images, and is reluctant to release them to the Internet until secure methods of protection have been implemented.
It all adds up to a set of demanding challenges for Ray Lester and his team. “Elib  is tremendously relevant to our work here” he remarks. “The big issues for eLib - digitisation, copyright, access and commercialisation - are at the heart of our concerns. A national museum like this one must put preservation foremost. But we can also act as an important Net content provider.”
- Natural History Museum Web Site,
- Imperial College of Science Technology and Medicine,
- SuperJANET Web-based Information,
- eLib Web pages,
Author DetailsJohn Kirriemuir
Information Officer, UKOLN,
Tel: 01225 826354
Address: UKOLN, University of Bath, Bath, BA2 7AY