Does your local science museum have a skeleton in the closet?
If it’s like most museums with large collections, it may. On any given day, only a fraction of natural-history specimens are on view. And so a museum’s closets, drawers and shelves are usually stuffed with materials that may never be seen by the public.
That’s a problem, writes Charles Marshall for the Conversation, a nonprofit publisher of articles by academics. Marshall, who directs the University of California Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley, sees massive stashes of fossils as the equivalent of an archive for paleontologists. But many of their treasures may never be accessed.
If fossils are never made widely accessible electronically, Marshall argues, they’ll never be considered part of the fossil record.
“From a digital point of view, most of the world’s fossil collections represent ‘dark data,’ ” he writes. “The fact that large portions of existing museum collections are not computerized also means that lost treasures are waiting to be rediscovered within museums themselves.”
Marshall makes a compelling argument for digitizing as much of that “dark data” as possible — a task that is becoming easier because of new techniques that help museums rapidly photograph and quickly catalogue fossil data.
This month’s fire at Brazil’s National Museum, which had held priceless fossil collections and recordings of lost indigenous languages, fuels Marshall’s goal of digitizing museums’ treasures.
His article will leave you with a yearning to know just what museums have hidden away — and a better understanding of how ambitious digital projects are already bringing those riches to light.