This is the fifth in a series of updates on the digitization projects ongoing at the Herbarium. This article is about a joint project with the U-M Museum of Zoology, U-M Museum of Paleontology, and the Museum of Archaeological Anthropology. Watch for one more in the coming weeks.

An award we received from the National Science Foundation Collections in Support of Biological Research program, “Implementation of an Integrated Database Platform for the University of Michigan Biological Collections” is the beginning of an effort to integrate digital records of U-M natural history specimens within one central web accessible module. To initiate this goal, three historically significant collections that are divided between multiple museums at U-M have been selected to be digitized and databased in Specify, a widely used biological database.

Professor Paul Berry is heading the project for the U-M Herbarium, with Professor Diarmaid Ó Foighil from the Museum of Zoology and Professor Dan Fisher from the Museum of Paleontology as co-principal investigators. The project is also collaborating with Professor Carla Sinopoli of the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, who headed the digitization, curation and exhibition of hundreds of artifacts collected on the expeditions targeted by the CSBR project. The three-year award is just under $400,000.

The project will digitize close to 50,000 specimens from the Herbarium, UMMZ and the UMMP, and will showcase related items housed at and digitized by the UMAA. Additionally, hundreds of specimens of the earliest plants collected in Michigan (in the 1830s) were borrowed from the National Arboretum, Washington, D.C., for digitization and to complement the university’s holdings.

The first targeted collection includes some of the earliest scientific specimens collected in Michigan as part of the First and Second Geological Surveys of Michigan, from 1837-1845 and 1859-1862. These surveys were headed by Douglass Houghton (left) and Alexander Winchell, who both had great impacts on the history of the state and U-M. The second is the collection made by Joseph Beal Steere in the 1870s in South America and Asia. Steere was an Ann Arbor native, and his specimens were the first large group of international holdings at the university museums. Third is the multidisciplinary collection made by Walter Koelz in South Asia from 1930-1953.  Koelz was a Waterloo, Mich. resident who has been called the “last great Victorian explorer;” he collected tens of thousands of biological and anthropological specimens during the three decades he spent on expeditions around the world.

In the first year of the project, the targeted collections were researched, and separate workflows were developed for each museum division. Currently, digitization of Herbarium and bird specimens is progressing quickly. As of October 2015, some 22,000 plant and 10,000 bird specimens have been digitized. Digitization of targeted insect collections is complete at 117 specimens, and work is well underway in the invertebrate fossil collections (some 4,000 lots have been located, 2,500 cleaned and triaged, and nearly 1,000 databased). By the end of 2015, the goal is to complete the digitizing of invertebrate paleontology and birds. Next year’s goal is to complete reptiles, amphibians and fish, to begin digitizing mammals, and to transition to addressing project goals for vertebrate paleontology.

Mackenzie Caple, a research lab technician at the Herbarium, is the project manager. The following collection managers are participating: for UMMZ,  Janet Hinshaw, birds; Taehwan Lee, mollusks; Doug Nelson, fish; Mark O'Brien, insects; Greg Schneider, amphibians and reptiles; Cody Thompson, mammals; and for UMMP, Dan Miller, invertebrates, and Adam Rountrey, vertebrates.

Past and present technicians working on the project include: Herbarium: Laura Maihofer, Daniel Buonaiuto, Elizabeth Dale; UMMP: Susannah Spence, Elisabeth Pittman; UMMZ: Kaisa Ryding, Ashley Boudrie, Hayden Nickel, Catherine Gubert.

Background about this Herbarium news series:

The U-M Herbarium has been awarded seven National Science Foundation grants over the past four years. Six of the grants involve Thematic Collections Networks (TCN), which are collaborative projects administered by the Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) project. 

Unlike the TCN projects, this project is not part of a multi-institutional effort. However, it is significant in that it is the first digitization project that spans multiple units – we are digitizing collections that are split between the Herbarium, U-M Museum of Zoology, U-M Museum of  Paleontology, and U-M Museum of Archaeological Anthropology. This is part of a larger university effort to make specimen data from all museum units available to students and other researchers here and at other institutions. This project highlights the importance and usefulness of integrated museums databases.

NSF-CSBR Joint Museums Project website

Images not captioned above:

1. Olive bee-eater bird collected by Walter Koelz in India, 1933.

2. Portrait of Douglass Houghton.

3. Seven bound volumes of Douglass Houghton’s collections at the U-M Herbarium.

4. Douglass Houghton’s collection of the endangered endemic Cirsium pitcheri, collected in 1831 at Grand Sable Dunes on the southern shores of Lake Superior.


Walter Koelz of Waterloo, Mich. has been called the “last great Victorian explorer.”