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Natural History Highlight
  Collections Profiling - The Process  (Page 1 of 2)
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Preserved fish

Caring for the NMNH’s 124 million biological, geological and anthropological objects and specimens is a monumental task.  Thorough, accurate and complete information about the collections’ preservation status  is critical to planning for and ensuring the appropriate care of each different type of collection, be they invertebrates preserved in fluid-filled jars, dried mammal skins, pressed plants, a Triceratops leg bone, historic photographs of Native Americans, or African musical instruments made from wood, plant fibers and hide. Collections managers need to know where to focus their work, how to assign staff, what supplies to purchase, which groupings of the collections could benefit from new funding, whether the arrangement of the storage containers is adequate for the anticipated growth of parts of the collections, what projects to assign to volunteers, etc.

The article that follows was presented at a poster session given at the Third Conference on Partnership Opportunities for Federally-Associated Collections, held November 13 - 17, 2000, in Austin, Texas. The poster was written by William Moser, Karen Reed, and Cheryl Bright, and explains how the pilot of the NMNH Collections Profiling System was done in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology. The authors’ findings have helped to raise the awareness among collections professionals of the need for such assessments. The NMNH model is being implemented by other collections - holding organizations around the country.

William Moser, Karen Reed, 
and Cheryl Bright
Dept. of Invertebrate Zoology, NMNH,
Smithsonian Inst., Washington D.C., 20560-0163

The Process (Page 1)
* About the Process
* What is a Profile Unit
* Database and Scoring

The Results (Page 2)
* Profiling Indicators
* Results and Conclusions

About the Process

The Collections Profile is a process being developed within the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) to objectively assess the “health” of our collections. Building on a past model from the Department of Entomology, the NMNH Collections Managers developed a preliminary museum-wide Profile process. The Museum’s Collections Committee refined it to include six specific measures of collections “health.” These measures (the profile indicators) are Conservation Status, Processing State, Storage Containers, Arrangement, Identification and Inventory. Each of these six indicators is associated with two or more scoring categories that describe a quality ranking from poor to optimal. The Department of Invertebrate Zoology (IZ) added several other collection information categories (Taxon Information, Storage Location, Shelf Fullness, Type and Condition of Storage Equipment, Hot Spots) that enhance the database’s usefulness as a planning tool.

In January of 2000, a series of pilot projects designed to test the suitability of the Collections Profile process were begun. In IZ, the Decapod Crustacean Collection was selected for the pilot survey. This collection, encompassing more than 5800 Profile Units located in wet and dry storage areas in the Natural History Building (NHB) and Museum Support Center (MSC), allowed us to test the applicability of the indicators and the scoring categories under a variety of collection conditions. After reviewing and refining the Collections Profile process, the Mollusk Collection at NHB, encompassing more than 7800 Profile Units in dry and wet storage areas, was profiled. The wet collections of worms and sponges (more than 2200 Profile Units) will be profiled next.

Photos of various profile units

Rafael Lemaitre scoring and Bill Moser entering data in MS Excel spreadsheet.

What is a Profile Unit?

Profile Units are the discrete subsets of the collection that are evaluated according to the scoring categories for each Profile Indicator. The scale of the Profile Unit is an important consideration since it will determine the ability of the process to precisely discriminate between the various scoring levels in each Profile Indicator. The smaller the Profile Unit, the greater the resolving power of the process and the more meaningful the resulting data. Under ideal conditions the optimum profile unit would be the individual item. For our collections, with more than 34 million specimens (and potential profile units), this was unrealistic. Instead we decided to use the individual shelf, drawer, tank, dessicator and slide box as our Profile Unit. Based on our “Decapod Crustacean Pilot Project" evaluating profile units at this scale does provide sufficiently detailed data to allow us to set short term and long term collection management goals for the department.

MS Excel Spreadsheet 

Atlantic Blue Crab
Callinectes sapidus (Rathbun)

Decapod: A group of crustaceans which have five pairs of legs and include shrimp, prawns, lobsters, crabs, crayfish and hermit crabs.

Penaeidae: A further subdivision of decapods which includes only prawns.

Database and Scoring Data

A collections profile spreadsheet application was created in Microsoft Excel to record indicator data. With MS Excel, we could rapidly pre-populate data fields (using the fill handle), minimize input errors by predefining acceptable values (using database validation tables) and easily create charts and graphs (using Pivot Tables) to analyze the data. An MS Access application linked to the MS Excel database allowed us to generate tier/case/row location cards, profile unit labels and various reports including shelf locator lists for specific taxa.

As many data fields as possible were pre-populated before scoring the individual Profile Units. Data capture was done in teams of two with one individual scanning and scoring the Profile Units and the other person entering the scores directly into the MS Excel spreadsheet on a laptop computer. This saved a significant amount of time compared to the alternative process of completing datasheets and entering the data later. To maintain data consistency, we identified a “core team” (Cheryl Bright, Bill Moser, Karen Reed) who would work on all of the profile projects. A fourth person, typically a specialist in the collection being profiled, joined the core team for specific projects.

Wet Crustacean shelf label 
generated from Profile dataset
Dry Mollusk case label generated 
from Profile dataset
Wet Crustacean bank label 
generated from Profile dataset

Fluid: Specimens stored in ethyl alcohol (used as a preservative).

Specimens stored in dry state (without preservative).


From Profiling Indicators to the Results,
 with some cool graphs along the way

Next Page (Page 2)

"Natural History Highlight" features interesting and exciting activities and objects from the Museum. We will frequently introduce new highlights that come from our research, collections, exhibits, and projects.      
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