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Manual to boost use of SA’s natural science collections

Image: Field Museum, John Weinstein

South African institutions will be on the same page from now on, says project head

South Africa has completed a manual to boost the quality of its natural science collections, and improve their use by researchers.

The manual was discussed during a webinar by the Natural Science Collections Facility on 20 January. 

Audrey Ndaba, collections manager coordinator at the NSCF, said the manual will be available by the end of February at the latest, after completion of final edits.

The NSCF was set up in 2017 as a R50 million (US$3.4m) virtual facility to collate and manage South Africa’s biodiversity specimens and data. The manual project was funded by the Department of Science and Innovation.

South Africa’s vast natural science collections are split between state-funded museums, research institutions and top research universities. This has led to different approaches being used by collections, and a lack of funding has impeded research and collection maintenance.

Zama Mwelase of the Natural Science Museum in Durban, who worked on the manual, told the webinar that some people working on collections had not received training in extinguishing fires, despite working in environments storing flammable compounds such as formaldehyde and ethanol. 

She added that she discovered different approaches during meetings to produce the manual, mentioning colleagues who use beetles to naturally strip skeletons where she has always used manual methods.

The manual aims to harmonise approaches across the country. “[It] allows institutions to see where they are good and where there are shortfalls. It will allow institutions to be better versions of [themselves],” Ndaba said.

Work on the manual started three years ago. It has been developed by a working group chaired by Ndaba, comprising scientists as well as staff looking after collections.

Ndaba said that the main goal of the manual is to secure collections and make them available for high quality research. It draws inspiration from many institutional guidelines and international best practices and will prevent institutions “working in silos”, he added.

The manual covers specimen acquisition, de-accessioning (removing specimens from collections), documentation, data management, collection care, access to collections and data, risk and disaster management, health and safety, collections ethics, and permit requirements.

Ndaba believes the manual will ensure more researchers use collections and “will make sure that all the institutions are on the same page.”

The NSCF brings together museums, the Agricultural Research Council, the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, and universities.