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How is Citizen Science being used by museums?

If you’re not familiar with Citizen Science, also known as Community Science, then you’re missing out.

I am not a scientist. Far from it – my scientific education ended with my GCSEs. Yet despite this basic level of knowledge, I really enjoy volunteering on Citizen Science projects.

And the 1.6million users that have registered with the Citizen Science platform Zooniverse suggest I’m not alone in this.

With Citizen Science, you can easily join a project on your laptop and quickly feel like a scientist. You can contribute to knowledge and make a valued contribution.

“Community science activities seek to dispel stereotypes about science.” Saoirse Higgins explained for the British Science Association, “Whether people monitor plastic pollution, learn about their local industrial heritage, create art inspired by the work of early botanists, build bridges out of lollypop sticks or research the chances of flooding locally, they are active participants in a science which is not a distinct discipline but inseparable from art, music, history and sociology. Their doing of science is embedded in their relationships with others and their ways of being in the world.”

Citizen Science projects empower volunteers – often without any scientific training – to take part in research projects. They might be asked to transcribe documents or help with observations. Anyone can take part, and everyone makes an impact. It’s an incredibly rewarding activity to be part of, and the projects that you can take part in are wide-ranging in scope and often deeply inspiring.

But don’t be fooled, this isn’t anything new. Collaborations between scientists and the general public have been happening for centuries. Darwin worked with over 2000 correspondents while developing his theories on evolution, while the early-winter bird census, the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, started in 1900 and now has thousands of participants in over 20 countries.

What is new, however, is the technology that makes it possible to reach a vast army of volunteers and provide access to source materials and project systems. Using these communities adds massive people power to a project, making it possible to complete those complex tasks that require a human mind, at scale.

“The major challenge of 21st century research is dealing with the flood of information we can now collect about the world around us. Computers can help, but in many fields the human ability for pattern recognition — and our ability to be surprised — makes us superior.” Zooniverse explains, “With the help of Zooniverse volunteers, researchers can analyze their information more quickly and accurately than would otherwise be possible, saving time and resources, advancing the ability of computers to do the same tasks, and leading to faster progress and understanding of the world, getting to exciting results more quickly.”

Citizen Science has enabled leaps forward in research. And despite the moniker, this isn’t limited to science.

Citizen Science and Heritage

As the mechanics of Citizen Science have become so accessible, it’s possible to apply this model to other sectors. So how has Citizen Science been used in the heritage sector?

  • The award-winning CITiZAN project (Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network) provides Citizen Scientists with the knowledge and skills to record archaeological sites along the English coastline. Spanning over 6,500 miles, this task is only possible with the help of volunteers, using CITiZAN’s standardised processes. Citizen Scientists can download an app (on both iOS and Android) to record features that they find along the coast, by noting details about the location and describing and photographing their finds. These notes are added to an interactive map of coastal features. Take a look and you’ll find finds that include iron-age forts, submerged forests, 17th-century shipwrecks, and more intriguing monuments which might make you think again about your favourite part of the coast.

The project “highlights the threat of coastal erosion to a wealth of foreshore and intertidal sites. These archaeological features encompass a huge time span, many are of considerable local or national significance and most have no statutory protection”

  • The Davy Notebooks project is working with volunteers on Zooniverse to digitize Sir Humphry Davy’s notebooks and question the historical and contemporary relationship between art and science. 75 notebooks belonging to the famed chemist are held in the Royal Institute of Great Britain and Kresen Kernow. By working with citizen scientists to transcribe and better understand these documents, the project aims to provide insights into Davy’s life and thinking. In particular, the notebooks include poetry that he was writing while undertaking his scientific experiments.

Principal Investigator, Professor Sharon Ruston of Lancaster University, said “The consequences of seeing the arts and sciences as divided and separate are serious. Viewing them as ‘two cultures’ hinders our ability to solve major world problems.”

Participants can get involved not just by transcribing the documents, but also through discussions on how this project has changed their view of the relationship between art and science. Fancy taking part? Find the Davy Notebooks Project on Zooniverse here.

  • Scribes of the Cairo Geniza, also on Zooniverse, asks participants to help sort and transcribe over 300,000 fragments of documents in this archive. These fragments of pre-modern and medieval Jewish texts were discovered in an attic in the late 19th century, and are “widely recognized as the most important documentary source for reconstructing the social, economic, political, literary, and religious lives of Jews and the other inhabitants of the premodern Mediterranean basin”.

This is an extraordinary task. But it’s broken down into a straightforward workflow so that community scientists can help. In the first stage, the texts need to be sorted into Hebrew or Arabic Script or a mixture of the two, and formal (easy) or informal (difficult) presentations. Then, easy sections can be transcribed and key phrases discovered to help unlock the more difficult passages.

Who could resist this project, which offers “your chance to work with others to unlock the secrets of one of the greatest archives of the middle ages”?

As an added extra, participants can curate their own collection of favourite fragments as they go.

Citizen Science projects seem like a win-win – volunteers find meaningful projects while organizations receive research support while also creating really powerful engagement projects which can reach massive new audiences. How might Citizen Scientists work with your organization?

About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell

Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.

Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.

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