SIGNIFY: A Digital Archive of Singapore’s Historical Biodiversity
SIGNIFY (Singapore in Global Natural History Museums Information Facility) is an initiative of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) at the National University of Singapore. The project receives generous support from Mr Terence Anthony McNeice (in honour of Sir Percy McNeice), the Lee Foundation and Mr Goh Geok Khim. The project will digitise and document approximately 10,000 historically-important specimens collected from Singapore over the last 200 years that are currently housed in museums worldwide, with an emphasis on type specimens – the exemplars on which scientific names are based. Such specimens are essential to studying and distinguishing species. This information is in turn necessary to further our understanding of Singapore’s natural heritage as well as its natural environment, starting from the most fundamental knowledge of the island’s biodiversity, to the most cutting-edge, such as studying the species of corals that may be used in mitigating the climate crisis. All of these depend on us knowing as much as possible about species – how to tell one from another, where they are found and their role in the environment.
Beyond ensuring the digital availability of these historically-important specimens, SIGNIFY will also foster research collaborations between the institutions holding this material and the LKCNHM (which will also umbrella other research centres in Singapore). All digitised material resulting from this project will be freely and openly available via the web platforms of partner institutions as well as through the SIGNIFY website. Each digitised specimen will include not just high-resolution images but also accompanying metadata, and where possible, the histories associated with it.
Biodiversity science is a global endeavour but the material which forms its foundation are spread across institutions worldwide because of intentional design and historical circumstances. Although this decentralisation has caused challenges for research activity, the dispersal of specimens across museums has been vital in ensuring the long-term survivability of material that originated in Singapore. The island’s biodiverse riches are safely deposited across the globe.
SIGNIFY, with its use of modern technology, will allow us to overcome the difficulties of dispersed collections of specimens. The digital specimens obtained will give ‘anyone-anywhere-anytime’ access to these resources. This maximises the potential and reach of historical collections and minimises the risks to fragile – often centuries-old – specimens. It will also reduce the externalities that result from both specimens and researchers travelling long distances. Such considerations matter more than ever for specimen-based research in a post-pandemic world that is grappling with climate change.
SIGNIFY is an archive of Singapore’s historical biodiversity for a global digital future.
A Tale of Two Museums: A Very Special Partnership between London and Singapore
The vast Collections, leading science experts and research collaborations at the Natural History Museum and LKCNHM have a long history. For over a century – as far back as when these museums were known as the British Museum and Raffles Museum, respectively – scientists and researchers have been working together on a wide variety of specimens and topics. Because of this long history, a significant part of Singapore’s historical material resides at the Natural History Museum. The technologies, infrastructures and outputs may have evolved over time, but the priorities remain the same, namely, to better understand the world’s biodiversity including that of Singapore and the surrounding region.
The links between Britain and Singapore are old and deep-rooted. The field of natural history is no exception. The earliest known collections of animal and plant specimens from Singapore that are still in existence were the result of studies of British naturalists (or their collaborators). Much of this material eventually entered into the Natural History Museum contributing to the Museum’s world-leading Collection. In a network of 66 individuals linked to the earliest natural history collections and studies of the island (as illustrated by the accompanying visualised network), a third of them either deposited or studied material at the Natural History Museum.
With this in mind there is no better place to begin this important international collaboration than at Natural History Museum. It is with a clear view of this rich shared past and in even greater anticipation of a successful future of research collaborations that the Natural History Museum and LKCNHM are partnering to launch SIGNIFY, “A Digital Archive of Singapore’s Historical Biodiversity”.
A network showing individuals who made significant contributions to the early study of Singapore’s natural history. Each individual is personally linked to their neighbour – they were personally acquainted, corresponded with one another or exchanged natural history material. Adapted from “Raffles and His Naturalist Friends: Social Networks of Early Natural History Collecting and Studies in Singapore” (in Source: Raffles Revisited: Essays on Collecting and Colonialism in Java, Singapore and Sumatra; Asian Civilisations Museum, 2021).
The SIGNIFY Team
Martyn E. Y. Low is a Research Associate whose role involves managing SIGNIFY. He is interested in natural history in general, and specifically in the role collectors, museums and specimens (in that order) have played in the development of this field in Singapore.
Lydia Gan is a Research Associate whose roles include project management, planning and coordination for SIGNIFY. Beyond her primary interest in freshwater ecology, she is interested in exploring collections-based data for further scientific research.
Wendy Y. Zhang is a Research Assistant whose roles include specimen digitisation and bibliographic research related to species described from Singapore for SIGNIFY. She has an interest in scientific illustration and its development as both a form of scientific documentation as well as an art form. In her free time, she enjoys painting entomological illustrations while indulging in hours-long horror podcasts.
Shivaram Rasu is a Research Assistant whose roles include specimen digitisation and bibliographic research related to species described from Singapore for SIGNIFY. His research interests are herpetofauna-related and include pursuing field observations and documenting their diversity. He also makes the occasional foray into the natural history of other groups of animals.
Kathy Poh is an Executive involved with the LKCNHM Oral History Project and historical research for SIGNIFY. An art historian by training, her primary research interests lie at the intersections between natural history and visual culture, especially thinking about art as archives of knowledge. Outside of these, she also enjoys indulging in languages and cinema.