Bristol launches virtual museum

Computer game museum to display world’s digital fossil collections

The Virtual Natural History Museum, a project which is being led by a team of palaeontology experts at the University of Bristol, will provide a unique resource to teachers – offering digital access to specimens rarely seen outside of academia.

Its creation follows a request from the UK’s Earth Sciences Teachers’ Association, which asked professional palaeontologists for help in collecting multimedia resources to help illustrate their lessons.

The request was picked up by Palaeocast, a palaeontology podcast operating out of the University of Bristol. They’ve attracted funding from The Palaeontological Association and the Geologists’ Association, but have now launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover the remaining costs.

PhD student and show-founder Dave Marshall said: “We deal with palaeontological multimedia, so when we first saw the letter from the teachers, we knew there was something Palaeocast could do to help. We conceived a website that collates the fossil multimedia already available online and presents it under relevant points of the national curriculum.”

The website will primarily rely on the online research catalogues that museums produce for academics, bringing them together in an easily-accessible way.

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Dave explained: “Many museums have digitised large parts of their collections and made them available to the scientific community. Unfortunately, they don’t publicise these catalogues to the public, nor are they presented with any sort of engaging interface; they’re just a gallery of specimen numbers and pictures.

“We wanted our website to be more than points from the national curriculum with pictures underneath, so we asked ourselves, what’s the best way to display fossils? The answer is of course a museum. We’re therefore building a digital museum for these digital fossils, putting the world’s fossil collections into the hands of teachers, students and anyone with access to a computer.”

The user-interface of this virtual museum is set to appear and function exactly like a computer game; allowing users to explore the collections using an avatar, just as you would do in real life.

While produced for a specific educational purpose, the Virtual Natural History Museum will allow for whole collections to be displayed for the first time.

The fossil collections of the National Geological Repository are the second-largest in the UK, but they have no public exhibition. Even large museums, such as the Natural History Museum in London, only display a fraction of their specimens.

The Virtual Natural History Museum will be able to provide a public front for those museums without displays and offers the option to exhibit fragile specimens without them needing to leave the collection stores.

The project has already been supported by numerous museums as well as educational and academic associations, including the Earth Science Teachers’ Association and the National Geological Repository.

A crowdfunding page for the Virtual Natural History Museum project can be found on crowdfunding website Walacea.

Palaeocast is a free web series exploring the fossil record and the evolution of life on earth. The main product of the project is the Palaeocast palaeontology podcast, but we also produce videos, report palaeontological news and record and live-stream conferences. We intend to continue to produce original multimedia, without charge and free of advertising, as we become the world’s first choice for accurate and engaging palaeontological information: https://www.palaeocast.com

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