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Natural History Museum of Denmark

Open-source online collections platform

Copenhagen, Denmark

  • Hundreds of thousands of unique objects from our natural world available to the public and scientific community in high resolution, deep-zoom format for the first time
  • Elegant, accessible and integrated with the museum’s wider digitisation and data publishing programme
  • Released under an open-source license to support the publication of further natural history collections

The scientific community relies on natural history collections to perform crucial research that informs and educates the community in many fields. As custodian of one of the finest collections of natural history in the world, The Natural History Museum of Denmark plays a key role in this research infrastructure.

As a museum of international importance NHMD also inspires and educates the general public, promoting discourse and critical thinking when it comes to topics such as the climate change crisis and humanity’s impact on our planet.

It is at the intersection of these two aims that Cogapp’s expertise was employed in partnership with the team in Copenhagen to produce the open source collections platform.

With the launch of the NHMD collections platform both researchers and members of the general public can explore the collections in intimate detail from anywhere in the world. There are hundreds of thousands of objects to explore with more being added frequently by the museum.

Visitors to the site will find high resolution deep-zoom imagery, scientific information relating to the objects as well as detailed geographic data and threat status.

Example of high resolution, deep-zoom imagery

Building a better online world for audiences

Powerful search

Whether you are a scientific researcher or an interested member of the public, searching collections at the scale of the NHMD collection can be a daunting prospect. We developed a powerful search interface that enables users to search at speed, with precision. Search results can be filtered by various facets and also restricted to those objects with associated images. If a user is particularly interested in geographic information search results can also be displayed on an interactive map.

Example of advanced search interface with autocomplete vernacular and scientific naming conventions

Detailed object metadata

Research requires the precise metadata that the vast collections contain, for the first time we are publishing this information in various formats for researchers to download and investigate in detail. Aside from presenting this information on the portal itself, for efficient browsing and in-situ research, the website offers the ability to download the information. Users can download in CSV format or as a manifest conforming to the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) for use with compatible third-party software.

Metadata can be used to filter the collections

Demystifying scientific language

The important work that institutions such as NHMD do is anchored in the language of science. An integral aspect of our work on this project was to deliver an experience that affords non-scientific audiences the ability to explore this complex information and enjoy the collections as well.

For example, we wanted users to be able to search for common, vernacular terms such as ‘Giant squid’ and be returned the appropriate results; given the available metadata (the metadata is crafted with scientific audiences in mind) this was not as simple as you might expect. We developed a system whereby we ‘translate’ such vernacular terms into the scientific terms that the data supports. This means that school children can search for ‘Giant squid’ rather than having to know the scientific name ‘Architeuthis dux’.


Cogapp is a specialist digital agency based in the UK, we worked closely with the team in Copenhagen to ensure a smooth translation process was put in place. We implemented the collection platform to accommodate both the primary language of Danish as well as English. The language support feature we created is extensible; if a future user of the open source project requires further language support this can easily be accommodated.

Responsive across device types the collection is awe-inspiring no matter the screen size

On-brand, elegant design

As the public face of the museum collections this collections platform was designed to the highest standards in terms of aesthetics, user-experience as well as accessibility.

We worked closely with the team in Denmark, including the internal museum design team, to ensure that the design work we produced was not only striking but also in keeping with the museum and the University of Copenhagen’s branding guidelines (the museum is affiliated with the university).

As with all our work, it was an iterative process with multiple opportunities for refinement. The design and interface we produced lets the collections speak for themselves yet affords users help when needed to navigate these vast collections.

Building a better online world for The Natural History Museum of Denmark

The museum has published collections data before but this landmark project has formalised the process. Through close collaboration, Cogapp and NHMD architected a publishing pipeline which leans on the existing relationships that NHMD has with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and the Specify Collections Consortium.

By designing a pipeline that embraces these two building blocks early in the project, we were able to architect a platform that provides seamless publication of collections information with minimal training or internal reconfiguration at the museum.

NHMD staff are able to publish collections using tools that they are familiar with. NHMD’s collections information is managed in Specify7. Through the discovery phase of the project we agreed that Specify7 would be used to publish the collections information to GBIF. Our platform then reads directly from GBIF and presents the information in an interface tailored specifically for the museum's requirements.

Alongside this metadata publishing process, we deployed a Cogapp Refinery Services pipeline. This pipeline provides highly scalable image publishing that supports the processing and delivery of deep-zoom imagery and IIIF manifests for the website.

The process for future publication of further museum collections is well defined and the museum team can do this independently ensuring that the collections online will grow for years to come.

Moving our industry forward

An open-source approach to support the wider community

Cogapp architected an open-source system that can be adopted by other institutions with similar aims to NHMD. The project is free for others to use as is or indeed to enhance and improve the platform. The architecture of the platform offers a particularly exciting opportunity for any institution that is already using GBIF or indeed Specify7.

“Creating Open Collections for Natural History is taking on an important task and a wonderful opportunity to inspire all.

You really shared this vision and pushed the limits of how well collections can be displayed for everyone. Working with such a creative team was great.”
Anders Drud, Head of Design + Digital

Global Biodiversity Information Facility

GBIF is an incredible tool for disseminating biodiversity information to those conducting research in this area. By tailoring our solution to use GBIF as a data source we have baked in the requirement for NHMD to push information to GBIF in order to present said information online in the museum’s online collection. This decision, made in partnership with the museum, has resulted in an incredible increase in GBIF submissions. The incentive of presenting collections on the NHMD site has the hard-wired benefit of sharing these same collections with the scientific community that use GBIF. This means that publishing collections on the NHMD online collection site provides additional value as it simultaneously increases access to the collections via GBIF with no additional effort for museum staff.

International Image Interoperability Framework

IIIF allows for the unifying of disparate collection items. The NHMD collections can now be loaded alongside specimens from other natural history collections or indeed any type of collection that supports IIIF whether it’s a library, archival or even an art collection.

Cogapp are keen advocates of IIIF, we have written many blog posts and helped provide IIIF access to millions of objects online. With this framework gathering momentum in the natural history collecting world NHMD are now well placed as leaders in this emerging and exciting area of digital access.

The system

The architecture of the NHMD open collections platform consists of the following components:

  • Cogapp Refinery Services IIIF pipeline
  • IIIF image server (Cantaloupe)
  • Datastore/Search Engine (Elasticsearch)
  • Web application
High-level technical architecture

The museum’s collections metadata was published to GBIF directly from Specify7. This meant that the collections information was then surfaced publicly via the GBIF API. It was from here that we at Cogapp interacted with the collections.

Our system does this in two ways:

  • Harvests information to populate our own Elasticsearch datastore to support vernacular search and some other advanced search features not supported by the GBIF API
  • Loads metadata directly to populate the front-end of the web application

Alongside the metadata, we populate the IIIF pipeline with images from the museum’s digitisation efforts. The museum simply drops the images into our pipeline using a standard file browsing interface. As and when new images are added our pipeline comes to life and converts these images into a IIIF compatible format and transfers them to the appropriate location to be served to the public via the image server software.

The final layer of this architecture is the web application. This Next.js application reads from the GBIF API, the datastore and the IIIF image server. The information gathered is combined and presented to the online audience in a user friendly, on-brand interface that works across all types of device, whether it’s desktop, mobile or tablet. This interface is fully accessible to WCAG AA standard.

Creating an environment where everyone can do their best work

This project was conceived during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic across international borders and was conducted in both Danish and English. Cogapp projects are often complex in terms of project management and geography. Given our history of working across continents and cultures we embraced the challenge and put in place our tried-and-tested processes to ensure close collaboration between our team and the team of experts at the museum.

We followed Agile principles in terms of how approached the project. We worked in focused periods lasting two weeks with a demo of the work completed at the end of each two-week period. All project stakeholders are invited to these demos; this keeps everyone engaged and is an excellent opportunity to glean initial feedback from everyone involved. The demos are recorded, if anyone is unavailable they can catch up in their own time.

Aside from our regular communications, via email and our shared project management tool, regular weekly calls were scheduled. These provided opportunities to discuss any issues or ideas in a timely fashion, face-to-face.

These meetings provided yet another avenue for the Cogapp team to immerse themselves in the domain knowledge of the museum. This knowledge sharing proved invaluable in analysing the collections data to make decisions on how to present them to the museum’s online audiences; it also aided the team’s efforts to design the user-interface and communicate the depth of the museum’s collections. These weekly calls were a constant source of ideas and creativity, they helped us gel and become a cohesive team across time zones.

We did frequent deep-dives to explore and experiment with the GBIF API. Through this research and prototyping we were able to maximise the value of working with the GBIF API.

Examples of additional material that we were able to draw from GBIF to enrich the metadata held within the museum’s collections management system include:

  • Threat status of endangered animals according to the ICUN Red List
  • Using the geolocation heat-map data in conjunction with the faceted search so visitors could use an interactive map to browse the collection

The team at NHMD were exceptionally generous with their time, this allowed the Cogapp team to truly immerse ourselves in the complex domain of biodiversity metadata and the taxonomies and language used to catalogue the natural world.

“Our cooperation in presenting detailed data was very encouraging. You were so inventive and enthusiastic about transforming DarwinCore exports into a readable format, and your dedication to getting the complexity of zoological nomenclature and published data right and displayed in a clear, usable way was really impressive.”
Tom Schiotte, Curator of Molluscs
Collection images can be downloaded for offline reuse and research

We play a useful part in our community and help to enable the urgent changes needed to ensure a sustainable future

We look forward to future collaboration and truly hope our work will inspire others to expand access to natural history collections. We hope our work can increase publication of this kind of information and have a positive impact to help ensure a sustainable future.

Natural History Museum of Denmark Open Collections


Open-source project


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