Stirring the hornet’s nest – are natural science collections even legal?

I was wrapping up a particularly difficult male peacock with a helper a few weeks ago and we were discussing natural science collections. “Do you think one day they’ll just be made illegal?” she asked, straight-faced and sincere. I was miffed – this was someone saying to a natural science curator that really, it shouldn’t be allowed. I sighed and spent the rest of the wrapping session (porcupine was also tricky) explaining how wonderful – and legal – natural science collections are.

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Meet the NatSCA Committee – Lucie Mascord

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Ordinary Member

Name: Lucie Mascord

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee? I am the new Conservation Representative

Job title and institution: Conservator of Natural History, Lancashire Conservation Studios

Twitter username: @LuceGraham

Tell us about your day job: I am a specialist natural history conservator, working for a museums service and my own business. In both, I provide conservation services to the heritage and private sector. This is mainly in the North West – everywhere from Cumbria or to Cheshire, but my work has taken me all over the country which means I get to visit lots of new collections.

My role covers all scope of natural history collections but I specialise in bone, fluid preserved collections and taxidermy. My work is incredibly varied; as well as a conservator I am a preparator – preparing bone, skins, taxidermy and fluid preserved material. I can spend 200 hours plus conserving a single specimen, or carry out a whole collection survey in 72 hours! I also provide training to institutions in natural history collections care.

 

Visiting the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée

Natural science collections are very popular with visitors. Why do you think this is?

Overall, I think it is about innate curiosity – the natural world is deeply fascinating and diverse. The reason natural history collections are popular with children is they are still in that stage of uninhibited curiosity.

Our interest and relationship to natural history collections has changed and evolved over time, but I have also observed that some of those traditional links with natural history collections are being revived. I think hobbyist specimen collecting and preparing is having a resurgence; there are more curiosity shops and natural history dealerships popping up; and natural history has been all over interior design for years now. It is very evident that we are in a taxidermy popularity peak at the moment, unfortunately it’s for reasons I don’t much like – the morbid factor. Isn’t it fashionable to be macabre! This very much celebrates badly crafted and poorly preserved specimens (very Victoriana). On the other hand, this is an engaged audience whom we can positively interest in our collections.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now?

I think everyone in the community would agree that the loss of specialist knowledge and skills is really concerning. I am particularly concerned that these are also undervalued. We are continually having the conversation about whether we need them, and I think “specialists” within the museum community can often be characterised as inflexible, uncompromising and routed in “old-fashioned” practice when it comes to the use of our collections. This is an erroneous stereotype. Natural history collections, more so than any other, have to progress with research and science so not to become redundant.

With natural history conservation, these risks to skills are further magnified. There are very few specialists nowadays, and little appreciation of how vital the skills involved are. In many museum roles, we all find ourselves asked to take on more, this may sometimes manifest itself in untrained staff taking on conservation work on natural history collections. This would never be considered acceptable on oil paintings, so why should it be acceptable on other materials! Even within the conservation sector the specialist role can be overlooked.

We need to stand firm on our position on the need for specialist skills, and demand that our specialists are utilised in the work with our collections, and in training.

What would be your career in an alternate universe without museums?

I never wanted a 9-5 job or a desk job. I studied in human anatomy, and rather fancy myself as a forensic pathologist. I also wanted to pursue my art and anatomical illustration. In many ways, my current career is a good mix of all those things.

What is your favourite museum, and why?

I have a soft spot for the place I started my career as a volunteer, the Victoria Gallery and Museum at the University of Liverpool. It is worth visiting alone just to see the incredible Waterhouse architecture and glazed tile interior.

My favourite natural history collection is the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée in Paris, but the top spot has to go to the People’s History Museum in Manchester – sometimes it’s good to have a break from natural history. It’s invigorating to visit a museum that challenges you and inspires change.

Written by Lucie Mascord, Conservator of Natural History, and NatSCA Committee Member.

NatSCA Digital Digest – July

What Should I Read?

If you like a good nose, the second part of TetZoo’s Elephant Seal article has just been published, which you can read here. And here is a thoughtfully placed link to the first part in case you missed it and wanted to catch up.

For a fun bit of ‘history of natural history’, this article is all about the secret that the Natural History Museum’s blue whale has been hiding since the 1930s, unknown to anyone until it’s recent clean prior to the big unveiling next week. Those naughty conservators… chuckle.

Whilst some of this article raised my quizzical-shark-scientist’s-eyebrow, such as the scale bar for instance, researchers believe they have uncovered a big clue as to why the Megalodon went extinct. Definitely worth a read if, like everyone, you like sharks. Although this article came out in January, it is receiving media attention at the moment so I thought I’d treat you to it.

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Private Bone/Taxidermy Collection: The Good, The Bad and The Illegal

This article is re-posted from the Adventures in Natural History Illustration blog by natural history illustrator Beth Windle.

This blog has taken a while to write. It’s a complicated subject that can be hard to condense into a simple blog post. However, I feel that it is now necessary to write about it due to growing, worrying, illegal, and unethical trends that are resurfacing due to a private natural history collection resurgence in recent years. Aside from this, I am aware of the positive aspects of private collections and therefore I do not want to come across as too preachy or completely ridicule those with private collections who work extremely hard to promote conservation and education. But I feel that some things now need to be said, as well as how these new problems need to be fixed with realistic solutions. Continue reading

Confessions of an Amateur Aquarist: Having an Aquarium in a Museum Exhibition

Sea Life: Glimpses of the Wonderful‘ is the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery’s (RAMM) 2017 summer exhibition. It takes inspiration from the works of PH Gosse. Gosse was a Victorian naturalist who lived near Torquay and spent his time exploring the coast. He wrote many popular books and RAMM is fortunate to have over 100 of his original artworks.

Devonshire cup coral. Teaching aid drawn in coloured chalk by PH Gosse. (Image courtesy of Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery).

Gosse is well known for his interest in aquariums. He invented the word aquarium and was among the first to keep animals alive successfully. In 1856 he published a book; ‘The aquarium: an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea’, and was also partly responsible for the aquarium craze that gripped Victorian England.

The exhibition team decided that no exhibition on rock pooling and aquariums was complete without a real one set up in the gallery.  Kids keep fish as pets – can’t be that hard … or so we thought. I’d like to share a few things we have learnt over the past few months: Continue reading

Portrait of a Sensitive, Armoured Snout

Unraveling an ancient mystery

Picturing the world of the prehistoric is often likened to a jigsaw puzzle: one in which each new piece starts a whole new puzzle. Your pieces are scattered across all the museum stores in the world or weathering out of the ground. The quality is variable and some of the pieces are warped. In some cases we get lucky and find an immaculately preserved specimen, like the ones being uncovered in China, with evidence of soft tissue still preserved. In other cases, we must rely on osteological correlates in living animals to work out what’s going on.

Palaeontologist Mark Witton recently wrote a post
about a group of predatory dinosaurs called abelisaurs. These animals have a rough, cornified texture to their skulls. Living animals with a comparable bone texture usually have hardened, reinforced skin. Hippopotamus faces regularly endure blows from rival hippo teeth and, while scarring occurs, lasting damage is usually avoided. Some theropod dinosaurs* show bite scars on their faces which suggest that something similar was happening with these too. Hardened, armoured skin would be very useful here. However…

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We are used to thinking of armour in the mediaeval knight or Kevlar sense of the word. This is not quite how tough hide works in living animals and apparently not for extinct ones either.

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Neovenator salerii, showing neurovascular regions. Image property of Darren Naish, shown here with permission.

Enter Neovenator

A new paper, published today by Chris Tijani Barker and colleagues, point to a network of sensory canals in the snout of Neovenator salerii – an early Cretaceous allosauroid theropod. The type specimen, held at the Museum of Isle of Wight Geology, has all the hallmarks of abelisaur-style facial armour but also sensory features similar to those found in crocodiles.

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Crocodile facial tissue is both tough and sensitive, like a gauntlet that can read Braille.

It’s most intriguing because, in 2014, Nizar Ibrahim and colleagues highlighted sensory pits in Spinosaurus as one of a suite of characteristics that demonstrate aquatic behaviour. That paper ricocheted around social media like a gunshot, with many critiques of the revised limb proportions of Spinosaurus

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New-look Spinosaurus. Image property of Natee Himmapaan, shown here with permission.

but very little attention was paid to the sensory pits – until now. Neovenator is a clearly terrestrial carnivore, built for land-based activity, yet it has these sensory features on its snout which allow the face to respond to subtle touch stimuli. The paper goes into other examples of animals that have such protective face coverings and delicate sense of touch: duck beaks to name but one. I shan’t steal the paper’s thunder by reciting them all here – it’s well worth a read if you’re curious. One of the paper’s contributors, Darren Naish, has also written up the discovery here.

Perhaps we will see another revision of the Spinosaurus material when the long-awaited monograph comes out, now that yet another feature has fallen into the “not necessarily aquatic” category, we can only wait and see. Regardless, Neovenator is an interesting specimen in its own right and I’m sure it has even more secrets to yield.

* I’m explicitly not naming that species: It already gets the lion’s share of press coverage and is mentioned in unrelated press articles, it’s about time it was ignored in related ones.

 

Unexpected Natural History in a Sporting Museum

As a Curator at a Sporting Museum you may be wondering how my blog relates to Natural Science Collections… I am lucky enough to work at the National Horseracing Museum; part of the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art, recently shortlisted for Museum of the Year 2017!

A major redevelopment and move to a 5 acre site has allowed the Museum a huge expansion.  Our new galleries include exhibitions dedicated to the science of the sport and the racehorse. Within these we are fortunate to possess some specimens on long term loan as well as some wonderful new loans from our fellow, and more obviously natural science, museums.

The redevelopment has been a great way to (rapidly) develop collection handling, packing and moving skills!

The redevelopment has been a great way to (rapidly) develop collection handling, packing and moving skills! (© National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art and Animal Health Trust).

The skeleton of racehorse Hyperion was on display in our old Museum and formed the main focus of the previous scientific displays along with a small veterinary collection.  We have a few other equine specimens in the permanent and loan collection; two taxidermied horse heads, a tail and, my particular favourite, our mini spirit collection of 3 horse forelimbs and an aneurysm. Continue reading