NatSCA Digital Digest September

(Image from the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery)

What  should I read?

Love the posters at this years NatSCA conference? Want to read and admire them in more detail? You can! Read them with pleasure at your leisure, because they are now all available free to look at!

Did you know there were ten different species of mammoth? A long read over your lunch time, spanning 5 million years in fact, visiting some very big and some very small mammoths!

A great piece by Mark Carnall, Life Collections Manager at Oxford University Museum of Natural History , looking at rudely shaped rocks! A fun piece with giants, owls and very early palaeontology.

What do you call woodlice?

Just one of the many species of woodlice. Or is that roly poly, or sow bug, or …. (Image by Franco Filini, Public Domain)

A little map of woodlice names was shared on BBC’s Springwatch blog earlier this week. It has led to dozens more names of woodlice. Jan Freedman (that’s me!) is gathering up names and wants to update the map, so do get in touch if you know of any historic references or names.

What can I see?

The Dinosaurs of China exhibition at Wollaton Hall is on until the end of October. Visit beautiful grounds with deer, and explore some truly magnificent creatures in the exhibition, from the time of the dinosaurs.

The newly refurbished Hintz Hall at the Natural History Museum, London is fully opened, and takes visitors through extraordinary examples of life on Earth, and at the centre of which, is the magnificent Blue Whale skeleton: impressive in itself, but also a symbol of hope for life on our planet.

Training and conferences

If you are interested in putting a little life into your displays and exhibitions, then come along to the next NatSCA seminar: Bringing the Dead to Life. This seminar looks at how you can brighten up your label and panel text, work with partners for exhibitions, display taxidermy, and a lot more. Tickets are just £20 (member) and £40 (non-member), and booking closes on September 21st. Book here.

The Geological Curators Group annual conference and AGM is on 14th-15th November 2017 in Dublin and will focus on best practice examples of store moves. The conference aims to share real life examples with help others.

Jobs

There are several jobs at the Natural History Museum London, which can be found here. Jobs include:

  • Digital Project Manager
  • 2ND Line Support Analyst
  • Postdoc Researcher (NERC Bees)
  • Marketing Executive
  • Researcher (Invertebrates and Plants)

The University of Leicester is currently looking for a lecturer in Museums Studies. For more information, click here.

Before You Go…

If you have seen an exhibition, visited a museum, or want to tell us about your work, do get in touch as we are always looking for material from external authors. Email us with your ideas at blog@natsca.org.

Written by Jan Freedman; Curator at Plymouth Museum, and NatSCA Committee Member.

A Blog from the Up and Coming

In 2016 I graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Zoology from the University of Reading. I picked the degree because I always loved animals and really enjoyed science at school. But studying zoology has given me a whole new appreciation for the natural world and a new interest in palaeontology and natural history collections. During my degree, I had access to the university’s lovely little museum, called the Cole Museum of Zoology. I had many practical lessons based on the Cole’s collections, and even did my final year dissertation on studying their ichthyosaur fossils.

In addition to this, I was lucky enough to gain a lot of work experience there through volunteering and doing summer placements. Initially, I helped with cataloguing the Cole’s seashell collection into a little notebook. But eventually I was assisting with rehousing a huge fossil collection, which involved re-boxing specimens, identifying the material, generating unique accession numbers for them and creating new records for a database. I enjoyed my time at the Cole very much and was sad to say goodbye after graduating and moving back to London.

Some beautiful cone shells, belonging to the Cole Museum of Zoology’s shell collection.

Life after graduation was fairly chilled at first, free from university deadlines and the horrors of exam stress! Eventually I began working in retail while I continued to look for a career in science research or more interestingly… natural history museums. But I was beginning to lose hope as these kinds of opportunities were very competitive and felt very rare. I really started to miss being in the museum environment (and dislike being in retail… sales assistants have feelings too!).

However, I started to feel hope again when last year I met with Dean Lomax, ichthyosaur expert and palaeontological whizz, who was very interested in my own ichthyosaur research. After I told him I wanted to get back into palaeontology, he recommended I contact Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls, the Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, to see if there were any volunteering opportunities. Fortunately, they had a position available in the volunteering department and before I knew it, I was volunteering for a natural history collection again and surrounded by beautiful belemnites, brachiopods, graptolites, trilobites etc… my inner nerd was free again!

It was wonderful to be back in a museum environment, sorting through these ancient fossils that I had missed being around. It has also been a great experience learning how to use museum software. Previously at the Cole, I had been using simple Excel spreadsheets to catalogue and update records for specimens. But at the Horniman, I have learnt how to use the collections management system, Mimsy XG, and I feel a little bit more like a museum professional!

I definitely have a soft spot for palaeontology, and volunteering for the Bennett Collection of fossils at the Horniman has reminded me of my appreciation and fascination of these extinct creatures, and how I (somewhat weirdly) find enjoyment in the systematic organisation of natural science collections through areas such as taxonomy and locality (I didn’t think I could sound any nerdier!).

I have been volunteering here for a while now and if there is one thing I love about volunteering at the Horniman, it’s that everybody working there always seems so calm and friendly! Much unlike the horror stories I’ve heard from my sisters about working in finance or for the government… it is definitely the type of work environment I’d like to be in.

Alongside getting my paleontological fix every week at the Horniman, I continue another passion of mine that is inspired by the natural world – my animal illustrations. I have always enjoyed art and drawing animals. More recently, I have become quite the fan of painting detailed illustrations of animals in watercolour. Artwork which I can only hope one day will end up as prints for people to bring a touch of nature into their homes (or maybe even to add a splash of colour to a natural history book?). I can only dream! I regularly post new artwork on my Instagram account, @rmistryyy, so please do follow!

 

My experience at the Horniman Museum has reminded me of the importance of preserving these incredible historic collections. They’re significant for their contribution to geological and fossils records, studying the evolutionary relationships of past and living organisms and even to predict the ecological effects of future events that may have also occurred in the past. Plus, although I may play a very small role in the process, it feels great to be a part of it.

Written By Rashmi Mistry, Volunteer at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

What is a museum curator made of? Slugs and snails and puppy dog tails, and then some…

We’ve all been asked it – what do you actually do as a zoology curator…

Some years ago, in a post I can no longer find, @morethanadodo responded with a long list that ranged from bar-tender to expert on name-your- taxon. Oh, how we laughed… In my long service at the Hunterian in Glasgow I have had the privilege of curating all sorts of zoology material – today I am a coral expert, tomorrow I’m puzzling over pickling fish correctly…

However, over the years, in addition to curating the zoology collection, my remit expanded to include the anatomy and pathology collections and most recently a collection of materia medica. ‘Wot dat?’ you may well ask. Well, essentially it’s an apothecary/pharmacology collection and could easily be the original ‘animal, vegetable, mineral’ quiz. In University museums, unsurprisingly and quite typically you are offered and acquire collections that have been made by former or existing academic staff in the course of their research and teaching. Given the collections are made for those
purposes, they usually require processing to get up to museum standards.

The collection in question is that made by Professor Ralph Stockman, (1861-1946), Regius Professor of Materia Medica 1897 – 1937 at the University of Glasgow. Stockman, born in Leith and educated at Edinburgh University, was a medical doctor who worked as an influential and successful clinician and an academic scientist in what was then called medical chemistry.

Ralph Stockman, University of Glasgow UGSP00223

Ralph Stockman (image from University of Glasgow, UGSP00223)

His research interests were wide and he published extensively on topics such as the physiological factors influencing conditions/diseases like anaemia, arthritis and rheumatism, lathyrism in man and animals, pellagra and ergotism; the pharmacological action of drugs including the salicylates, the opioids and neuro or muscle toxins; and the history of medicine. His collection is an amazing mix of mainly plant-based material with copious amounts of foodstuffs such as lentils, beans, and rice but also includes animal remains and assorted salts, crystals, metals and rocks. Truly, it was like working
in Severus Snape’s store cupboard crossed with a health food store…

Here are a few of the special things we found:

spirocid Bayer jar

Spirocid – one of a set of drug sample bottles from the early days of now giant pharma company Bayer. Spirocid was used to treat syphilis.

Schering jars

Various chemicals in historic presentation jars from pharma company Schering.

dragons blood

Dragons’ Blood – sadly not literally… the hard-to-read label (sorry) says it is from the plant Calamus ie Acorus calamus or sweet flag. Dragon’s Blood is a red resin extracted from a number of different plants and used as medicine (for many ailments) , dye and varnish.

fancy Ephedra jar

Ephedra sinica – Chinese ephedra. Contains the alkaloid decongestant ephedrine. Very decorative jar – touch of the old style ’Evening in Paris’ perfume bottle about it…

dried toad

Dried toad – is what it says on the jar…..

We safely cleaned, inventoried, packed and moved nearly 1000 items in this collection in under a week and this would not have been possible without the help of museum studies student volunteers – huge thanks to Maia, Alix and Melissa. I got three hardworking, enthusiastic, capable and willing helpers – what did they get out of it? Hands-on experience in real-world wrangling of collections – its not like in the museum studies text books y’know…

It was a relatively orderly collection all in one place (that’s a good start…) but hadn’t had professional curatorial attention in a long time. Some collection documentation turned up late in the day so there hasn’t yet been time to properly examine that. Of course this was a job that had to be done in a hurry, situated in a building where we hadn’t worked before, with slope-y floor and inadequate trolleys.

We carted in all the kit we needed for the job, as not being our space, there wasn’t anything on-hand. Building staff were great – giving us working space, temporary storage space and generally fetching us things like bin bags when we forgot to bring our own. And indeed we attracted attention sitting working in a corridor where this collection was housed– we even garnered an extra bit of collection history from a passing pharmacologist…

Job done – it is an amazing collection, a significant acquisition for the Hunterian, we all enjoyed working on it and it is bursting with possibilities for interesting projects.

 

Written by Maggie Reilly, Curator of Zoology, Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery and NatSCA’s Membership Secretary.

NatSCA Digital Digest

ndd-chinasaurs2

What Should I Read?

I encourage you to read Darren Naish‘s recent post on the “Mountain Beaver”, an unusual rodent which is not a member of the beaver family, nor is it mountain-dwelling. The article also goes into other members of the aplodontoidea so, if you like horned extinct cousins of the squirrel (of course you do), it’s well worth a read.

Why do all the beautiful things crack? Paintings by old masters, antique furniture, … and historical taxidermy. The Grant Museum has been running a project where they take their important taxidermy specimens in for essential conservation work and place stuffed toys on display in their place. A chance to see Jack Ashby‘s favourite teddy? You’d be crazy not to. For an example of the beautiful restoration work carried out by Lucie Mascord, check out this piece on the Owl Formerly Known as Googly-eyed.

What Should I Do?

What are you doing on the 22nd September? Keep it free if you can because we have a great workshop event coming up called Bringing the Dead to Life: How to Display Museum Natural Science. Among other things, you will hear testimonies from the Lapworth Museum, who were recently shortlisted for Museum of the Year.

If you haven’t been to Wollaton Hall yet, stop what you’re doing and go now. They are currently hosting a temporary exhibition called Dinosaurs of China, which I cannot recommend strongly enough. It was also the set for Wayne Manor in the recent Batman movies, as if you needed any further encouragement.

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy (SVPCA) is holding their 65th symposium next month. It’s in Birmingham this time and culminates with a field trip to the afore-mentioned Chinasaurs exhibit, so you get both. I’ll be there so do come and say hi if you’re going.

What Should I listen to?

NatSCA patron Ben Garrod is going to be on BBC Radio 4 next week, with a new series called Bone Stories. You can tune in to it here.

I’ve been having great fun listening to a podcast called Palaeo After Dark. If you like your podcasts polished and concise then this probably isn’t for you but there’s some really interesting discussion in there and plenty of comedy value. If you’re looking for something new to get into, I recommend it.

Before You Go

Our Emma Louise Nicholls is getting married tomorrow! Please join me in wishing her a fantastic day and a long and happy union.

 

The formerly googly-eyed owl

The long-eared owl: BEFORE. LDUCZ-Y1604

In a move unprecedented in Specimen of the Week history, I have chosen to blogify the same specimen as I selected in my last Specimen of the Week. The reason is that in many ways it is not the same specimen as it was six weeks ago: it has undergone a profound transformation. We used to call this specimen “the googly-eyed owl”, due to its comedy wonky eyes, but it is googly-eyed no longer. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.