Meet the NatSCA Committee – Rachel Jennings

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Editor

Name: Rachel Jennings

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee? I am the Editor, responsible for managing our published content: Journal of Natural Science Collections, and NatSCA Notes & Comments.

Job title and institution: Documentation Assistant, Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Twitter username: @rachisaurus

Tell us about your day job: I work across the collections at the Horniman, but at the moment I am mostly focused on cataloguing and photographing objects selected for a major redisplay of our anthropology collection. I get to work with a fascinating variety of objects from all over the world. I’m really excited to see the new World Gallery when it opens next year.

Natural science collections are very popular with visitors. Why do you think this is? I think people love being able to experience aspects of nature that they’re unlikely to see in the wild. Museum collections can give them up-close encounters with the rare, the exotic, and the long-extinct. And, of course, there’s the cute factor!

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now? Museums in general are facing very uncertain times at the moment, with the funding landscape shifting constantly under our feet. Natural science collections are at risk due to loss of staff and expertise, and if the collections are lost, that would represent a huge loss to science. NatSCA is working to champion natural science collections, and advocate for the people who care for them. We collect information on collections at risk, and lobby for resources to maintain those collections.

What would be your career in an alternate universe without museums? The only other things I’ve ever wanted to do were to work with animals, or be a writer. So, I think that if I didn’t have museums, you’d probably find me in a zoo or out in the field on a conservation project. Or holed up in a cabin somewhere, still struggling on my first novel!

What is your favourite museum, and why? I have an enduring soft spot for Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, as it is where I got my first introduction to museum work. They have amazing collections and staff, and I will always be grateful for the experience.

Written by Rachel Jennings, Documentation and Collections Assistant, at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

Famous Flies – Petiver

Yes. That is the title and this is a blog telling you about some of them. I was tasked with the job of hunting through the thousands of drawers, the hundreds of jars and the millions of slides to find the most famous or most infamous of specimens within the Collection at the Natural History Museum London. I have worked on the fly collection at the museum for over ten years now but still regularly come across hidden gems in the collection. Just in the fly collection, we have approximately 3-4 million specimens (when you see jars swimming with flies you will understand why this estimate has such a large degree of error), that have been collected since the early 17th Century from every geographical region around the world. Some of the collectors are recognisable whilst others are less so but have come to mean so much to us who deal with the collection.

So, let me welcome you to the collection. It is arguably the best fly collection in the world – I admit I may be a little biased but please be patient with me. I get very excited about the flies and forget most of my impartiality.

The collection comprises 9000 drawers of pinned specimens, 2,500,000 specimens (or so) in jars, approximately 200,000 slides, and a further molecular collection (both DNA and tissues), frozen in liquid nitrogen tanks at -80oC. Some are housed in the most up to date cases that are appropriate for insect collections whilst others have been kept, preserved in time, exactly as they were when presented to the Museum. This is the case for some of the earliest preserved insect collections at the Museum.

The Natural History Museum was born thanks to the generosity and far sightedness of Sir Hans Sloane. He was an old-school collector and back in the 1800’s he amassed a collection of such importance that folks came from far and wide to visit and study it, including none other than Carl Linnaeus – the father of Binomial nomenclature. Sloane was not a collector of insects or other objects himself but rather a purchaser and receptor of other people’s collections. One of those acquired was from James Petiver, a shop keeper who owned an Apothecary store in London. As well as having herbs and spices necessary for his work, he also collected plants, shells and insects and had a vast network of friends and connections who passed them onto him too.

The boxes of books and the instructions of care.             © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Not only does the age of this collection merit attention, the majority were collected in the late 1700s, but also the method of storage. For these insects, butterflies, beetles, flies etc, were presented as flattened specimens in books. After ‘drowning’ the insects in ‘spirits’ he would press them between the leaves and here they remained for over 300 years. Unsurprisingly not many survived to the present day due to poor preservation but some did.

Unsurprisingly not many survived to the present day due to poor preservation but some did. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Not only do we have the books but we also have little boxes, and within these there are many insects and arachnids. More importantly for me there are many flies.

We also have little boxes. Lots of little boxes.                   © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

This collection has many questions associated with it, including where are the actual specimens from? A common problem and one that has obviously been there from the beginning of collecting. It is interesting to think though that even material that we have held in the NHM for hundreds of years still needs to be investigated.

But to me just looking at specimens of flies that are three hundred years old is quite something. Not all have them have survived – many specimens are ghosts of what they were.

© Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Amongst all of this, there are amazing specimens – some rather famous flies. Shown below are, we think, Eristalis arbustorum – a common hover fly found across Europe. These specimens here are some of the oldest preserved flies on the planet. There is an older collection but the flies are not as well preserved. These little boxes have been inspiring taxonomists for hundreds of years.

Hover flies. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Those hover flies are good but the real gem lies still within the pages of Petiver’s book and it is a rather odd looking hornet robber fly.

The hornet robberfly Asilus Crabroniformis. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

This has always been one of my favourite flies and this specimen is arguably the oldest specimen of this species in the world. It would be many years before this specimen even got a name!  And it is amazing to consider that for a specimen over 300 years old that, albeit being a bit squashed and misshaped, that it is still utterly recognisable and has retained its colour. Guess I should get around to entering that data to the British Robber fly scheme….

Written by Dr Erica McAlister, Collections Manager- Flies, Fleas, Arachnida, Myripoda, at the Natural History Museum, London.

NatSCA Digital Digest – March

The bob tailed squid. (Image from the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery)

What Should I See and Do?

The fantastic ‘Extinction or Survival‘ exhibition at the Manchester Museum is still on until the 26th April. If you are visiting nearby, then you must pop into this museum!

Something is coming…..Bristol Museum and Art Gallery will be having a prehistoric adventure with their new Pliosaur exhibition opening in June this year. Expect lots of fossils, digital recreations, and I hear there will be a life-sized model of their incredible specimen. More updates as the beast swims towards June…

What Can  I Apply For?

There is an opening for a curator of natural science at Birmingham Museums. With collections covering geology, botany and zoology, this post is an exciting opportunity! The deadline is 20th March, so hurry! More information on their website here.

Twitter

Keep your eyes out on Twitter for some great ways to share our collections. They are a great way of showing a much larger audience specimens in our store rooms. Have a look and join in!

February had the tongue in cheek #MuseumPromo hashtag that showed the wonderful ways curators pose for the press.

Every week there are a number of museum related hashtags to join in with, including #MineralMonday, #TaxidermyTuesday and #FossilFriday.

Journal online

After one year of publication, our Journal of Natural Science Collections is freely available online.

Volume 1 held exciting articles covering collections reviews, conservation projects and how to manage radioactive collections. All articles are freely available here.

Volume 2 includes articles about DNA damage to specimens, making models and how to create a successful social media strategy for your department. The articles are all freely available 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 new blog authors. Email us with your ideas at blog@natsca.org.

It’s all in the subconscious

Biologically speaking, women (in general) are built lighter than men and with less physical strength. In the past this has been used to decide that women are therefore weaker in all ways, including in intelligence, and even worse, in worth. Putting aside those people whose brains are wired a little strangely and believe it’s genuinely ok to be racist, homophobic, sexist, misogynistic, etc, society at large, full of good, caring and wonderful people, still has a curious way of putting men first.

It is often by accident and sometimes it’s even in an errant attempt to put women first; for example I recently read a headline that said ‘Top Female Scientist Discovers…’. Great! But if it had been a male scientist, it wouldn’t have said ‘Top Male Scientist Discovers…’, it would have said top scientist. This perpetuates the idea that a scientist is a man unless otherwise stated. Another example aimed at a more general audience is that infuriating feminine hygiene product advert that has a sassy DJ jumping up and down saying ‘As a woman, I can step aside or step up’. Erm actually, men have the choice of whether to step aside or step up too. Being trod down and overlooked is not just for women.

For me, International Women’s Day is about two main objectives:

  • Reversing the damage done to any and every woman’s subconscious about what they are capable of, how seriously they should be taken, and how high up the career ladder they should be able to go. To name a few examples. We can do this by celebrating women’s achievements, encouraging our female colleagues to push harder, and mentoring younger generations to succeed.*
  • Reversing the gender stereotyping that still leaks its way into the minds of good people, men and women, and alters their subconscious beliefs. A random example, and not to point fingers, is WhatsApp who only recently brought out male and female emoticons for scientists/astronauts/runners, etc. This is a great step in the right direction but up until their release, it was another subtle, if accidental, way in which women are made second best in the subconscious of everyday people.

The new and improved range of emoticons

 

So, to start/continue the celebrations of International Women’s Day, here is a number of amazing natural history related articles and blogs for your enjoyment and dissemination:

ZSL Celebrates Dr Joan Procter for International Women’s Day, by Zoological Society of London

International Women’s Day; ARKive

IUCN Celebration of International Women’s Day; International Union for Conservation of Nature

Raising Horizons: Portraits of women in science; British Antarctic Survey

RSPB celebrates its female founders; Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (from 2014)

Namesake Minerals #3; Pangeology

* Obviously we should all do this for men too!

Neither a borrower nor a lender be?

An exceptionally fragile Blaschka glass model of a radiolarian in Dublin.

An exceptionally fragile Blaschka glass model of a radiolarian in Dublin – would you lend it?

In museums, collections are key. They are the resource that we rely on to drive our exhibitions, research, outreach, educational activities and even our marketing. We use this resource sustainably, ensuring it will be available for future generations. Our policies and standards protect them, keeping them safe by providing an appropriate environment and managing access – and while this is not always easy, at least we have control.

And then there are loans.

Loans are an area fraught with worry for the museum professional, since they take our objects from an environment that we understand and place them in a new environment that we don’t know and don’t control. There are processes and systems in place to manage this – the UKRG provide useful report templates for facilities, cases and security, so we can find out all the important details about where our object is going and how safe it will be when it gets there. There’s a lot of paperwork involved and when trying to organise insurance valuations and the various rights to take and use images it can get complicated. Of course this quagmire of agreements applies to the borrower too.

Then there is that tricky bit which involves the object moving to its temporary home. You can’t just send a delicate object from one safe, secure and cosy case to another by chucking it in the back of a van – it would rather defeat the point. That’s where art handlers and couriers come in. People trained in handling delicate objects and getting them from A to B without rendering them into a pile of dust. Of course, to do this safely the objects need to be properly packed for transport, so they are inspected, supported and carefully cushioned, to minimise the risk of damage.

fedex

Not chucked in the back of a truck. Carefully packaged, cushioned and secured in the back of an air-ride, art-handling truck.

This isn’t such a problem when taking some plastic dinosaurs around the corner (my last job at the Grant Museum was couriering a loan for the Making Nature exhibition at the Wellcome), but it was at the forefront of my mind when I was asked to courier two Blaschka glass models back from the USA during my first month in my new job as Zoology Curator at the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History (affectionately known by locals as the Dead Zoo). We have the largest collection of Blaschkas in Europe and before I started we had lent two of them to the cracking (pun intended) Corning Museum of Glass, which is in Upstate New York.

dinosaurs

Dinosaurs from the Grant Museum of Zoology on loan to the Wellcome for ‘Making Nature’.

The Blaschkas are popular in the art world so they are quite valuable, they’re old and thin glass so they’re very fragile and because they were hand-crafted using techniques that died with Rudolf Blaschka in 1939 they are irreplaceable. So no pressure.

dsc06064-edited

In the process of supporting the base of a Blaschka anemone.

I’ve had to move Blaschkas before and it’s always a bit of a nerve-wracking experience, but I was fortunate that Corning has some of the best glass conservators in the world on hand to help pack the objects. In fact, the whole trip was carefully planned by Masterpiece International and the excellent registration teams in Corning and Dublin. The people I worked with were all very experienced and diligent professionals who dealt with everything, including driving the FedEx truck, art storage, preflight clearance, in fact everything to standing on the airport tarmac overseeing the loading onto and off the plane. All I had to worry about was the objects themselves. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know that they safely made the journey home in one piece.

crate

The specimens crated up, strapped down and covered with sensors to tell what kid of forces it was exposed to in the hold of the plane.

On my return I had a more fiddly loan to deal with myself. The Museum has a lot of type material that needs to be accessible for scientific purposes and I had a loan request from a researcher in Italy. Now research loans aren’t like exhibition loans, since the real value of the material lies is in its scientific importance, which is only unlocked if the specimen can be used for research. The loan conditions for this sort of specimen tend to be along the lines of “send it back when you’re finished”, “cite the specimen properly when you publish” and “don’t cut it up without asking us first”.

research_loan

Not as pretty as a Blaschka, but much more important to science.

Transporting these sorts of specimens is a rather different process to managing a loan for exhibition, since it is illegal to take specimens stored in alcohol or formalin on a plane. However, the classification of specimens as Dangerous Goods when handled by a registered carrier like FedEx or DHL changed in 2011 and as long as certain packing requirements are met specimens in fluid can be sent using a carrier.

At least in theory.

In practice it took several weeks of being passed between different departments and badgering a variety of people before I finally managed to get the package sent. The only reason I didn’t give up was the glimmer of hope from the advice I received from Miranda Lowe at the NHM (who happens to also be a valued member of the NatSCA committee) who told me the secret of the IATA Special Provision A180 to Ship Preserved Specimens and assured me it was possible. I have since managed three overseas research loans now that the systems in place. Thanks Miranda!

Managing loans is a lot of work, but it’s an important part of making collections accessible, so it is worth the effort!

Making Nature; at Wellcome Collection

Budgie specimens illustrating colour variations (c) Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Budgie specimens illustrating colour variations (c) Trustees of the Natural History Museum

In December the exhibition Making Nature: How we see animals opened at London’s Wellcome Collection. Rather than being an exhibition of natural history (because natural history museums are better placed to provide such things), it is an exhibition about natural history. Wellcome is fundamentally interested in humans, and Making Nature explores the human perspective on nature. How do we engage with and try to make sense of the natural world?

The exhibition takes us through four different themes – ordering, displaying, observing and making nature. Together, they demonstrate that human ways of encountering, standardising and talking about nature are essentially unnatural. But it’s the only way we know how.

This is not an impartial review of the exhibition, as I was involved in it for over a year as its natural history consultant, but what I will say as a natural history museum professional is that I don’t think that a natural history museum could have put on this exhibition.

Wellcome Collection goes by the strapline “a free destination for the incurably curious”, has permanent galleries around the history of science and medicine with a lot of science-inspired art, and a varied temporary exhibitions programme. With these “it explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future”. I think they have carved out a niche for themselves whereby they are distant enough from the natural history sector to impartially critique it, but close enough to have a good view.

Not that Making Nature is critical of natural history museums, but it tells the story of our discipline, through those four themes, in a way where the human story – rather than the animal or plant one – is at the centre.

Opening with the “Ordering” section, the exhibition considers the artificial structures that humans have imposed upon the natural world through our varied taxonomic systems, asking why and how we have sought to classify. Linnaeus is obviously the focus, but any fans of taxonomic history will be pleased to see that the fictitious classification of Jorge Luis Borges (who claimed it was from an ancient Chinese text called “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge”) is included.

Mocking the idea that all attempts to classify are artificial (as much as they are essential), he splits all animals into 14 categories:

Those that belong to the emperor

Embalmed ones

Those that are trained

Suckling pigs

Mermaids (or Sirens)

Fabulous ones

Stray dogs

Those that are included in this classification

Those that tremble as if they were mad

Innumerable ones

Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush

Et cetera

Those that have just broken the flower vase

Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

The exhibition is arguably more 3D that many that Wellcome produce (which often heavily rely on 2D art and library special collections), which reflects the object-based focus of natural history. Objects have been borrowed from a wide number of institutions and there are some real treats in there – Darwin’s pigeons and a Linnaean type specimen are among them.

(c) Richard Ross, Museum National D'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France 1982 2-1

(c) Richard Ross, Museum National D’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France 1982 2-1

The art is also particularly evocative. In the “Displaying” section, which puts the magnifying glass up to the practices of natural history museums and the ways in which their displays neither truly reflect the natural world, or indeed their own stored collections. I was taken by a piece by Hiroshi Sugimoto. It is a fantastically crisp photograph of a large museum diorama, with all suggestion that it is not a photograph of a real, living habitat having been removed. The casing, glass, and boundaries between the painted background and the 3D objects are imperceptible. It makes one think about the way we see natural history specimens (and indeed “How we see animals” is the tag line for the whole exhibition).

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Galapagos, 1980 © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy Pace Gallery.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Galapagos, 1980 © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy Pace Gallery.

The arrangement and architecture of natural history museums (particularly the one in South Kensington), as well as zoos, get examined in the Displaying and Observing sections, picking apart the politics behind the designs. Finally, the exhibition ends on the eponymous “Making” nature section, which was curated by the Center for Post-Natural History in Pittsburgh.

This section focuses on animals that have been modified by people, through artificial selection and genetic engineering. Richard Pell, the Director of the Center tells an interesting story of how he came to notice that natural history museums collections are not even in their coverage, and how the hand of human interest impacts the natural world, and our relationship with it. Whilst working at a major American museum, he noticed that the rodent collections were heavily biased towards sites where the US had undertaken nuclear testing.

Making Nature was an absolute joy to work on, it allowed me to take a step away from the natural history museum and explore stories that we would not be able to tell ourselves.

Making Nature: How we see animals is on at Wellcome Collection until 21st May 2017.

Written by Jack Ashby, Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, University Ccollege London

The Robot Zoo: A Must-See Exhibition

This bat robot is nearly 20 x life-size. The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

This bat robot is nearly 20 x life-size. The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The reaching-for-the-moon aim of any natural history exhibition is to get the perfect combination of knock-your-socks-off-fun and wow-I-didn’t-know-that-informative, for both children and adults, because (obviously) that attracts the biggest crowd.

Appealing to everyone is pretty much an unobtainable goal. A wise man, who I call Dad, once relayed the phrase to me ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time’*. However some, albeit rare, exhibitions, through some manner of dark magic combined with an alignment of moons from all over the universe manage to come together in such a way that the exhibition is branded as ‘outstanding’ and ‘captivating’ by journalists and listed as ‘fun for all the family’ on websites and What to do with the kids this half-term guides. These exhibitions are termed blockbusters and are the envy of their less popular exhibition counterparts.

The Robot Zoo, you will probably have guessed by that prologue, is one such exhibition. I had nothing to do with its inception nor its creation, it’s a touring exhibition that has nested temporarily at the Horniman Museum until October. However, as Deputy Keeper of Natural History at said Museum, I feel a level of temporary ownership and pride in its success. Thus I shall sing and dance about it from now until October when it leaves us for another galaxy gallery far, far away.

Full sized white rhinoceros at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Full-sized white rhinoceros at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The exhibition, as it stands in our exhibition space, comprises eight huge animatronic animals, ranging from a full-scale white rhino (second largest land mammal in the world no less) to a gigantic house fly that is 200 x life-size (it’s really not as creepy as that sounds). Each of the models are colourful, moving (kinetically, not emotionally necessarily), and for the most part, interactive. You can lift the head of a white rhino using a crane, which goes some way to demonstrating the immense power of these beautiful animals in real life. You can also change the colours of the chameleon to make it feel either angry or sexy. Presumably, as it’s Valentine’s Day today, it will mostly be feeling sexy, though given the number of people visiting for half-term I suspect this week is going to be a rollercoaster of emotions.

The robots are built out of familiar human objects like microphones and light bulbs, which recreate the internal anatomy of the animals in a way that highlights their special features and biological adaptations. For example, the electrical sensors in the bill of the platypus are represented by large flashing lights (see below), and the mouth parts and digestive system of the house fly have been replaced by a vacuum cleaner that lights up to visually demonstrate how they suck up their self-liquefied lunch**.

Platypus model at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Platypus model at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Dotted around the exhibition are 11 interactive stations that allow you to see, swim and stick to a wall, like the animals featured in the exhibition. You can camouflage against a background like a chameleon (or not if you pick up the wrong outfit), or if you’re feeling more techy, you can echolocate like a bat. You just measure the distance to the prey, you don’t have to eat the bugs.

The colourful information panels, annotated images, interactive games, and impressively sized, moving and flashing animals (not in an inappropriate way) are what make this exhibition the gold star combination of knock-your-socks-off-fun and wow-I-didn’t-know-that-informative. It has something for every attention span, from those who got distracted from this blog before reaching the end of the first paragraph, to the type who reads every exhibition panel and takes notes to boot. (That’s me). I thoroughly advise paying The Robot Zoo a visit, and even better, you don’t need children as an excuse.

*Originally said by John Lydgate

**A fly will dribble saliva onto its meal which begins the digestion process externally. It will then suck up the liquefied goop. Yum.

Written by Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens