To dress a wolf

I like a nice little link to a place I am visiting. And there is a wonderful (if not a little tenuous) link between where I work in Plymouth and Cambridge. Charles Darwin studied theology at University of Cambridge in the old oak clad lecture theatres. And it was through the connections he made at Cambridge that set him on board the HMS Beagle, on a journey that would change the world of scientific thinking forever. The HMS Beagle, with Darwin and all the crew, set sail from in Plymouth after a three month delay. It’s a neat little link.

With such a strong historic links to science, there was perhaps no better place suited to hold the NatSCA conference 2017. Even the theme title linked in, with a little nod to Darwin (those clever committee members): Evolving ideas: provocative new ways of working with collections.

Despite being at the tail end of an enormous £3 million redevelopment project, The Cambridge Museum of Zoology hosted the conference. This was the biggest NatSCA conference to date, with 110 delegates attending. With this in mind, and the huge pressures with their redevelopment project, all the museum staff made it seemed effortless. Natalie Jones, Matt Lowe and colleagues at the Museum of Zoology did a fantastic job with everything from the set up to organising the conference meal.

The newly hung Finback Whale at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. (Photo by Paolo Viscardi)

The talks over the two days certainly were provocative, engaging and inspiring. There was quite a range of fantastic speakers from all over the UK, and even from Berlin, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. With 26 talks in total, it is impossible to summarise them all below. It is even more difficult to choose just a couple, because there were so many interesting topics covered; working with teenagers, destructive sampling, and even repatriating natural history collections to name a few. You can catch up on thoughts and comments on the talks with the conference hashtag #NatSCA2017. Over the next couple of months the talks will be shared on the blog, in the NatSCA Notes and Comments, or in the NatSCA Journal.

One talk in particular did seem to split the group: ‘Animals and Who’ presented by Ian Trumble at Bolton Library & Museum Service. This talk discussed a temporary exhibition using museum specimens in the library. The display used taxidermy specimens to link to popular children’s books: a wolf for Little Red Riding Hood, a rabbit for Peter Rabbit, etc. A nice idea. Only these museum taxidermy specimens were dressed in human clothing to make them look more like the characters from the books. They certainly looked different, and from the talk there were lots of positive comments from the visitors taken from their social media push; #AnimalsandUs (although we didn’t see any negative comments – all exhibitions have negative comments!). The displays linked nicely to the books, which is fantastic promotion for the library.

What big teeth you have. A specimen from the natural history collections at Bolton Library and Museum Service. Would you dress a taxidermy specimen from your natural history collections? Tweet your thoughts: #DressAWolf (Photo by Jack Ashby)

For me, I found it a little uncomfortable. The animals themselves are impressive, so I didn’t see the point in dressing them up. The argument was given that there was a greater visual impact with the animals in clothing, again, I disagreed. The display was in the main library in Bolton; on the ground floor (the Museum is up on another level). The library had never before had a museum display in their space, so clearly a taxidermy exhibition in that area is already visually impressive without the need for dressing it up. The taxidermy wolf was dressed in a nightie, similar to one from Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf is an incredible, impressive creature without making it look silly in a nightie. What I found most uncomfortable was that I felt the display took away the real beauty of those animals, and their stories for the Museum. The focus of the displays was the animals in the books, and I feel that these could have been even more dramatic and real for visitors by displaying the natural looking animals; these are what the authors took inspiration from.

Of course some people agreed with my arguments in the coffee break, and others really enjoyed the displays and the different ways of displaying taxidermy. Despite disagreeing personally with the display, I liked that the exhibition at Bolton Museum took a bold jump to do something different. Agree or disagree with the dressing up of taxidermy specimens, this talk did get people talking and thinking differently about how we can, and perhaps should, display our collections.

There were so many other talks that could have lengthy discussions: 3D printing specimens for handling and open display (is the real thing better?), destructive sampling (should we or shouldn’t we?), food in galleries (a big ‘no no’ or a great commercial opportunity?), and each discussion does not have a clear and simple answer.

It was an excellent conference. Not only were the talks and discussions thought provoking, the atmosphere was wonderfully positive and inspirational. Once a year we come together at the NatSCA conference. Old friends being geeky in a place they feel at home. New friends being welcomed. There is always a little sadness when I leave the conference: Sad that it will be another year before I see these wonderful people again. But I also leave feeling proud; to see how naturally and easily everyone gets along, and proud to belong to such an inspirational, incredibly talented group of professionals, whom I am also proud to call friends.

Written by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.

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