‘Provocative Practice’: New Ways of Working with Natural Science Collections

A 70 foot long whale skeleton hangs overhead a fantastic ‘collection’ of natural science curators, collection managers, conservators, and education and museum professionals, busily gathering around and eagerly greeting each other at this year’s annual Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) conference. As Natural History Museum ‘fly’ specialist Erica McAlister tweeted: “If that fell that’s most of UK’s natural history curators & conservators wiped out”.

NatSCA delegates gathering below the newly hung Fin Whale. Photograph by Simon Jackson, shown thanks to University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

This year’s event (#NatSCA2017), at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, had a record 110 delegates, and as such was the biggest NatSCA conference to date. At the heart of the conference was the new Whale Hall, part of an enormous redevelopment project of the David Attenborough Building. As many of us marvelled at the huge leviathan overhead, the rest of us rushed between advertising sponsor stalls, exchanged ideas, caught up with one another and most importantly, fuelled up on coffee!

Feeling inspired, we were ready to begin this year’s talks on the theme: “Evolving Ideas: Provocative New Ways of Working with Collections” as Paolo Viscardi, NatSCA Chair, keenly ushered us in to the main lecture theatre.

Here, I review a few highlights of the two days:

One Museum’s Trash Is Another Museum’s Treasure

A common misconception seems to be that museums have elastic sides and people often struggle to grasp that we have to be so selective about what we collect and keep. Getting rid of anything… well that’s very taboo!

Jo Hatton, Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens reported on how they boldly confronted this issue. Their comprehensive ‘Bioblitz’ identified 33,379 star specimens and only 6,284 for disposal. Objects tagged for disposal presented health and safety risks, were damaged or were associated with no or little data.

However, we were pleased to hear that many of the disposed specimens were found other museum homes; places where the objects could be put to better use.

Jo’s case study also revealed that even the ‘worst’ collections can be used in pest management.

Jo Hatton, Horniman Museum and Gardens, taking us through their 4 key steps of de-accessioning. (Photograph by Simon Jackson).

Bringing the Dead Alive

We learnt shortly later that specimens we previously thought were redundant could, with the application of new techniques, can turn out to be invaluable.

Teeming with (entomological) enthusiasm, I watched Erica McAlister (Natural History Museum) stride to the front of the lecture theatre to inspire us about new techniques to unlock hidden secrets from insect specimens; including micro-CT scanning, and in so doing; “Saving our specimens from destructive techniques” (Ashleigh Whiffin‏).

New DNA sequencing methods could help us to better understand changing genetics of mosquitoes, for instance, species potentially becoming resistant to insecticides. This has huge global public health implications. “Mosquitoes: love em’ or hate them, they’re important” (NatSCA).

Provocative Practice: It’s Debate Time!

A NatSCA conference wouldn’t be complete without a debate. Paolo Viscardi (NatSCA Chair) and Matthew Parkes (Geological Curator’s Group Chair) came head-to-head to debate if best practice can be considered bad practice. However, they agreed early on that under certain conditions, best practice can be bad practice, for instance, if museum resources can’t support best practice. However, some wanted more ‘blood’…

A more controversial debate inadvertently came from a provocative talk by Ian Trumble (Bolton Library and Museum Services). Ian captured the audience’s attention with news of a temporary exhibition in which taxidermy specimens were dressed up as storybook characters, for instance a wolf in a nightie like the character from Little Red Riding Hood. This exhibition received enormous public and political support. It also, however, divided the audience:

Undress the wolf!!!” tweeted Jan Freedman passionately.

The argument was that animals, such as wolves, should be enjoyed for the beautiful creatures they are already (see Jan’s blog post: To Dress a Wolf).

However, even those that disapproved, admired the exhibition at Bolton Museum for its boldness to do something different with how we display and use our collections to engage different audiences; using what could be called, ‘provocative practice‘.

An undressed taxidermy Grey Wolf from the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery collections strikes a majestic pose in “undressed mode”. Photograph by Simon Jackson.

Collections for Campaigning

With a subject such as climate change, it is all too easy to leave audiences feeling negative and overwhelmed, or to even present them with misleading information. The exemplar Climate Control exhibition pioneered by Manchester Museum, achieved the opposite, as we learnt from David Gelsthorpe. I was particularly inspired by the exhibition’s ability to harness the collective effort of visitors to turn a white wall black with individual carbon footprint stickers, whilst turning a black wall white with positive messages. This exhibition raised awareness about this highly vexed global issue, whilst empowering action.


It is unfortunate that there is not more scope here to summarise more talks; all of them were excellent; the continuous stream of tweets evidenced the discussion which they inspired.

This blog doesn’t adequately capture the almost palpable enthusiasm and passion which ignited and surrounded each of us; and the tremendous sense of congeniality, this year fuelled by a fantastic Museum of Zoology drinks reception, Clare College meal and ‘Revolution-dancing’ into the early hours of the morning!

A huge round of applause is necessary for the organisers, including the NatSCA Committee, Cambridge Museum staff and also the sponsors which helped make the event possible.

#NatSCA2018 rock on!!

By Dr Simon Jackson, Curator, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust

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