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.

Of course the point I didn’t make was that I wasn’t sure natural science collections were completely legal. Eggs, CITES, HTA, drugs, Nagoya, European Protected Species, badgers etc., lots of carefully constructed pieces of legislation designed to protect and defend. And yet it’s possible that some museums may – innocently and incidentally – be caught in their crossfire.

Image from Imgur

Quick. Immediately run out and dispose of your entire natural science collection, half your archaeology and anything in the social history collection that might involve the word “chemist”. Alternatively cover your eyes, take deep breaths, lie back and think about sand martins for a bit – it’s always served us before. NatSCA got a lot of advice like this a few years ago when we started to consider what we could do to shine a light on the situation.

The law in regard to natural science collections can be quite murky, changeable, sometimes impenetrable but mostly: no one really cares. Law makers are interested in making sure that loopholes are closed and the bad guys are got. Museums, in this regard at least, rarely raise their head above the parapet or may not be certain about how to do this. They are only infrequently brought to the table to be consulted and often miss having their issues woven into legislation.

Cannabis sativa, a common weed not that long ago. Image from Torre a Cenaia.

Take drugs for example: the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 states that ‘Cannabis’ is a controlled drug. The active ingredient in Cannabis is THC and THC degrades pretty rapidly over time (paper on this here). It’s likely that hundred-year-old museum herbarium sheets will only have trace amounts of THC. No dispensation is made for this in the legislation, no antiques exemption, and I think this is probably because no museum has ever mentioned it to anyone.

Because we’ve often stuck our head in the sand, as it’s much, much nicer to consider parasitic wasps than how legal it is to hold egg collections, and because it’s so beyond what most of us end up doing day-to-day, some of us have ignored (or even been unaware of) the problem in the hope of it simply passing us by. To be fair, it has become harder to feed into legislation development in the last few decades as it has become less widely consultative.

A nice Ichneumon to consider. Image from Bug Guide.

This was going OK-ish until austerity became an important government policy. This led to government departments charging for things, like the free-up-until-then drugs license which turned around and unflinchingly bit good museums in the bum.

“Good museums” were those that had declared their drugs holdings, applied for and received drugs licenses and operated in accordance with the law. These institutions now have to fork out between £326 and £1,371 a year for the privilege (the costs depends on whether a compliance visit is required, and one usually is, every two years). Anyone wanting to set up a license currently has to pay £3,133 initially and then £326 – £1,371 a year.

So, for a while now NatSCA has been trying to move toward the light, rather than avoid it. We’re asking questions and trying to get ourselves noticed (terrifying!). We worked with DEFRA to write a “guidance for museums” document – now archived but we did it. We’re being consulted by the Home Office (fancy!) on changes to the safe storage of drugs regulations – only the start of addressing our collective drugs problem but, small steps. We wrote a ‘Natural Science Collections and the Law’ document that might be helpful (let us know if you can improve on anything in it). My experience has been that asking more questions has led to more help, understanding and answers from law makers. I live in hope that one day all natural science collections will be made: unquestionably legal.

Written by Clare Brown, NatSCA Committee Member

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