Book Review: Managing Natural Science Collections

Written by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth.

Working with natural science collections is quite a unique role. The specimens we care for, the stories they tell, the research we carry out or help facilitate, and the engagement with the public, are just a few rewarding jobs that we carry out daily. Sometimes there are barriers between those working with natural science collections and those at a higher management level. This is mainly due to a lack of understanding of the importance of these types of collections. “Why are there so many flies?“, “It’s just taxidermy, bring it out for people to stroke“, “It’s just a rock”. Just a few of things many of us have heard being said about natural science collections.

Whilst we can respond to these kinds of comments, some of us may find it more difficult to respond in a strategic way: in a language that makes sense to high level managers or funders. I have in the past, and I’ve found that frustrating, because I know the importance of the collections I look after. I was very pleased to be asked to review a new book about management of collections, focusing on strategy and development, Managing Natural Science Collections: A guide to strategy, planning and resourcing which was released this year and it couldn’t have come at a better time. A time when the country is recovering from an economic slump after the Covid pandemic. A time when cuts to the museum sector are inevitable.

Written by four long standing museum staff, the short book is filled with expert knowledge. The authors have an awful lot of experience, each working at a large national museum: Rob Huxley previously at the Natural History Museum, London; Christine Quaisser formerly at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, Carol Butler who worked at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and René Dekker previously at the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, Leiden. Combined there is over 90 years experience of working in large museums around the globe, and on high level strategic projects, so there is an awful lot of knowledge that is passed on.

The book covers a lot of different areas. In our jobs we know what we are doing. We know how to care for the collections. We know how to write about them. We know how to talk about them to the public. This book gives us that next level of knowledge. It covers everything from access to collections to virtual collections to staff resources. The book adds more to our existing knowledge by increasing our understanding of how the collections we care for fit in to the wider museum’s strategy. Many of us know this already, but the book gives us confidence in presenting this information to more senior colleagues and fundraisers. The larger chapter on strategy is invaluable in this: it not only helped me understand how my collections are pivotal to the museum’s mission statement and strategic plan, but also in helping me understanding the language used at senior levels.

Each chapter comes with real world examples, which help make it more relevant. These examples are short case studies, and they make you think about the wider context of the work we are doing. As well as case studies, there are also short exercises included in each chapter. I quite enjoyed these little exercises, they made me think more about what I had read. Instead of me trying to remember each sentence I had read, the exercises brought everything together in a concise way, and it made what I read make sense.

There are not any other books that focus solely on natural history collections and management out there, so this is a really useful and helpful book to people working with them. However, the cost isn’t cheap, around £30 for the book. However, I think it is worth it: it’s an invaluable resource to assist with funding proposals and discussions with high level individuals from within or outside your organisation.

Many of us working in natural science collections know very few, if any, natural science specialists in high level managerial positions. Often this can be trying for those lower down because that lack of understanding can lead to decisions affecting specific departments and staff. With some collections areas seen as more ‘valuable’ because they bring in more funding or ‘high profile’ exhibitions, natural science staff need to strongly advocate for their collections, now more than ever. I found this book gave me that extra confidence to do just that. It not only gave me more understanding of overall strategic management, but also how to use the language that managers and funding bodies can understand.

Huxley, R., Quaisser, C., Butler, C. R., & Dekker, R. W. R. J. 2021. Managing Natural Science Collections: A guide to Strategy, Planning and resourcing. Routledge. Taylor and Francis Group.

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