Rocks of Death and Fizzing Fossil Fish

In what must surely be one of the most excitingly themed workshops known to scientists, Monica Price (formerly of Oxford University Museum of Natural History) and Jana Horak (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales) recently ran a day-long workshop called Hazards in Geological Collections. We’re not talking hazards like booklice eating your specimen labels, we’re talking The Big Guns. It was Christmas come early for the attendees who had gathered from the ‘four corners’ of the British Isles to learn what villainstreasures might be lurking in their collections.

Hazards in geological collections take many forms. © Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Each of the three tables of eager minds was presented with a box of unlabelled specimens from which to try and list the potential hazards. After a very thorough health and safety briefing, we all leaned cautiously in towards the box. Decked out in nitrile gloves and face masks, we were the picture of professionalism. The excitement of the workshop was definitely heightened by the real, LIVE specimens in front of us. Had any of us had been stupid enough to open up and breathe in the contents of an asbestos tube, or rub ourselves all over with a toxic mineral, we could have done ourselves some serious harm. But as it was, the 20 or so geologists in the room were suitably well-behaved.

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Waving Goodbye to the Walrus: Reflections on Leaving (and Starting)

To paraphrase that great Disney wildlife documentary, The Lion King: change is good, but it’s not easy.

Leaving any job after a long time is always strange, and I’ve been lucky enough to have spent (almost!) seven years at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. In that time I’ve worked on several large projects, learned more than I thought I ever would about anthropology collections, and made some wonderful friends. But sadly, I have now had to move on. Happily, I’ve been able to move on to the wonderful Powell-Cotton Museum, where I will be spending the next year curating the natural history collections.

This has meant quite a large change: I’ve moved to a different part of the country, and started a new job that is very different to what I’ve been doing for the last few years. I’ll admit to feeling some imposter syndrome – I have been working almost exclusively with anthropology objects for a long time now (not my subject specialism: I studied zoology), and worried that I might have forgotten some of my natural history knowledge! Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to have been the case, and in fact working with anthropology collections has taught me a surprising amount about working with natural history collections… from identifying worked animal materials (such as ivory and bone) to documentation standards and procedures (I was a Documentation Assistant at the Horniman), I have gained skills and knowledge that will be invaluable in my new role.

Sad to say goodbye to the Horniman Walrus. (C) Horniman Museum and Gardens

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Special Notice- Offer of Materials

Professor Hugh Torrens at Keele University is looking to rehouse a large quantity of material that may be of interest to many of our readers. If you would like further information on, or to re-home anything on the following list, please contact Prof Torrens directly on email, h.s.torrens@keele.ac.uk, or by phone 01782 733754.

1) Lots of spare offprints (my own, those by Ron Cleevely, or John Fuller, or by others like Martin Rudwick or John Thackray) and will be happy to try and find those by particular authors, or any other particular items for enquirers.

2) There are many large files on particular people. I may still have separate files on many of the more significant geologists or naturalists of the past, including the circa 50 for whom I wrote entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).

3) Other files are on topics, particularly those related to geology and its practice, including many on the myriad failed attempts to find coal where it was never going to be found all over Britain. These strike me as a major research area which has never attracted attention. I will be happy to try and answer particular enquiries.

4) There is an enormous collection of printed obituary notices, both British and foreign

5) A large collection of books, pamphlets and notes on museums and on museology, with many lists of type and figured fossils etc.

6) Collection, in about 15 large A4 spring back files, of random obituary notices and printed scraps, on former geologists/naturalists, many of some obscurity.

Please note, the material needs to be moved asap, and at the latest by the end of June.

Playing with Time

Cave palaeontology collections as vessels of truth and creativity…

Big Beasts Stalk The Mind of Sir William Boyd Dawkins. Two pages from a flip-book showing animated giant deer, steppe bison, spotted hyaena, horse, pages from Sir William’s notebook relating to the excavation of the Hyaena Den at Wookey Hole and a Palaeolithic hand axe unearthed there. (C) Sean Harris.

Beasts of tooth and claw have always stalked the darker corners of my mind. But we could probably all say that couldn’t we? However, a recent creative collaboration – for which Wells and Mendip Museum’s seminal collection of Pleistocene mammal bone provided the focus – presented a new slant on the mind/ cave analogy.

My grandparents, who exerted such a powerful influence on my formation, did their very best to nurture a natural scientist of some shape or form. They would, I think, have been proud of a geologist, ornithologist, zoologist – also perhaps an archaeologist; maybe even an anthropologist. Someone of great standing and integrity, qualities probably manifest in a really solid moustache.

Consequently, growing up, I spent a lot of time in museums, in hides and ranging across fields with a geologist’s hammer; all activities accompanied with a notebook and pencil. However, to the considerable bafflement (and perhaps frustration) of my well-intentioned elders, a compulsive urge to express the images and narratives that formed themselves in my mind’s eye – ironically borne of hours gazing into cases at the minutiae of taxidermied creatures, patinated bones, geological specimens – won out and instead of a scientist they got an artist and animator.

However, having now, over the course of a career, worked with a diverse array of researchers in museums and conservation organisations, I know that I’m on the same spectrum as a great many of them – albeit perched at a slightly different position along it. Whilst our motivations and the languages we use to communicate our discoveries may be different, we’re all explorers of a type. I wish I could have the opportunity to explain that to my grandmother – though maybe she knew it anyway.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – April

Dear Digital Digest-digesters, it has been an extremely busy month but there are just enough hours in the month to put out the April edition. Continue reading for a round up of all the things you need to know…

What Should I Read?

After much to-ing and fro-ing and panicking from various factions, it has been announced that “accredited museums and galleries will be granted an exemption in legislation… that bans the trade of elephant ivory in almost all circumstances”. This is great news for museums. Read the full story on the Museums Association website here.

There has been a lot of coverage of the dinosaur tracks found in Scotland, but if you missed it all, here’s what the BBC had to report. Both sauropod and theropod tracks are present and they’ve gotten everyone all excited.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is in the news for another year as another photographer falls foul of either not reading, or else ignoring, the rules. The anteater in one of the winning images has been investigated and concluded to be a taxidermy specimen. The image was therefore disqualified and the photographer told to er… get stuffed.

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When Art Recreates the Workings of Natural History it can Stimulate Curiosity and Emotion

Natural history is one of the branches of science whose methods and traditions are most often referenced by contemporary artists. A flock of the installations that we find in leading galleries echo, reflect, borrow from and parody the ways that natural history works.

Sometimes these artists pick apart the way that natural history is “done” in museums – Joseph Cornell’s mini display cases; Ruth Marshall’s knitted animal pelts; Tessa Farmer’s “fairies” made from real insect carcasses; Polly Morgan’s modern take on taxidermy and Damien Hirst’s various preserved specimens all invite us to consider the ways that museums represent nature, and the role of museum specimens.

Elsewhere artists point to natural history as a part of our human society, performed in the wild, beyond the walls of museums and universities. For example, Natural Selection by Andy and Peter Holden (currently at The Towner Gallery in Eastbourne until 20th May) tells the story of the people obsessed by the illegal practice of collecting bird eggs.

Work in the museum and in the wild are two central pillars of natural history. One artist who shadows the practices of both is the American artist Mark Dion. His exhibition, Theatre of the Natural World, is showing now at the Whitechapel Gallery in London until 13th May. As a natural historian who works in museums and undertakes fieldwork, I am always interested in art that encourages me to step back and reflect on how my profession actually operates.

Sometimes what it shows me is funny, sometimes it’s sad, and sometimes it’s disturbing. Such art can be a highly effective means of communicating just how absurd some aspects of natural history are. Much of Dion’s work highlights the subjective, peculiar and inconsistent ways that taxonomy operates: it is an entirely human construct intended to place order on the impossibly disordered living world.

Mark Dion
The Naturalist’s Study, 2018
Installation view of Mark Dion: Theatre of the Natural World at Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2018
Photo: Jeff Spicer/PA Wire

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Paradise, Problems, Perpetrators, and Positives

The Paradise

Far away in a tropical land, where few of us will ever visit, there lives a plethora of exotic and enigmatic animals that would be at home in a book on Victorian expeditions and grand discoveries. Scaly pangolins, pygmy elephants, and a species of small rhinoceros that is covered in brown fur represent a drop in the ocean of the immense biodiversity living in the beautiful natural habitats of Indonesia and Malaysia. I hope you are conjuring a heart-warming image in your mind of lush green rainforests; perhaps a huge orange cat with black stripes disappearing into the undergrowth as birds and monkeys join forces to belt out a warning chorus, letting everything nearby know of the tiger’s presence.

Now raze the trees, set fire to everything, destroy the animals, and in the ensuing barren wasteland grow acres and acres of plantations. All for an ingredient called palm oil.

The Problems

What is this magical substance that is worth wiping out entire species of plants and animals for? It’s an edible vegetable oil that is in everything from soap and toothpaste, to cookies and chocolate bars. Pick up a consumable in any supermarket and you’ll probably be holding palm oil. The substance is this omnipresent in the western world and yet 85% of the entire world’s supply of palm oil comes from plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia alone. That should give you an idea of how much of these two Southeast Asian countries has been, and continues to be, burnt to the ground in order to produce palm oil. That biodiversity we spoke off before is hanging on by its finger tips in smaller and smaller… and smaller… pockets of forest.

World map showing countries affected by large-scale clearance of natural habitat for producing palm oil as of 2006 (FAO 20076, via Koh and Wilcove, 20087).

Further to the suffering of the natural world, in many areas, indigenous peoples are forced to abandon their forest homes and their traditional ways of life, in order for the land to be purposefully destroyed. Indonesia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. What happens to these displaced people? Many of them are forced into working on the plantations as slaves. This includes child slavery. I am sure you have heard of Conflict Diamonds? Conflict Palm Oil is just as inhumane.

If you need further persuasion that palm oil is bad news, the carbon pollution produced by palm oil plantations is a MAJOR player in the line-up of human induced villains that are hurtling our climate out of control. Climate change is a normal, natural phenomenon. What isn’t normal is the speed at which it is occurring due to human activity. It is changing so fast that animals and plants can’t keep up, they can’t evolve or adapt fast enough. So they’re choosing option B and going extinct instead.

In 2015, smog produced as a direct result of fires used in palm oil production was so thick in Sumatra, Indonesia, that it caused air pollution levels to spike in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore. (NASA, 2015).

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