NatSCA Digital Digest – March

The bob tailed squid. (Image from the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery)

What Should I See and Do?

The fantastic ‘Extinction or Survival‘ exhibition at the Manchester Museum is still on until the 26th April. If you are visiting nearby, then you must pop into this museum!

Something is coming…..Bristol Museum and Art Gallery will be having a prehistoric adventure with their new Pliosaur exhibition opening in June this year. Expect lots of fossils, digital recreations, and I hear there will be a life-sized model of their incredible specimen. More updates as the beast swims towards June…

What Can  I Apply For?

There is an opening for a curator of natural science at Birmingham Museums. With collections covering geology, botany and zoology, this post is an exciting opportunity! The deadline is 20th March, so hurry! More information on their website here.

Twitter

Keep your eyes out on Twitter for some great ways to share our collections. They are a great way of showing a much larger audience specimens in our store rooms. Have a look and join in!

February had the tongue in cheek #MuseumPromo hashtag that showed the wonderful ways curators pose for the press.

Every week there are a number of museum related hashtags to join in with, including #MineralMonday, #TaxidermyTuesday and #FossilFriday.

Journal online

After one year of publication, our Journal of Natural Science Collections is freely available online.

Volume 1 held exciting articles covering collections reviews, conservation projects and how to manage radioactive collections. All articles are freely available here.

Volume 2 includes articles about DNA damage to specimens, making models and how to create a successful social media strategy for your department. The articles are all freely available here.

Before You Go…

If you have seen an exhibition, visited a museum, or want to tell us about your work, do get in touch as we are always looking for new blog authors. Email us with your ideas at blog@natsca.org.

Improving Specimen-Data Recording and Access in a Life Sciences Museum

The Museum of Life Sciences at King’s College London contains teaching and research material from King’s College London (KCL) and elsewhere. The collections include Botany, Zoology and Pharmacy specimens, including microscope slides, from around the world and a small, unique exhibition of glass sculptures recently created to commemorate the role of KCL in the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Paper and electronic (Access) databases were first created in 2003 and contained data for the then KCL Zoology and Botany Collections. In the last few years, volunteers have been recording specimens in paper (form-based) or electronic (Excel) formats and we have all been learning ‘on the job’. Inevitably specimens have been catalogued in different ways to record various kinds of information and many specimens remain uncatalogued. Some groups of specimens from a single collector/preparer or from a single source have been catalogued together as eg ‘The Daws Collection’, The Challenger Collection’.  The accumulating data were becoming unwieldy as there are now more than 8000 records.

The form

Example of the paper based record sheet for the Zoology specimens.

excel spreadseet form

Original electronic format for the Zoology Collections.

We are now rationalising our system of information storage and accessibility by bringing together all this information into one comprehensive electronic database. So far 106 information fields have been identified from the old database or allocated to the new database.  These allow information on all types of specimens to be entered into the new database. We will soon be able to include and readily update information on storage location, type and state of the specimen, any conservation taken or needed and whether specimens are out on loan. This vastly improves the accessibility of information to staff, students and volunteers, making management of the collections far more efficient and effective, but the process has had its problems.

The specimens in each collection were catalogued using a letter-based system to denote the taxon to which a specimen belonged followed by a number to denote the order in which the specimen was entered into that taxon. This lead to some specimens from different collections being given the same catalogue identifier, for example, B1 is both a Porifera (sponge) specimen in the Zoology Collection and a Cyanobacteria specimen in the Botany Collection. We have now created five core Museum of Life Sciences Collections; Zoology (ZY), Botany (BY), Pharmacy (PH), Microscopy (MI) and there will be a Cranio-Facial (CF) collection record when the relevant information is available. Under this scheme Zoology specimen B1 becomes ZY B1 and Botany specimen B1 becomes BY B1, allowing both B1 records to co-exist.

Where the taxonomic status of specimens has changed, they are now reclassified and labelled with accepted synonyms of the binomial name and the original name moved to a Synonym(s) field. It is now possible to search for the currently named specimen or to search for the historical synonym.

The previous electronic database was ‘flat-file’ which allowed for a record to have a row of data for each specimen allowing data to be accessed as a simple table although the paper catalogue was used mostly for accessing data. The integrated museum database now employs the power of relational data bases so Recorders can use either a table view or a form view data entry (see examples below) which are now interchangeable for each of the five collections.

The new form

The new table-form for the data.

The screen

The new form view of a Botany specimen showing data and related image.

The basic format of our new and integrated database is now functional. There is still much to be done to be done to upload information on all our specimens and to integrate the various data sets seamlessly into the database. This will improve recognition and identification of individual specimens without having to sort through actual specimens or paper records and will also help to minimise damage to delicate specimens.

We are grateful to the Bill Pettit Memorial Award for part funding this work. The original KCL databases were compiled by Ms M Bavington, based on systems used at The Grant Museum. The work and knowledge of the Ms Bavington and the continuing help and advice of colleagues at the Grant Museum elsewhere are gratefully acknowledged.

Written by Dr Gillian Sales. Curator, Museum of Life Sciences at the Gordon Museum.

Nature Notes

In 2016 the Herbert held its first in-house natural history exhibition since a major redevelopment was completed in 2008. The exhibition, Nature Notes, explored the seasonal changes in local wildlife by displaying taxidermy, nests, insects, botany and fungi, botanical watercolours, oil paintings and contemporary artworks. It encouraged visitors to look at the natural world around them and the artworks aimed to inspire visitors to respond to nature in a creative way.

Nature Notes was designed to be enjoyed by all and accessibility was a key consideration in developing the interpretation and interactives. Additions to the exhibition included Makaton on the text panels and interactive tables; and the provision of accessibility aids such as torches, magnifying sheets and ear defenders. We considered contradictory needs such specific learning difficulties and visual impairments by producing lower contrast labels and providing high contrast large print text to take round the space.

Gallery view of Nature Notes.

Gallery view of Nature Notes. The seasonal display runs around the wall, with interactives and handling specimens in the centre.

The most popular part of the exhibition was the multi-sensory interactive tables with things to touch, smell and listen to. These were created by using low cost tables with adjustable legs with a vinyl graphic applied so they tied in with the exhibition’s design. Five pieces of taxidermy were commissioned – one of each season, plus a spare mouse. We worked with a local group of disabled and non-disabled teenagers to help us choose the right smells for each table – only the brave dared to smell the otter dung! As each offered the same experience of touch, smell and sound this meant queues did not form around one table, allowing for a better visitor experience.

Nature Notes ran for 20 weeks from July to November 2016 and the visitor target was set at 15,000. The final total was 24,000 visits – over 1200 a week – making Nature Notes one of the most visited exhibitions in that space. We evaluated the impact of the exhibition in several ways including analysis of the comments book and a report conducted by students over the summer holidays.

One of the interactive sensory tables.

One of the interactive sensory tables. The taxidermy specimens were prepared specially for this exhibition.

In the comments book 95% of responses were positive, 2% neutral and 3% negative although most of the negative comments were about taxidermy, rather than the exhibition. The student evaluation included 50 surveys, tracking of 50 visitors and general observation. They found that the sensory tables were the most popular part of Nature Notes. It was also noted the importance of gallery staff to help engage visitors with the tables and guiding them on the use of the accessibility tools available. Overall 40% of those asked wanted another natural sciences exhibition at the Herbert!

Nature Notes was designed to become part of the Herbert Touring programme once the run in Coventry finished. Despite being advertised via the Touring Exhibitions Group and our website, unfortunately we did not have any takers. Feedback has suggested that larger museums already have a gallery on local wildlife and smaller museums were not able to afford the cost of the exhibition, as the touring programme is not subsidised in any way.

However Nature Notes will have a legacy both for the Herbert and more widely. The sensory tables have been kept and one will be lent a local wildlife reserve in April 2017 for their Easter activities. We are considering how best to use the tables in the long term – they might acquire castors and become supervised holiday activities in the permanent galleries.

Locker with accessibility aids, step stools and panel with Makaton

Locker with accessibility aids, step stools and panel with Makaton.

We have learnt a lot through creating Nature Notes and will be applying this knowledge to make future exhibitions more accessible. This project has shown that a lot can be done on a relatively small budget and that this investment can be used beyond the project’s lifetime. As well as the interactive tables being used again the accessibility aids are due to be relocated to the museum’s reception.

On a personal note, delivering this exhibition and getting visitor feedback has been a real pleasure. One moment in particular that stood out was during an audio description tour trial. The gentleman I was guiding had had no visual perception for 30 years and was only partially engaged by the spoken descriptions of objects. However, when I took him to the sensory table and he was able to feel the ears, eyes and nose of the fox he said ‘the exhibition has just come alive for me’.

We would like to thank our funders, NatSCA, the Bill Pettit Memorial Fund and Mander Hadley, whose contributions allowed us to create the exciting sensory tables that proved so popular.

If you would like to find out more about the exhibition please contact Ali Wells, Curator at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum on ali.wells@culturecoventry.com. @HerbertCurators

Written by Ali Wells

Micromuseum: The slide collection of J T Quekett

How many natural history collections contain drawers and drawers of unloved microscope slides? With a few notable exceptions, such as the Grant Museum Micrarium, museums often find slides difficult to display and use.

The Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) has a particularly large collection of 50,000 slides, making up more than half of all the objects in the collections here. Hardly any are on display in the Hunterian Museum. A closer look however, reveals that the RCS microscope slide collections are really something special. From William Osman Hill’s Yeti slides to William Hewson’s 240 year old microscope vials, the slide collection here is every bit as exciting and important as the other objects in the museums.

As Collections Assistant for the microscope slide collection most of my work over the last six months has been on the John Thomas Quekett collection. His name is not well known, but if you have heard of it that is probably because you have come across the society of microscopists named in his honour. The Quekett Microscopical Club (QMC) has generously funded a project to care for Quekett’s original slides.

John Thomas Quekett (1815 -1861) was a leading histologist and microscopist who was Richard Owen’s deputy at the Royal College of Surgeons.  Quekett took over as conservator of the Hunterian Museum in 1856 when Owen left for the British Museum to become the superintendent of the natural history department and oversee the building of what would become the Natural History Museum, London. Quekett was at the cutting edge of a revival of the popularity of the microscope in the Victorian period. He wrote A Practical Treatise on the Use of the Microscope which became a classic text for microscopists, and is known to have instructed Prince Albert in the use of his silver microscope. He was a fellow of the Linnaean Society and the Royal Society, and worked with famous scientists such as geologist Charles Lyell, palaeontologist Gideon Mantell, explorer David Livingstone, botanist Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin himself.

John Wu

John Thomas Quekett (1815-1816). (Image Royal College of Surgeons)

 

An octopus

An octopus from the Quekett Microscope slide collection. (Image Royal College of Surgeons)

 

Quekett was a pioneer in histology and microscopy, designing his own microscope and producing stunning histological preparations, especially injected specimens. Furthermore he put every natural object he could get his hands on onto a microscope slide. Animal, vegetable, mineral, everything. Tissue samples of every organ in the human body, a whole octopus, tiny flakes of silver, the exquisitely prepared respiratory system of a caterpillar. He prepared diatoms, ferns and coal, delicate sections of pterosaur bone, thylacine teeth and oak wood. There are even hair samples disturbingly labelled ‘vampyre’, although this probably refers to the bats rather than the undead.

He carefully labelled and catalogued his slides to produce a comprehensive natural history collection on a microscopic scale, and 12,000 of these slides remain today. It is not surprising that a recent review of the RCS collections concluded that the Quekett material is “one of the strongest representative collections of Victorian microscopy and scientific practice in general in the UK and possibly the world” (RCS Significance Review June 2015).

Given their age the slides are in relatively good condition, but there are some issues to contend with such as cracked glass, missing labels and leaking fluid. Since the 1880s microscope slides have been a standard size – 2.5cm x 7.5cm, but the Quekett collection predates this. His slides range in size from 1.8cm x 4.8cm up to a whopping 8.5cm x 20cm. Some of the slides are also very thick and all this makes storage difficult and any type of automated scanning nigh on impossible.

thyl

Slices through the teeth of thylacines. (Image Royal College of Surgeons)

The collection is obviously of interest to those working on the history of science and microscopy, but impressively the slides are still being used for scientific research, 170 years after Quekett made them. Preparations of harder materials such as fossils, bones and teeth have survived in excellent condition, enabling modern researchers to gather data from the collection. The image below was taken recently using reflected light fluorescence microscopy by a PhD student studying bone remodelling in mammal species.

Transverse section of the humerus of a mountain hare. Prepared by J T Quekett, photographed by Alessandro Felder, Royal Veterinary College. Image taken at 4x magnification using reflected light fluorescence microscopy

Transverse section of the humerus of a mountain hare. Prepared by J T Quekett, photographed by Alessandro Felder, Royal Veterinary College. Image taken at 4x magnification using reflected light fluorescence microscopy. (Image Royal College of Surgeons)

With the upcoming RCS decant and new Hunterian Museum planned for 2020 there is an opportunity to bring this collection to prominence again. We plan to include Quekett’s story in the new exhibits and make his collection better known, better protected and more easily accessible online. At first glance an old microscope slide collection might not look like much, but if you investigate further you never know what you might find.

Written by Hannah Cornish

(Collections Assistant, Royal College of Surgeons)

For more information about J T Quekett see:

https://www.rcseng.ac.uk/library/blog/quekett-and-exploration

http://www.quekett.org/about/who/history

A fond thank you

The number 8. A significant number in many different cultures around the world. It is the number of balance for the Ancient Egyptians, and in China it represents fortune. It’s a common number in the natural world too, and appears to be important in the genetic make-up of some groups of animals. Spiders have 8 legs (and the Orb-weaver spiders have 8 eyes). Octopuses (or octopodes) have 8 arms, and comb jellies have 8 tiny plates with which they use to swim.

For me the number 8 is particularly significant. I was 8 years old when I first watched The Land Before Time; the film that cemented my passion for dinosaurs and the natural world. More recently, and more relevant to this blog post, I was the Editor for the NatSCA committee for 8 years. At the last NatSCA AGM, we had our first ever vote for a committee member resulting in a new Editor for NatSCA.

The postrer for The Land That Time Forgot. It certainly was an adventure I never forgot! (Poster of teh film by Tom Chantrell. Public Domain)

The original poster for The Land That Time Forgot. It certainly was an adventure I never forgot! (Poster for the film by Tom Chantrell. Public Domain)

With 8 years of being your Editor, I thought I would write this little post. Not as a farewell, but as a thank you.

Starting back in 2008, I worked on the more informal NatSCA newsletter, NatSCA News. There were two, or sometimes three, issues of NatSCA News a year. Behind the scenes, it was a lot of work: formatting Word files into Publisher, sizing up images, font sizes, boarders, editing, references… It sounds glum, but really it was a great job to be involved in. I loved reading about other people’s projects, and networking with so many curators and other museum staff across the country.

Do you remember this? The old NatSCA newsletter,

Do you remember this? The old NatSCA newsletter, NatSCA News.

I remember the article in NatSCA News that changed it all. (Obviously I won’t say which one, but this sweet article was full of holes.) Authors would send me papers, and then I would check them and format them for NatSCA News. My background is geology, so I know my rocks, minerals and fossils. But best practice in microscope slide conservation? What about standards in care of herbaria specimens? I wasn’t an expert in those areas. Something had to change.

I wanted to create something new. Something that would be a good source of information for people working with natural science collections. Many curators, particularly in the regional and independent museums look after such a huge variety of collections, from plants to rocks. Talking ideas through with the committee, we decided to put together a new Journal. A Journal that people could really use to help with their every day work.

The First Volume of

The First Volume of the Journal of Natural Science Collections. Just beautiful.

In 2013 it came. My baby; the new NatSCA Journal. Surprisingly the name of the Journal did take several emails back and forth before it was finalised: The Journal of Natural Science Collections. The new Journal is a big step up from NatSCA News. All articles are peer reviewed by two reviewers. Comments and recommendation are given to authors to improve and clarify points. Articles are written clearly for any curator to understand, even if it is not their area of specialism. Some articles have been rejected. The Journal is something which is accessible, and more importantly, useful, to those working with natural science collections.

Eight years as Editor. I am proud of the new Journal. Proud of how it looks, and proud of the high quality articles it contains. It is not easy work being an Editor: finding peer reviewers, chasing authors, formatting, sending off proofs and endless other little bits. Without the ongoing support of the fantastic NatSCA committee, and amazing volunteers, the Journal would not be what it is today.

More than half of the wonderful NatSCA committee.

More than half of the wonderful NatSCA committee in the Micrarium at the Grant Museum of Zoology. (Photo by Donna Young)

Behind the scenes the committee are working hard throughout the year, organising training, conferences, and grant applications to support the work you and I do every day, so we can do it better. They work hard at making sure they update us with the latest issues that may affect us and our collections. Perhaps more importantly, they make sure we all stay connected. Without our wonderful network of friends and colleagues, I know I would be very lonely.

I am still on the NatSCA committee, dipping my hand into other projects. I am now looking after the NatSCA blog, which is my new baby to help develop and grow. The blog is a great place for us to share projects we are working on, hidden collectors, quirky stories, or interesting training. The most wonderful thing about the blog is that it not only shares with our peers, but also the general public too. The blog is one way to reach new audiences, potentially worldwide.

I joked in the last committee meeting that there would be tears when writing this post. There may well be tears behind this writing. I have immensely enjoyed being Editor, and truly honoured to have stood for eight great years. I have been lucky enough to have met countless other curators through the role, and discover the exciting things they have been working on. There were difficult times, and late nights, formatting, proof reading, editing. But it has been a true pleasure to have served as your Editor.

This is Jan Freedman, NatSCA Editor from 2008 to 2016. Signing off. (For now).

Jan Freedman

Curator of Natural History,

Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery