National Gorilla Day! (or Racist Skeletons in our Closets)

Happy National Gorilla Day!

We don’t usually cover “national *insert_animal* day” specially on this blog, but this year we’re particularly excited about gorillas because a book was recently published that contains a comprehensive list of all the gorillas held in natural science collections worldwide.

Screenshot 2017-05-26 at 12.31.47 - Edited

This impressive resource has been compiled by John Cooper and Gordon Hull over the course of many years and not only are specimens listed, their collection and/or acquisition data are also reported. Cooper and Hull have also offered suggestions for use of specimens in collections as well as guidance on the different types of preservation available and how they can be achieved. This only forms part of the book, with the first section more concerned with the health and conservation of these impressive animals. Continue reading

Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be?

An exceptionally fragile Blaschka glass model of a radiolarian in Dublin.

An exceptionally fragile Blaschka glass model of a radiolarian in Dublin – would you lend it?

In museums, collections are key. They are the resource that we rely on to drive our exhibitions, research, outreach, educational activities and even our marketing. We use this resource sustainably, ensuring it will be available for future generations. Our policies and standards protect them, keeping them safe by providing an appropriate environment and managing access – and while this is not always easy, at least we have control. Continue reading

Vote for the NatSCA Editor

At the end of this week we have our annual conference and AGM, which will be held at the Silk Mill in Derby. The conference is always a great opportunity to mix with other natural history and museum professionals, catch up with what’s going on and elect the committee members who will keep NatSCA on an even keel.

This year, for the first time, we have two people standing for the Editor position so we will be holding a vote. In order to provide you with a bit of background to help make your voting decision, so below is a brief overview from each candidate (in alphabetical order).


Jan Freedman

Jan

I am the curator of natural history at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. One of the most wonderful things about our job is the variety of work we get involved in: from conservation of specimens to using collections to engage with the public. For us, who look after natural science collections, we are constantly improving our knowledge of how best to care for and promote our collections. One way of doing this is by contributing to, and reading, the Journal of Natural Science Collections, which includes the latest up-to-date case studies and information to help.

I have been very proud to have been the Editor for NatSCA for some years now. I was the editor for NatSCA News, which included more informal articles, but I wanted the NatSCA membership to get more from their Journal. Along with the support of the NatSCA committee I have developed a high-quality journal with fully peer reviewed and up to date articles from colleagues in the sector; your Journal of Natural Science Collections.

I really enjoy networking with international colleagues to bring the membership the most useful and interesting articles. For the majority of the time, curators and other museum staff do work alone, and I believe that the excellent work that we are doing should be shared amongst colleagues. As well as articles being sent for the Journal, I have approached people to write articles which will be interesting for others to read. The Journal is for the membership, and I have strived to make your journal as tool you can you in your work.

I enjoy being on the NatSCA committee, with such wonderful committee members. As a committee member, I not only format and edit the journal, but contribute to other areas of NatSCA business. I have been privileged to be involved with some exciting projects over the years, and would be truly honoured to be a part of where NatSCA is going in the future.

I would be delighted if you were to vote for me as the role of Editor on the NatSCA committee.


Rachel Jennings

RachelProfilePic

I have volunteered for NatSCA for the last few years, and would like to join the committee as Editor so that I can contribute more to the organisation, and help give our members a stronger voice to advocate for the importance of our work and collections to the wider museum sector.

As a volunteer, I have acted as Facebook Editor since 2013, advertising NatSCA events and finding natural science-related content to share that is interesting and engaging. During my tenure as Facebook Editor, the number of likes on the page has trebled, increasing our public reach. I set up a Storify account for NatSCA last year, and have created stories for the 2015 Conference and other events, so that those who couldn’t be there can still enjoy them!

I also joined the editorial team on the NatSCA blog last year, responsible for sourcing content, liaising with authors, editing and scheduling posts. I have really enjoyed this role, and I’d love to be able to take the next step and be your new NatSCA Editor!


We hope to see you at the AGM on Thursday, ready to cast your vote!

Museums Unleashed #NatSCA2015

Next Thursday NatSCA will be holding our annual conference in Bristol. This meeting tends to be the highlight of the year for many natural history collections staff – a chance to catch up with colleagues, make new contacts and help shape the direction of our sector.

NatSCA conference attendee group photo from 2012. Image by Rachel Jennings, 2012

NatSCA conference attendee group photo from 2012. Image by Rachel Jennings, 2012

This year the conference is called Museums Unleashed, and the theme is sharing collections using a variety of media – from the traditional television, radio and print to newer digital and social media. This topic has a much broader relevance to the museum sector than the usual NatSCA theme and so there will be a broad diversity of speakers from broadcasting, journalism and a variety of different museum disciplines – check out the full programme and list of abstracts.

Museums Unleashed #NatSCA2015

This broader focus of the meeting will allow the NatSCA membership to learn lessons in engaging audiences from different perspectives and really make the most of our collections in order to advocate for the ongoing use and support.

Of course, this broad speaker base will also allow non-natural-science-specialist to benefit more from the meeting, providing an opportunity for the increasing number of generalist museum staff to break the ice with specialists who can help support them in their role – be it collections focussed or more outwards-facing.

If you haven’t booked a space there is still time, as bookings close on 19th May – although spaces are running out! Just head to the NatSCA website and book online.

If you want to attend the conference meal you’d better be quick though – orders need to be with the restaurant by Wednesday.

We hope to see you there, but if you can’t makes it, be sure to follow the hashtag #NatSCA2015 to keep updated!

#MuseumWeek on Twitter – what’s the point?

The last few days have seen Twitter alive with activity centred on museums, with the 2015 #MuseumWeek hashtag providing an opportunity to celebrate culture using images, videos and a maximum of 140 characters.

MuseumWeek

This Twitterstorm in a teacup may seem a bit pointless to some, but it’s difficult to fully appreciate the value of social media until you really use it and experience the benefits first hand.

That’s why this year’s NatSCA conference ‘Museums Unleashed’ is partly about getting everyone up to speed with what’s out there, how it works, and what people are using it for – to make sure that our members aren’t left behind as the museum sector increasingly embraces the digital age.

natscabristol2015

Social media provides an incredibly powerful medium for communicating with other subject specialists, and it also provides a mechanism for developing genuine dialogue with audiences. Hashtags like #MuseumMonday and #FossilFriday allow objects from behind the scenes to be shared around the world quickly and easily, bringing otherwise hidden collections into the public consciousness.

The playful and informal nature of these online interactions may be a significant departure from the authoritative and reserved image projected by some museums, perhaps causing a little discomfort for some, but that informal interaction is the very thing that makes social media such a fantastic mechanism for developing dialogue and bouncing ideas between peers.

Finally, it never pays to underestimate the power of the public as advocates for your collections. A museum with a facilitative approach to social media in its gallery spaces can benefit from the buzz created by people wanting to create and curate their own digital content, inspiring others to visit and generating a deeper interest in the museum’s activities – with minimal input required from staff.

I strongly suggest that you take a look at the various interesting subthemes within #MuseumWeek to see if you can contribute. Today is #familyMW, Saturday is #favMW (for your favourites) and Sunday is #poseMW (maybe put that selfie stick to good use?), so you still have time to get your phone out and get involved!

Collections at Risk

The biggest problems facing collections today are almost certainly posed by reductions in funding. The financial support for museums of all sizes has been decreasing every year, with jobs being lost and stored collections often bearing the brunt of cuts, since they are usually out of sight and therefore out of mind for many decision makers.

Hidden treasurers? Specimens in storage can be overlooked by decision makers in favour of public-facing elements of museum business.

Hidden treasurers? Specimens in storage can be overlooked by decision makers in favour of public-facing elements of museum business.

NatSCA has been to trying to keep track of threats to collections and offer our support in an effort to make the vital role of collections, and the people with the skills to care for them, more clearly recognised by management. Much of this work in the UK has been alongside our colleagues in the Geological Curators Group.

The first issue of our new online publication NatSCA Notes & Comments provides a case study of decline from the Midlands, written by Geoffrey Hall. Although the picture painted is bleak, there have been some small wins, as Ludlow have since acknowledged the importance of maintaining a geologist to manage their globally important geology collection.

We have also been looking at the wider societal role of collections and have been working to raise their profile at a variety of levels, including internationally, alongside the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. Our message about the importance of collections is being heard by a wider and more influential audience, something that is reflected in this week’s Nature, which features an article about the importance and decline of collections.

If you know of any collections that are at risk from staff loss or disposal, please let us know by editing our Natural History Near You map or emailing us at advocacy@natsca.org

The financial value of museum objects

In the museum sector there’s a bit of unwillingness to discuss the financial value of objects. After all, museums are not run as salerooms and their focus is on the other sorts of value that collections hold.

Of course, for some artworks it can be hard to ignore the massive price tags that they sometimes carry and there are some good arguments that in our materialistic society, which has become increasingly focussed on economics, there are sound reasons for including financial value in considerations about collections. An interesting discussion about this between two NatSCA stalwarts, Jan Freedman and Mark Carnall, was recently published by the Museums Association.

Worth £175 million today. Card Players (5th version ca.1894-1895) by Paul Cezanne is the most expensive painting in the world. For now... (image from Musée d'Orsay)

Worth £175 million today. Card Players (5th version ca.1894-1895) by Paul Cezanne is the most expensive painting in the world. For now… (image from Musée d’Orsay)

For those of us who work in museums, we normally only consider a specimen’s price-tag when acquiring new material, deaccessioning material or dealing with insurance valuations for exhibitions and loans.

When acquiring specimens, the consideration is about whether an asking price is fair and an appropriate amount to spend in the context of institutional priorities and budget. When deaccessioning, the consideration is rather more complex and is linked to appropriate methods of disposal and the motivations for disposal. Deaccessioning shouldn’t be done in order to make money, but disposal by sale may be an option as long as the processes involved in the decision meet professional standards.

The controversial disposal by sale of the statue of Sekhemka has caused problems for Northampton Museum & Art Gallery. (Image of the statue on display c.1950s - uploaded by Bibilovski, 2012)

The controversial disposal by sale of the statue of Sekhemka has caused problems for Northampton Museum & Art Gallery. (Image of the statue on display c.1950s – uploaded by Bibilovski, 2012)

When assessing these sorts of values it can be very useful to look to private auctions for a guide, which take place every so often at a variety of auction houses. For natural history it can be worth checking Sotheby’sBonhams and Summers Place. However, auctions tend to deal with the more showy objects, rather than the scientific specimens that museum staff often have to deal with, especially for research loans.

Insurance valuations are slightly different, since these may not simply relate to the market value of an object, but could take into consideration the cost of conservation if the object is damaged, or the cost of going into the field to collect a similar specimen to replace it if it’s the sort of specimen that doesn’t come up for sale. Either of these possibilities may be far more expensive than a likely sale value.

One of the issues with putting a price on objects is that it may make them more obviously attractive to criminals. For instance, a sudden spike in the street value of illegal rhino horn in parts of Asia around 2009 led to a massive increase in the prices of antique rhino trophies at auction, until special measures were introduced to stop this loophole in trade. In addition it has led to the targeted thefts of hundreds of specimens from collections around the world.

Taxidermy rhino with the horn removed and sign explaining the problem of thefts from museum specimens. (Image by Dr John Hutchinson, 2013)

Taxidermy rhino with the horn removed and sign explaining the problem of thefts from museum specimens. (Image by Dr John Hutchinson, 2013)

Of course, by being aware of the changing value of specimens and therefore the changing risk of theft, museums are able to take steps to ensure that appropriate security measures are put in place to properly care for their objects. So although the financial value of objects can be complex to address, it is clear that there is a need for museums to know how much their collections are worth, since other people may be only too aware.