Meet the NatSCA Committee: Jack Ashby

Name: Jack Ashby

What is your role on the NatSCA committee?

I tend to have more of a focus on matters relating to audiences and communication, but to be honest as an “Ordinary Member” of Committee I really enjoy getting involved in every aspect that I feel I can be useful in. Working in a small museum means I have a fairly broad experience across the different kinds of work our members might be involved in, from collections management, media and learning (which is where I started my career) to strategic direction. NatSCA is doing loads of great stuff at the moment – it’s nice to have such a range of projects to feed in to.

Job Title & Institution: Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL

Twitter username: @JackDAshby

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Tell us about your day job:

I have strategic overview of all our varied activities – developing the Grant Museum as both a valuable academic resource and an excellent public venue, while caring for our collections responsibly. A big part of my job is to develop and oversee ways for the museum to become a gateway for between the public and academia (I take the lead on exhibitions and most public-facing research projects, while the fantastic learning staff focus on events), and find opportunities to integrate the collection into more university courses. I’m responsible for our finances and income generation, staff management, interpretation, venue and marketing. I also spend a fait bit of time trying to ensure that we are having an impact on the museum and university sectors. I don’t really know how to describe a normal day.

Natural science collections are very popular with museum visitors. Why do you think this is?

Natural science are easy to interpret and they’re visually striking. There are far lower barriers to access – the level of knowledge even the least engaged visitor walks down the street with is more than enough to get something out of a museum visit. Unlike some other disciplines, which often expect and require their visitors to know things that aren’t easy to acquire (while not always doing enough to help them acquire that understanding), natural history is everywhere. Even if they don’t recognise a specimen instantly, in many cases all we have to do is say “that’s a rhino”, and the visitors have all they need themselves to make some meaning from what they see.

And also a lot of our stuff looks weird.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now?

Sadly, challenges often comes from within the museum sector, or at least those close to it, like governing bodies. No sector has it rosy at the moment and it’s critical we work together and learn from each other. I think often if the individuals who are making the decisions aren’t sympathetic to the value of our collections, we can suffer from their inability to see the value of our work. Perhaps because natural history is so easily accessible, it can be easy to write us off as “just for kids”. Conversely, the disciplines that could be seen as being more elite or grown-up can somehow be viewed as more valuable. We can also (unfairly) be tarred with the “old-fashion” brush. This is often a result of under-investment in refreshing our galleries, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s so frustrating as we have demonstrated time again that natural science collections are far-and-away the most popular among visitors, and also arguably the discipline that has the most potential to change the world through our roles research around genuinely global challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss.

What do you love most about working with natural science collections?

So much. Seeing how every lump and bump on a specimen translates into how that animal survived in its habitat always gets me going.

It’s a delight to work in a sector that gives people opportunities to get genuinely excited about the natural world. My office sits directly above the Micrarium in the Grant Museum. Every time I hear someone say “Wow!” I smile.

#CheesyButTrue

What would your career be in an alternate universe without museums?

I spend a couple of months a year as a kind of expert volunteer on fieldwork in Australia, trapping small mammals, reptiles and frogs with wildlife NGOs and universities with conservation agendas. It’s probably an even more competitive field that the museum sector, but I could see myself doing that full time if museums didn’t exist.

What is your favourite museum, and why? (It can be anywhere in the world, and doesn’t have to be natural science-related!)

Am I allowed two? The Biologiska Museet in Stockholm makes me very happy every time I go out there, for a reason I can’t really explain as it’s impossibly old-fashioned. It’s a single wooden building from the 1890s with one huge diorama running around the inside of the whole building (it’s more or less the only thing in there), over two stories high. You go up a wrought iron staircase through the middle. As you walk round the wall, each of the Nordic biomes are represented with all their animals in an original diorama setting. There’s no interpretation except for a type-written piece of paper with a list of every species (hundreds) visible from each numbered pane of glass.

Also in contention is the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby. It’s an amazing example of how professional a volunteer-run museum can be, and I just love age of exploration and voyages of discovery. I was working with them on a big partnership project over the last couple of years and it’s been an absolute pleasure. I’ve learnt a lot.

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Holly Morgenroth

Name: Holly Morgenroth

What is your role on the NatSCA committee? Treasurer

Job Title & Institution: Collections Officer, Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM)

Twitter username: @Comet_Moth_HM

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Tell us about your day job:

A bit of everything.

My specialism is natural history (I am a marine biologist by degree), so I am the first port of call for anything that is recently dead (biology) or long time dead (palaeontology) that isn’t human. I deal with public enquiries, write exhibitions, give talks and care for the collections.

As Collections Officer I manage a small team of Assistant Curators and oversee the collections management for all the collections, not just natural history. I help to write policies and funding bids, coordinate team projects and manage budgets. I also manage a few volunteers.

Are you working on any projects that you’re really excited by at the moment?

HMSChallenger.net – check it out!

What do you love most about working with natural science collections?

Dead things in jars. Spirit collections fascinate me.

I have a bit of a thing for glass – currently thinking of Blaschka models and contemporary artist Steffen Dam.

Occasionally coming across specimens from some of the early voyages  – Challenger, Lightning, Beagle, Blossom etc.

Puzzles – piecing together the stories behind the specimens.

What would your career be in an alternate universe without museums?

If my ears would let me dive and boats didn’t make me very sick, then a marine biologist. Otherwise a florist perhaps…

What is your favourite museum, and why? (It can be anywhere in the world, and doesn’t have to be natural science-related!)

Horniman – I love the aquarium, particularly the tank inspired by Victorian naturalist P. H. Gosse.

Gosse-inspired tank in the Horniman Museum & Gardens aquarium (Image: Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Gosse-inspired tank in the Horniman Museum & Gardens aquarium (Image: Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Art, Nature, Engagement, and Rural Life

On my first visit to a NatSCA conference I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I was in for a treat. Initially planning to write only about Amgueddfa Cymru‘s ‘Museum in a House’ talk, I found myself drawing parallels between all three presentations in the morning’s second session (likely more by design than accident), as well as the new temporary exhibition at my current museum, the Museum of East Anglian Life.

In ‘The Artist and the Dead Zoo’, Nigel Monaghan delivered a selection of somewhat lighthearted accounts of artists of all genres (modern and traditional, writers and musicians) who have used the natural history collections of the National Museum of Ireland as inspiration, as raw material for casts, and the galleries as backdrops and venues – the museum hosts recording slots for artists on Mondays. Suitably relaxed and open-minded to the benefits of establishing strong working relationships with artists, we were treated to Amgueddfa Cymru’s visual log of their ‘Museum in a House’ project in Roath, Cardiff.

Left: giant deer skull and antlers in the Museum of Ireland’s stores [1]. Right: artwork created using a cast of these antlers by artist Paul Gregg [2]

Conceived and designed as part of a local modern arts festival, the idea of deliberately displaying natural history items outside a museum context had unsettled me slightly, given the recent focus at my own museum to saturate an exhibition of historic art with rural life context, at once visual, audible and intellectual. No need to worry, though, as Jen Gallichan and Annette Townsend ably demonstrated great enthusiasm throughout the project, with a non-hierarchical team allowing for freedom of everyone’s ideas on design, content and installation, from volunteers to curators.

Displays from Amgueddfa Cymru’s ‘Museum in a House’. Left: an arthropod-covered snooker table. Middle: Two dung beetles fight over a vital resource. Right: garden windows bring to mind giant microscope slides [3]

This collaborative and fun approach yielded excellent results, and even some context drawn from popular art and culture of recent decades: suspended taxidermy harked back to the mid 20th century, while the family’s DVD collection was carefully arranged to highlight animal- and nature-related films such as Jurassic Park and Madagascar. The aim was to excite the local art world with a playful exhibition, and create new interest in natural history collections. In this they excelled, seeing 600 visitors in 10 hours, with many visitors returning later with friends and relatives. On-the-hoof creation of a ‘nature trail’ proved the value of freedom of ideas, added purpose to a visit and created another layer of engagement with the artistically-minded public.

Left: Flying taxidermy in the stairwell of the museum in a house [3]. Right: porcelain flying ducks in a 1950s living room display at the Museum of East Anglian Life [4]

Speaking immediately afterwards, Kay McCrann further strengthened the case for the role art (this time fine art) can play to increase awareness and popularity of natural history collections. William Jones’ 18th century taxonomic work ‘Icones’ and Jeff Gabel’s modern line drawings were front and centre. Gabel is known for drawing portraits of real and imagined subjects, while naturalists may have to draw specimens arranged in their mind’s eye to portray all pertinent features for taxonomic identification. Both Jones’ and Gabel’s works are confined using borders. These shared aspects of process and composition between modern artists and historic naturalists offer a handle for appreciators of fine art to begin to appreciate the value of natural history collections and connect to the natural world.

Left: ‘Praimus no. 1′ from William Jones’ ‘Icones’ [5]. Right: Jeff Gabel’s work ‘Art Historian Waiting…’ [6]

At the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL), 34 historic oil paintings, watercolours, and drawings rub shoulders with rarely-seen objects from the museum’s stores. Each item illustrates a facet of rural life in East Anglia during the last two centuries: horse shoes sit alongside a thatcher’s needle; a lady’s bonnet overlooks a model wagon; a shepherd’s smock stands sentinel over the whole. The artefacts emphasise a specific item or theme in each artwork, offering our reliable visitor base a gateway to the appreciation of the splendid art on offer, while a soundtrack of birdsong and traditional song, of water mills and farriers and farmyards transports the physical displays into their wider natural environment.

Left: a local shepherd’s smock. Middle: an assortment of MEAL’s objects. Right: A birdcage overlooks its corresponding painting [7]

At MEAL, interest in art arises when art is placed in the context of our collections and our 75-acre site, but it’s not a one-way street. Amgueddfa Cymru generated huge excitement and interest in the museum by removing specimens from a museum context, while at the National Museum of Ireland and in fine art research interest in natural history arises through its relationship with art organisations, the creative process and artists themselves.

James Lumbard

Museum of East Anglian Life

 

References

1. NMING:F7768
Megaloceros giganteus (Blumenbach, 1799)
Skull with antlers, complete, of male giant deer; Jamestown, Co. Tipperary.
Gift: Major Purefoy Poe in 1946 (accession NMINH:1946.14)
O’Rourke 1970, fig. 37 (p. 110). O’Rourke, J. (1970) The fauna of Ireland: an introduction to the land vertebrates. Mercier Press, Cork.
Reynolds 1929, fig. 11 c, p. 29. Reynolds, S.H. (1929) The Pleistocene giant deer. Palaeontographical Society [Monographs] 81 (371): 1-62
2.‘Ancient Ecology Pavilion’ at St. Mary’s CBS. Image copyright Paul Gregg, 2016. Image available from: http://paulgreggstudio.com/stmary.php
3.‘What’s In Store At No. 32?’, Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales, 2015. J Gallicgan, pers. comm, May 2016
4.‘Home Close’, Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket, Suffolk. Image copyright James Lumbard, 2016
5.‘Praimus’, no. 1, Icones Volume 1, William Jones, 1783. Image available from: http://www.jonesicones.com
6.‘Art Historian waiting…’ #22 of 50, 2nd Series. Jeff Gabel, 2004. Image available from: http://stolperer.blogspot.co.uk
7.‘Life through the Eyes of East Anglian Artists’, The Day Collection and Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket, Suffolk. Image copyright James Lumbard, 2016

NatSCA 2016: Inspiring Connections to the Natural World

Why NatSCA?

Joining NatSCA, for me, means being part of a group that makes me feel at home. By that I mean, being with others who view nature (living or dead) from a different perspective, and will look at something with a keen interest regardless of its condition – decomposing, or completely expired (like the barn resident below).

Skeleton from a barn (2016). Image: Sarah Scarlet-Farr

Skeleton from a barn (2016). Image: Sarah Scarlet-Farr

Membership of NatSCA also means being part of a support network, closing gaps we feel are limiting in terms of knowledge and skills. No one person can be an expert in everything, and sharing our experience with fellow colleagues helps us to look after and protect the collections we manage for future generations.

Why the NatSCA 2016 Conference?

This year’s conference was my first. The subject ‘How museums inspire our connection to the natural world’ was one everyone could relate to at any age or stage in life. It presented the opportunity to connect with like-minded colleagues sharing their experiences in live presentations, poster contributions, and from trade stands.

Taxidermy insides: rat form by Jazmine Miles-Long. Image: Sarah Scarlet-Farr

Taxidermy insides: rat form by Jazmine Miles-Long. Image: Sarah Scarlet-Farr

Taxidermy in progress: half-finished pigeon by Jazmine Miles-Long. Image: Sarah Scarlet-Farr

Taxidermy in progress: half-finished pigeon by Jazmine Miles-Long. Image: Sarah Scarlet-Farr

Selected Conference Highlights (for me):

Jennifer Gallichan and Annette Townsend’s ‘Museum in a House: Collections out of context’ contributed an inspirational presentation demonstrating the benefits of enabling practitioners to offer fun, creative and uniquely energising engagements with the public by utilising community support and unique venues.

Tom Hartman’s presentation on ‘Engaging with objects and images: using zoology specimens for outreach and education’ emphasised that having the freedom and opportunity to use collections without restriction, or organisational expectation, can support the development of ideas that better inspire and engage its users.

Sarah Wade’s presentation, ‘The Art of Craftivism in Museums’ demonstrated that problems such as pollution, poaching and extinction can be presented in an approachable and inspired way in tandem with showcasing beautiful ethical artwork (who would believe a Sainsbury’s plastic bag could be so stunning?).

Jazmine Miles-Long’s presentation, ‘How taxidermy can inspire us to view collections in a different light’ reminds us all that, whatever material we have in our collection, we should be fearless in our use of it and derive inspiration by connecting with it in many different ways. I was certainly engaged by the materials demonstrated for taxidermy mounts.

Chris Orgil, Adam S. Smith and Sheila Wrights’s poster, ‘Engaging the Public with Taxidermy Restoration at Wollaton Hall’ provided an illustrative snapshot of how sharing the processes involved in the restoration and colour correction of specimens can provide new forms of public engagements, and so inspire exhibitions and inventive collections’ learning spaces.

Creativity

A creative approach can help present controversial or sensitive topics with impact, yet greater subtlety. It can be used to deconstruct perceptions and create interpretive dialogues about nature between communities, and strengthen peoples’ connections with nature – in ways that suit them and meet their needs. Making room for a connection sometimes means moving out of a comfort zone, but If we retain curiosity we open our minds and so can inspire others.

Free-styling

What I appreciated most was that to inspire connections to nature means we must not control the experience of our visitors. Connecting to nature is not simply about transferring facts and figures.

We should aim to be less prescriptive about the limits of our offers to audiences to enable more artistic, inventive and playful engagements to take place.

As custodians of collections, we need to respond to our public. This means being open to alternative ideas, new ways of thinking, and exploring engagements utilising all our senses.

 

I am very grateful to NatSCA for supporting my attendance at this year’s conference.

Sarah Scarlet-Farr

University of St. Andrews

The John Ellerman Foundation Skills Sharing Initiative

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I am currently coordinator of a rather ambitious project developed by Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and the South West Museum Development Programme. The project has been renamed ‘South West Area of Natural Science Collections Project‘ (SWANS), and it aims to identify where knowledge and skill gaps lie across the South West sector via a survey, and then develop training events to help address any losses.

Three intense training courses are being developed for the partner organisations, and these include carcass preparation, fossil preparation, documentation and digitisation of natural science collections. The carcass prep has already been undertaken, and was hugely educational to the attendees.

Rhian Rowson and Matt Williams sharing skills at Carcass Prep training

Rhian Rowson and Matt Williams sharing skills at Carcass Prep training

We have just delivered the first of two introductory seminars on working with natural science collections, and a further four specialised workshops will be developed to target the sector’s needs. Preventative conservation has been highlighted as of particular relevance to the mixed group of collection managers. Four NatSCA committee members are partners of this project, so we can keep you up to date with developments. Follow us on Twitter @SWANS_JEF, and we also have a dedicated webpage for the project: http://www.southwestmuseums.org.uk/projects-grants/john-ellerman-foundation-project/

Deb Hutchinson delivering a lecture on documentation at Bristol Museum (© Bristol Culture BMAG)

Deb Hutchinson delivering a lecture on documentation at Bristol Museum (© Bristol Culture BMAG)

I have just touched on a couple of the developments we are working on. There is much more to come!

Victoria Purewal
Senior Curator of Natural Science, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
NatSCA Conservation Representative

 

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Natural Science and the Law Seminar

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A joint meeting between the South West Area of Natural Science Collections (SWANS) and NatSCA on ‘Natural Science and the Law‘ has been organised for June 15th at Bristol University. Save the date, as it looks to be a very interesting and relevant seminar on law and legislation.

There will be speakers covering asbestos in geology collections, radioactive specimens, and the Nagoya protocol, which is something that we need to be aware of, as well as CITES and the laws regarding collecting and movement of dead animals.

This event is now available to book on Eventbrite. See here for details: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/natural-science-collections-and-the-law-seminar-tickets-24822253027

The Nature of Collections

The Nature of Collections: How Museums Inspire Our Connection to the Natural World

This was the theme for the NatSCA conference, held this week at the Silk Mill and Derby Museum and Art Gallery (21 – 22 April 2016), and the timing could not have been better, as I have been organising a ‘Spring Flower Power’ event at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG). With support from the staff and Bristol Naturalists Society we had a really great day, teaching the public about what is in flower at this time of year. I was also able to network with a group and a region I am wholly unfamiliar with, having worked and lived in Cardiff for many years.

The Flower Identification table at Bristol Museum (© Bristol Culture BMAG)

The Flower Identification table at Bristol Museum (© Bristol Culture BMAG)

Flowers have not been in the main hall for many years now, and they really had an impact on the staff and public. Bringing the outdoors in can be inspiring, and it is something museums have been doing for decades. I was sent the picture below by the Bristol Naturalists Society (BNS). It shows Ivor Evans, a keen and well established botanist, admiring the table he helped set up with Ida Roper back in pre-war Bristol, still going strong in the 1960s.

Ivor Evans at Bristol Musuem during the 1960s with the Flower table he helped develop (© Bristol Naturalist Society)

Ivor Evans at Bristol Musuem during the 1960s with the Flower table he helped develop (© Bristol Naturalist Society)

Victoria Purewal
Senior Curator of Natural Sciences, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
NatSCA Conservation Representative