Object Lessons; Manchester Museum

Most curators have those niggling objects at the back of their stores. Models and illustrations previously used for teaching or display in the dim and distant past, but kept for a rainy day. Not quite real objects and not the kind of thing you would necessarily want to accession.

Well, we’ve embraced these wonderful objects in our new exhibition: Object Lessons.

Brendel Models, George Loudon Collection

Brendel Models, George Loudon Collection

Object Lessons celebrates the scientific model and illustration collection of George Loudon. Each of these finely crafted objects was created for the purpose of understanding the natural world through education, demonstration and display.

The object-rich exhibition will look at this incredible collection through themes such as Craftsmanship, the Teaching Museum and the Microscopic.

George’s collection will be displayed alongside stunning models from Manchester Museum and World Museum, Liverpool.

Here’s a selection of some of my favorites in the exhibition:

Octopus, Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, Manchester Museum

Octopus, Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, Manchester Museum

 

Papier-mache wild turkey, George Loudon collection, (image courtesy of Rosamond Purcell)

Papier-mache wild turkey, George Loudon collection, (image courtesy of Rosamond Purcell)

 

Victorian Plesiosaur model, Manchester Museum

Victorian Plesiosaur model, Manchester Museum

 

Cactus teaching poster, Manchester Museum

Cactus teaching poster, Manchester Museum

There are loads more amazing things in the exhibition never been on display before. Can’t wait!

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, Manchester Museum

@paleomanchester

To dress a wolf

I like a nice little link to a place I am visiting. And there is a wonderful (if not a little tenuous) link between where I work in Plymouth and Cambridge. Charles Darwin studied theology at University of Cambridge in the old oak clad lecture theatres. And it was through the connections he made at Cambridge that set him on board the HMS Beagle, on a journey that would change the world of scientific thinking forever. The HMS Beagle, with Darwin and all the crew, set sail from in Plymouth after a three month delay. It’s a neat little link.

With such a strong historic links to science, there was perhaps no better place suited to hold the NatSCA conference 2017. Even the theme title linked in, with a little nod to Darwin (those clever committee members): Evolving ideas: provocative new ways of working with collections.

Despite being at the tail end of an enormous £3 million redevelopment project, The Cambridge Museum of Zoology hosted the conference. This was the biggest NatSCA conference to date, with 110 delegates attending. With this in mind, and the huge pressures with their redevelopment project, all the museum staff made it seemed effortless. Natalie Jones, Matt Lowe and colleagues at the Museum of Zoology did a fantastic job with everything from the set up to organising the conference meal.

The newly hung Finback Whale at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. (Photo by Paolo Viscardi)

The talks over the two days certainly were provocative, engaging and inspiring. There was quite a range of fantastic speakers from all over the UK, and even from Berlin, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. With 26 talks in total, it is impossible to summarise them all below. It is even more difficult to choose just a couple, because there were so many interesting topics covered; working with teenagers, destructive sampling, and even repatriating natural history collections to name a few. You can catch up on thoughts and comments on the talks with the conference hashtag #NatSCA2017. Over the next couple of months the talks will be shared on the blog, in the NatSCA Notes and Comments, or in the NatSCA Journal.

One talk in particular did seem to split the group: ‘Animals and Who’ presented by Ian Trumble at Bolton Library & Museum Service. This talk discussed a temporary exhibition using museum specimens in the library. The display used taxidermy specimens to link to popular children’s books: a wolf for Little Red Riding Hood, a rabbit for Peter Rabbit, etc. A nice idea. Only these museum taxidermy specimens were dressed in human clothing to make them look more like the characters from the books. They certainly looked different, and from the talk there were lots of positive comments from the visitors taken from their social media push; #AnimalsandUs (although we didn’t see any negative comments – all exhibitions have negative comments!). The displays linked nicely to the books, which is fantastic promotion for the library.

What big teeth you have. A specimen from the natural history collections at Bolton Library and Museum Service. Would you dress a taxidermy specimen from your natural history collections? Tweet your thoughts: #DressAWolf (Photo by Jack Ashby)

For me, I found it a little uncomfortable. The animals themselves are impressive, so I didn’t see the point in dressing them up. The argument was given that there was a greater visual impact with the animals in clothing, again, I disagreed. The display was in the main library in Bolton; on the ground floor (the Museum is up on another level). The library had never before had a museum display in their space, so clearly a taxidermy exhibition in that area is already visually impressive without the need for dressing it up. The taxidermy wolf was dressed in a nightie, similar to one from Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf is an incredible, impressive creature without making it look silly in a nightie. What I found most uncomfortable was that I felt the display took away the real beauty of those animals, and their stories for the Museum. The focus of the displays was the animals in the books, and I feel that these could have been even more dramatic and real for visitors by displaying the natural looking animals; these are what the authors took inspiration from.

Of course some people agreed with my arguments in the coffee break, and others really enjoyed the displays and the different ways of displaying taxidermy. Despite disagreeing personally with the display, I liked that the exhibition at Bolton Museum took a bold jump to do something different. Agree or disagree with the dressing up of taxidermy specimens, this talk did get people talking and thinking differently about how we can, and perhaps should, display our collections.

There were so many other talks that could have lengthy discussions: 3D printing specimens for handling and open display (is the real thing better?), destructive sampling (should we or shouldn’t we?), food in galleries (a big ‘no no’ or a great commercial opportunity?), and each discussion does not have a clear and simple answer.

It was an excellent conference. Not only were the talks and discussions thought provoking, the atmosphere was wonderfully positive and inspirational. Once a year we come together at the NatSCA conference. Old friends being geeky in a place they feel at home. New friends being welcomed. There is always a little sadness when I leave the conference: Sad that it will be another year before I see these wonderful people again. But I also leave feeling proud; to see how naturally and easily everyone gets along, and proud to belong to such an inspirational, incredibly talented group of professionals, whom I am also proud to call friends.

Written by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.

Not Just Old Birds in Cases

This article is reposted from the Stories from the Museum Floor blog by the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum

Not Just old Birds in Cases – The Value of Natural History Collections

The most recent exhibition ‘Extinction or Survival?’ at Manchester Museum has brought many interesting ideas and suggestions from a wide group of visitors about how we can change our future. Several comments have mentioned animals kept in museums and collections, for example, “Stop killing animals to put in a museum” or “help all the animals by collecting DNA … and … not get stuffed like … in museums”. These comments have inspired me to write about the importance of natural history collections, especially the value of bird collections.

deana 2Comment card left at the ‘Extinction or Survival?’ exhibition at Manchester Museum, 2017.

Whether collecting birds for science is still necessary remains a hotly debated topic. However, the value of scientific collections cannot be questioned. Research or reference collections are still making crucial contributions in documenting biodiversity in time and space, and understanding species’ ecology and evolution, vital for conservation strategies. Furthermore, collections and museum have an important role in preserving and caring for past and present natural heritage and providing educational opportunities.

CAN COLLECTING BIRDS FOR SCIENCE BE A THREAT TO NATURAL POPULATIONS?

Among the most significant causes of bird mortality in the UK are window strikes, for example against houses and buildings, and capture by domestic cats. The British Trust for Ornithology estimates that up to 33 million birds are killed by windows each year. The Mammal Society estimates that 55 million birds are caught by cats annually. By contrast, all bird collections in museums represent only a tiny fraction of the above numbers. But even cats do not cause decline in natural populations, in fact, the most significant threat to bird species worldwide is habitat loss.

BIRD COLLECTION BEHIND THE SCENES

Manchester Museum holds around 15,000 study skins, or bird specimens, from 3,000 different species, they were mostly collected between 1850 to 1950. All study skins are kept in labelled drawers in cabinets, organised in taxonomic order. If you want to know where the Manchester Museum’s birds come from, see here.

deana 3Drawers of study skins at Manchester Museum. (Photo: Ian McKerchar – see Further reading)

Study skins are different from taxidermy. Taxidermy preserves an animal in a lifelike position by stuffing and mounting the body for display in galleries and exhibitions. On the other hand, a study skin preserves the animal in a simple, un-lifelike position (in birds, resting on their backs), but useful for research. All the information associated with the specimen is kept on a label attached to the study skin.

diana 4Taxidermy of Pouter Pigeon (domesticated variety of Columba livia) and Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Living Worlds, Manchester Museum.

FullSizeRender (1)Study skin of the extinct Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum.

WHY SCIENTIFIC COLLECTIONS ARE IMPORTANT

Natural history specimens provide useful information for disciplines such as taxonomy, anatomy, morphology and ecology, among many others. The information associated with each specimen, for example, date and location, also provide important information about distribution, diet, breeding, geographical variation and much more. Darwin’s theory of evolution would not have been conceived without collections.

dian 4Warbler Finch (Certhidea olivacea) study skin from Charles Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, held at Manchester Museum. (Photo: Manchester Museum, University of Manchester)

Many study skin labels can be found around the museum galleries.

diana 8aLabel of a male Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), now extinct, collected in Toronto, Canada in April 1875 by I. Morley. ‘Extinction or Survival?’ exhibition.

dian 5Label of the extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), collected in Enterprise, Florida, United States in February 1875 by I. Morley. Nature’s Library gallery.

HOW BIRD COLLECTIONS ARE STILL USED TODAY – FOUR EXAMPLES

1. Illustrations

Bird books have always been a useful tool, not only for ornithologists, but also for birdwatchers. To identify species, illustrations can describe patterns, colours, shapes, sizes and other characteristics better than photographs. Many illustrators and painters have been using bird study skins for this purpose since the early 19th century.

Johannes Gerardus Keulemans was a Dutch bird illustrator, working in England in the 19th century. His illustration of Great Northern Diver can be appreciated in Nature’s Library next to the bird specimen that inspired it. The specimen is part of Henry Dresser’s bird collection, held at the Manchester Museum since 1899.

Study skin of the Great Northern Diver (Gavia immer) collected by Henry Dresser and the painting by J.G. Keulemans in Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum.

Guy Tudor and John Gwynne, artists and bird illustrators, produced beautiful colour plates, modelled on specimens in bird collections, for the guide to the Birds of Colombia and the guide to the Birds of South America. The drawings show different plumage according to age, sex, breeding status and subspecies.

Cover: The Birds of South America.

2. Describing new species from old specimens

After many years of remaining lost in drawers in museum collections, new bird species can come to light. Ornithologists revising and working with collections have described new species that were previously confused with similar species, often due to poor data on their labels. Many of them are now rare or possibly extinct. For example, Antioquia Brush Finch (Atlapetes blancae) was described by British ornithologist Thomas Donegan in 2007 from just three specimens in Colombian museums. It has not been seen in the wild since it was collected in 1971. It is currently classified as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct).

dian 9Comparison of Antioquia Brush Finch (Atlapetes blancae) with similar species from Colombia. (Figure: Bulletin of the British Ornithological Club, 2007 – see Further reading)

Who knows what may be in Manchester Museum waiting to be discovered?

3. Effect of climate change on bird distributions

Locality information on labels, that is, where the specimen was found, is vital for studies to predict changes in animal distributions due to climate change. These modern techniques make use of specimens that were collected long before computers or scientific climate models. A study in Colombia using different scenarios to predict the effects of climate change on globally threatened birds showed that in most cases species were projected to have smaller ranges while some others disappeared as a consequence of climate change. Museum collections were the main source of data for the models.

diana 10Map showing the predicted percent of species’ range loss in Colombia. (Figure: Regional Environmental Change, 2012 – see further reading)

4. Revealing secrets of evolution

There are still many questions to be answered about evolution. A project attempting to understand how and why bird species evolved and colonized different places on Earth used 3D scanners to analyse the size and shape of bird beaks from the Natural History Museum at Tring and Manchester Museum. The project is being run by the University of Sheffield with help from more than 1500 volunteers. More information on how to take part can be found here.

dian 113D scanning equipment for ‘Mark My Bird’ project. (Photo: markmybird.org)

In conclusion, stuffed birds on show at museums, and in the vast collections behind the scenes, are not just dead animals, they are museum specimens, with important associated information. A vital role of museums is to make sure this information can be used today to help us understand more about birds and to conserve wild populations within their natural habitats.

Written by Diana Arzuza Buelvas, Visitor Team Assistant at Manchester Museum

Meet the NatSCA Committee – Paul A. Brown

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Archivist

Name: Paul A. Brown

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee? I am the Archivist, responsible for collecting together the archives from our previous incarnations; The Biology Curators’ Group and The Natural Sciences Conservation Group and more recent NatSCA documents. Most of this sits by my desk. Do any of you membership have anything that could be added?

Job title and institution: Senior Curator, Hemiptera (Sternorrhyncha), Thysanoptera, Phthiraptera, Psocoptera, Collembola, Thysanura, Archaeognatha, Diplura & Protura, Insect Small Orders section, Life Sciences Department, Natural History Museum, London.

Twitter username: I am too old to learn how to have one!

On field work at Scolt Head, Norfolk

On field work at Scolt Head, Norfolk

Tell us about your day job: I am presently responsible for part of the ‘small’ orders listed above. This entails re-curating and data-basing the mostly microscope slide collections and dealing with scientific visitors, loans of material and answering enquiries. I still do some research into the taxonomy of Aphids in particular (see research-gate). Almost 40 years in Museums so according to some, I might know something? If you have problems with microscope slides then who ya gonna call, ‘slide busters?’!

Natural science collections are very popular with visitors. Why do you think this is? The public want to see real or proper models of objects to which they can relate to. Museums are not so much dead zoos as a way to show what there is out there, without having to get your boots muddy during long hours of waiting to see the living things which may only be a fleeting glimpse, in the wild or even in a zoo.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now? Even the National Museums have an uncertain future so there are many great challenges to keep our NatSCA profile high with government and funding bodies so as to continue a proper level of care of and access to our collections. During my working career, there has been a steady erosion of curatorial and conservator expertise and staffing levels and knowledge of the taxonomy of our objects which greatly saddens me. Please do look for information on our website at collections at risk, and join us in defending ours and the nations’ natural heritage.

What would be your career in an alternate universe without museums? Over and above my knowledge of Natural History, I have an interest in writing, photography, drawing genealogy, geomorphology, molinology, ancient buildings, archaeology and history and have been a farm labourer and forester (I still wield a chainsaw). So, without museums, I would probably be a reserve or historic site warden of some sort somewhere in the world.

What is your favourite museum, and why? It has to be the Smithsonian as they have so many real specimens on show and excellent dioramas which have such a ‘wow’ factor and must stimulate visitors to have a love of nature much more than any other museum I have visited! Otherwise maybe H.M.S. Belfast (2nd World War Cruiser) because it is a museum object in its own right and all the problems that this entails, as well as being a ‘museum’ full of objects.

Written by Paul A Brown, Senior Curator at the Natural History Museum, London

NatSCA Digital Digest – April

Colobus monkey © E-L Nicholls

What Should I Read?

I came across a very entertaining blog by Lily Nadine Wilks which looks at the frustrations of museum documentation in Mysteries of the Past. She has been working on the Charles Lyell digitisation project at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Having noticed lately that there are more harlequin ladybirds in my house than there are Lego sets*, I was interested to come across A decade of invasion – a story of Harlequin Ladybird in the UK. I can’t believe THAT many ladybirds exist in the UK having only arrived in 2004. They are clearly a prolific species, if only I could teach them to write research papers.

What Should I Do?

The long awaited 2017 reopening of the Cambridge Museum of Zoology has been put back slightly, and they are still trying to raise funds to get their iconic whale skeleton conserved and remounted. So you may not be able to visit (yet) but what you can do if you’d like is to help fund the whale through the delightfully named Help us #RaisetheWhale fundraising project. Plus you can reap a whaley reward to boot. You can also get the inside scoop on progress if you’re coming to the NatSCA conference later this month!

It is currently Hippo Week at Leeds City Museum. Having popped by yesterday I can say with authority it’s a great museum if you haven’t visited yet, with the ex-rug tiger taxidermy a particular highlight! Until the 9th April, you can also see the entries to the Armley Hippo & Friends drawing and story competition.

What’s Can  I Apply For?

The senior management teams of all natural history collections appear to have got together and declared a moratorium on vacancies at the moment. Don’t despair though, something will come along.

In the mean time, there are two positions at the Horniman Museum if you prefer your collections alive to dead, and quite a few at Kew if your preferred subjects are both alive and botany-shaped, details 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 material from external authors. Email us with your ideas at blog@natsca.org.

* Several hundred

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.

NatSCA Digital Digest- February

 

"What shall I do this month?" Namibian giraffe, image in public domain

“What shall I do this month?”  Namibian giraffe, image in public domain

What Should I See and Do?

I have had a number of people telling me how good the ‘Extinction or Survival‘ exhibition at the Manchester Museum is recently. You have until the 26th April to see it but we all know how fast time flies so don’t keep putting off your trip. And I’ll do the same.

This Saturday (11th February) the New Walk Museum is running ‘Fossils in Focus’ from 11am to 1pm, at which you can fondle some specimens and take in the Museum whilst you’re at it. For more information, check out the Museum’s website.

Opening soon is an exhibition at the Lapworth Museum of Geology (where I began my career! Ahhh fond memories…*) called ‘Where Land Meets Sea’. It is a photographic exhibition of work by Dr. Richard Greswell who, as both a scientist and photographer, has created what looks to be a stunning exhibition. A more detailed description of the exhibition can be found here.

*Completely irrelevant to this blog

What’s Can  I Apply For?

There are a number of natural history posts available at the Natural History Museum at the moment:

If you would like to help ‘maintain and develop a world-class collection of natural history specimens’, choose whether you are more of an Earth Science or a Life Science type museologist and apply to the relevant position here.

If you’re a little further along in your career, and it happens to have been focused on botany, then the same NHM is also looking for a ‘Senior Curator in Charge, Historical Collections and British and European Seed Plants’. Further information is on their website here.

Finally, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is looking for a Documentation Assistant. It may only be a temporary placement but collecting the OUMNH for your CV is well worth the faff.

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.