Stirring the hornet’s nest – are natural science collections even legal?

I was wrapping up a particularly difficult male peacock with a helper a few weeks ago and we were discussing natural science collections. “Do you think one day they’ll just be made illegal?” she asked, straight-faced and sincere. I was miffed – this was someone saying to a natural science curator that really, it shouldn’t be allowed. I sighed and spent the rest of the wrapping session (porcupine was also tricky) explaining how wonderful – and legal – natural science collections are.

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Meet the NatSCA Committee – Lucie Mascord

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Ordinary Member

Name: Lucie Mascord

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee? I am the new Conservation Representative

Job title and institution: Conservator of Natural History, Lancashire Conservation Studios

Twitter username: @LuceGraham

Tell us about your day job: I am a specialist natural history conservator, working for a museums service and my own business. In both, I provide conservation services to the heritage and private sector. This is mainly in the North West – everywhere from Cumbria or to Cheshire, but my work has taken me all over the country which means I get to visit lots of new collections.

My role covers all scope of natural history collections but I specialise in bone, fluid preserved collections and taxidermy. My work is incredibly varied; as well as a conservator I am a preparator – preparing bone, skins, taxidermy and fluid preserved material. I can spend 200 hours plus conserving a single specimen, or carry out a whole collection survey in 72 hours! I also provide training to institutions in natural history collections care.

 

Visiting the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée

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

Overall, I think it is about innate curiosity – the natural world is deeply fascinating and diverse. The reason natural history collections are popular with children is they are still in that stage of uninhibited curiosity.

Our interest and relationship to natural history collections has changed and evolved over time, but I have also observed that some of those traditional links with natural history collections are being revived. I think hobbyist specimen collecting and preparing is having a resurgence; there are more curiosity shops and natural history dealerships popping up; and natural history has been all over interior design for years now. It is very evident that we are in a taxidermy popularity peak at the moment, unfortunately it’s for reasons I don’t much like – the morbid factor. Isn’t it fashionable to be macabre! This very much celebrates badly crafted and poorly preserved specimens (very Victoriana). On the other hand, this is an engaged audience whom we can positively interest in our collections.

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

I think everyone in the community would agree that the loss of specialist knowledge and skills is really concerning. I am particularly concerned that these are also undervalued. We are continually having the conversation about whether we need them, and I think “specialists” within the museum community can often be characterised as inflexible, uncompromising and routed in “old-fashioned” practice when it comes to the use of our collections. This is an erroneous stereotype. Natural history collections, more so than any other, have to progress with research and science so not to become redundant.

With natural history conservation, these risks to skills are further magnified. There are very few specialists nowadays, and little appreciation of how vital the skills involved are. In many museum roles, we all find ourselves asked to take on more, this may sometimes manifest itself in untrained staff taking on conservation work on natural history collections. This would never be considered acceptable on oil paintings, so why should it be acceptable on other materials! Even within the conservation sector the specialist role can be overlooked.

We need to stand firm on our position on the need for specialist skills, and demand that our specialists are utilised in the work with our collections, and in training.

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

I never wanted a 9-5 job or a desk job. I studied in human anatomy, and rather fancy myself as a forensic pathologist. I also wanted to pursue my art and anatomical illustration. In many ways, my current career is a good mix of all those things.

What is your favourite museum, and why?

I have a soft spot for the place I started my career as a volunteer, the Victoria Gallery and Museum at the University of Liverpool. It is worth visiting alone just to see the incredible Waterhouse architecture and glazed tile interior.

My favourite natural history collection is the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée in Paris, but the top spot has to go to the People’s History Museum in Manchester – sometimes it’s good to have a break from natural history. It’s invigorating to visit a museum that challenges you and inspires change.

Written by Lucie Mascord, Conservator of Natural History, and NatSCA Committee Member.

NatSCA Digital Digest – July

What Should I Read?

If you like a good nose, the second part of TetZoo’s Elephant Seal article has just been published, which you can read here. And here is a thoughtfully placed link to the first part in case you missed it and wanted to catch up.

For a fun bit of ‘history of natural history’, this article is all about the secret that the Natural History Museum’s blue whale has been hiding since the 1930s, unknown to anyone until it’s recent clean prior to the big unveiling next week. Those naughty conservators… chuckle.

Whilst some of this article raised my quizzical-shark-scientist’s-eyebrow, such as the scale bar for instance, researchers believe they have uncovered a big clue as to why the Megalodon went extinct. Definitely worth a read if, like everyone, you like sharks. Although this article came out in January, it is receiving media attention at the moment so I thought I’d treat you to it.

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Confessions of an Amateur Aquarist: Having an Aquarium in a Museum Exhibition

Sea Life: Glimpses of the Wonderful‘ is the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery’s (RAMM) 2017 summer exhibition. It takes inspiration from the works of PH Gosse. Gosse was a Victorian naturalist who lived near Torquay and spent his time exploring the coast. He wrote many popular books and RAMM is fortunate to have over 100 of his original artworks.

Devonshire cup coral. Teaching aid drawn in coloured chalk by PH Gosse. (Image courtesy of Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery).

Gosse is well known for his interest in aquariums. He invented the word aquarium and was among the first to keep animals alive successfully. In 1856 he published a book; ‘The aquarium: an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea’, and was also partly responsible for the aquarium craze that gripped Victorian England.

The exhibition team decided that no exhibition on rock pooling and aquariums was complete without a real one set up in the gallery.  Kids keep fish as pets – can’t be that hard … or so we thought. I’d like to share a few things we have learnt over the past few months: Continue reading

Unexpected Natural History in a Sporting Museum

As a Curator at a Sporting Museum you may be wondering how my blog relates to Natural Science Collections… I am lucky enough to work at the National Horseracing Museum; part of the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art, recently shortlisted for Museum of the Year 2017!

A major redevelopment and move to a 5 acre site has allowed the Museum a huge expansion.  Our new galleries include exhibitions dedicated to the science of the sport and the racehorse. Within these we are fortunate to possess some specimens on long term loan as well as some wonderful new loans from our fellow, and more obviously natural science, museums.

The redevelopment has been a great way to (rapidly) develop collection handling, packing and moving skills!

The redevelopment has been a great way to (rapidly) develop collection handling, packing and moving skills! (© National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art and Animal Health Trust).

The skeleton of racehorse Hyperion was on display in our old Museum and formed the main focus of the previous scientific displays along with a small veterinary collection.  We have a few other equine specimens in the permanent and loan collection; two taxidermied horse heads, a tail and, my particular favourite, our mini spirit collection of 3 horse forelimbs and an aneurysm. Continue reading

‘Provocative Practice’: New Ways of Working with Natural Science Collections

A 70 foot long whale skeleton hangs overhead a fantastic ‘collection’ of natural science curators, collection managers, conservators, and education and museum professionals, busily gathering around and eagerly greeting each other at this year’s annual Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) conference. As Natural History Museum ‘fly’ specialist Erica McAlister tweeted: “If that fell that’s most of UK’s natural history curators & conservators wiped out”.

NatSCA delegates gathering below the newly hung Fin Whale. Photograph by Simon Jackson, shown thanks to University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

This year’s event (#NatSCA2017), at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, had a record 110 delegates, and as such was the biggest NatSCA conference to date. At the heart of the conference was the new Whale Hall, part of an enormous redevelopment project of the David Attenborough Building. As many of us marvelled at the huge leviathan overhead, the rest of us rushed between advertising sponsor stalls, exchanged ideas, caught up with one another and most importantly, fuelled up on coffee!

Feeling inspired, we were ready to begin this year’s talks on the theme: “Evolving Ideas: Provocative New Ways of Working with Collections” as Paolo Viscardi, NatSCA Chair, keenly ushered us in to the main lecture theatre. Continue reading

NatSCA Digital Digest – June

Three-toed sloth (C) Horniman Museum and Gardens

What Should I Read?

Four new dinosaurs all under one article, plus a good reason to check what’s in your museum stores more carefully. Dr Dave Hone introduces a cavalcade of new giant dinosaurs.

We all want to live in a perfect world where all museum records are available online, so why don’t we just digitise everything huh? Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives tackles The Question so many of us seem to get asked: Why don’t archivists digitize everything?

Not so much a blog or article to read, but definitely something to have a quick look at for it’s wow factor alone. If you’re looking for inspiration for your next event, be it for children or adults, it doesn’t come much better than these balloon animals and insects. These incredible balloon sculptures are by artist Masayoshi Matsumoto, and are just amazing. Continue reading