Natural History Museums for a World in Harmony with Nature: Now’s the Time!

Written by Henry McGhie, Curating Tomorrow, henrymcghie@curatingtomorrow.co.uk.

Bio: Henry McGhie has a background as an ecologist, museum curator and manager. He set up Curating Tomorrow in 2019 to help empower museums and their partners to contribute to sustainable development agendas, including the Sustainable Developmet Goals (SDGs), climate action, biodiversity conservation, Disaster Risk Reduction and human rights. He is a member of the ICOM Sustainability Working Group, and a Churchill Fellow working on these topics.

This blog post takes in some of the developments over the last couple of years, and sets out some current opportunities for museums with natural history collections to strengthen their contributions to environmental sustainability.

Let’s cast our minds back to 1992, over thirty years ago now, when representatives of all countries agreed to take action in three areas. This was the Rio Earth Summit, which adopted the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (the grandparent of the Paris Agreement) and the Convention to Combat Desertification. It’s entirely possible you may not even have heard of all of these, but don’t worry you’re far from alone. While governments signed onto these agreements, they were broad, framework agreements. It is true that governments were supposed to take the lead in these, and other agreements, but surely sectors – including museums – don’t need to wait to be asked? However, the agreements have just not been turned into action, and that is a fault of governments, but also of the sectors, that could have gained a lot by saying ‘we have something to contribute here’. What I’m proposing isn’t just that museums take up these agreements to look good, sound good, show off, or compete with one another or with other sectors, but to use them as practical tools.

Why? Because connecting with the big picture and international agreements helps museums to:

  • Shape their programmes and activities, to provide people interested in these topics with educational and participatory activities.
  • Put their unique resources to good use in pursuit of positive social and environmental outcomes.
  • Play a significant and distinctive part in an ambitious programme for a better world.
  • Build partnerships and collaborations, with one another and with other sectors, working to shared goals.
  • Create and demonstrate impact, showing that museums and collections are not a nice-to-have, but essential players in securing a future in harmony with nature.
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Flora Explorer: Opening the Cabinets at Portsmouth Museums.

Written by Violet Nicholls, Assistant Curator (Herbarium), Portsmouth Museums.

Plants, lichens and fungi have captured the interests of collectors, scientists and artists for centuries, and I have discovered something about them for myself. As time passes from them being found in the field, they don’t get any less complicated, any less fascinating or any less beautiful. I am about 6 months into a two-year project working on the Guermonprez Herbarium called “Flora Explorer”, which is funded by the Headley Trust.

Image of lichen specimens in open trays
Fig. 1. Drawer of colourful specimens from the lichen cabinet.

The Herbarium

I have been cataloguing and studying the plant, fungi and lichen collections at Portsmouth Museums, and am learning a huge amount about past collecting practices, as well as taxonomy and the collectors themselves. There were so many! Sixty-two different names have cropped up whilst cataloguing the herbarium, with nearly 1000 plant specimens recorded on the database so far. There are around 10,000 plants in the Guermonprez Herbarium in total. How many more names will appear?

Henry Leopold Foster Guermonprez (1858-1924) was a taxidermist, ornithologist and “a botanist who should have been better known”.1 The herbarium is made up of plants collected by Guermonprez and members of his family, plants that were sent to him, and others that were purchased. The large collection was transferred from Bognor Regis Museum to Portsmouth Museum in the 1970’s. Many specimens were collected from West Sussex, where I have lived for most of my life.

“Flora Explorer” builds on work carried out during the “Wild about Portsmouth” project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The herbarium is organised into taxonomic order, stored in sealed herbarium cabinets, and the specimens are being catalogued using the relational database used by over 650 museums in the UK, Modes Complete. Digitising the collection has many benefits as it increases access for researchers, and for people who may need the data but can only obtain it remotely. Through the process I have also been updating the taxonomy where necessary, which adds further value to the collection.

Image of herbarium cabinets at Portsmouth City Museum
Fig. 2. Herbarium cabinets at Portsmouth City Museum, containing plant specimens arranged into taxonomic order.
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Top NatSCA Blogs of 2022

Compiled by Jen Gallichan, NatSCA Blog Editor.

A very Happy New Year to all of our readers and contributors! Being the blog editor is a great job as I get to read all of your fantastic posts first and hear about all of the great work going on out there with natural history collections. To reflect on this, here is a round up of the most read blogs that came out in 2022 in case you missed any of them. A huge thank you to everyone who contributed an article, the blog continues to go from strength to strength and this is purely as a result of your work and writing. The 2023 calendar is half full already – so if you are considering submitting something for later in the year, do drop me a line and get it scheduled in.

10. A Foot In The Door – Finding Collections Work As A Trailing Spouse In A Foreign Country. Written by Caroline Grounds, Freelance Zoological Collections Assistant, Musée national d’histoire naturelle, Luxembourg. A lovely blog about finding your niche in a new country, and showing that collections work has no borders.

My happy place: sorting bees from by-catch from pan traps which we set up throughout the country. © Dylan Thissen

9. Thomas Bateman’s Ichthyosaurs. Written by Alistair McLean, Curator of Natural Science, Sheffield Museums Trust. Documenting the conservation work (part funded by the Bill Pettit award) that helped restore two beautiful Ichthyosaur specimens.

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Listening and learning: Reflections on the Second Workshop of the People and Plants Project

Written by Fiona Roberts. Collaborative ESRC PhD student, Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales Decolonising biocultural curation of South Asian medicinal plants.

Monday 7th November, National Museums Collections Centre

In early November, a group of academics, researchers, curators, artists and knowledge holders gathered at Edinburgh’s National Museums Collections Centre. The second workshop of the year-long AHRC-funded ‘People and Plants’ project focused on ‘reactivating ethnobotanical collections as material archives of Indigenous ecological knowledge.’

During the object handling session (Photo by Dr Ali Clark, National Museums Scotland)

The People and Plants Project

Led by National Museums Scotland, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Powell-Cotton Museum, the project investigates current debates on decolonising museum practices, including the interplay between natural history and ethnography collections, creating a conversation about these among varied experts.

The project’s previous workshop, held at the Powell-Cotton Museum in March 2022, brought together Somali knowledge holders from UK diasporic communities and was run in partnership with the University of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation and the NOMAD project, which engages Somali communities in heritage projects. To read more, see this previous blogpost, and view workshop talks on YouTube [People and Plants – YouTube].

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Ostracod Odessey – Broadcasting the Brady Collection

Written by Dan Gordon, Keeper of Biology, The Great North Museum: Hancock.

The Great North Museum : Hancock is home to many remarkable collections, but one of the most important is perhaps one of the most unfamiliar to our visitors. The Brady collection of Ostracods.

Ostracods, sometimes called Seed Shrimp, are distinctive Class of crustaceans. A shell of two intricately textured valves almost entirely envelopes their shrimp-like bodies, with just a small opening for a cluster of rapidly moving legs to poke out. As their common name suggests, most species are very small, mostly invisible to human eye, but they’re ubiquitous, busily going about their lives wherever there is permanent or temporary water, from the poles to the tropics. Some swarm the world’s oceans in vast planktonic shoals, while others live in the still, dark pools of caves, in garden ponds or even puddles.

They’re poorly known outside of academic communities, which is a real shame, because despite being fascinating creatures in their own right, they have important roles in many aquatic ecosystems, and significantly, they’re commonly encountered in the fossil record, which means that they are particularly important indicator fossils. In addition, the chemical make-up of their distinctive shells tells us about ocean acidity and temperature, which can tell us about ocean warming and climate change.

The collection was the work of George Stewardson Brady, a local man, born in Gateshead in 1832, and one of the people who pioneered the study of these animals at a time when they were relatively poorly understood.  Housed in a row of cabinets, the Brady collection is made up of nearly 3000 microscope slides with up to 100 Ostracods on each. These specimens were collected all over the world, many of them by well-known expeditions such as the HMS Challenger expeditions in the 1870s. It contains many Types, and provides a valuable resource for the study of these animals today.

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