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

The Robot Zoo: A Must-See Exhibition

This bat robot is nearly 20 x life-size. The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

This bat robot is nearly 20 x life-size. The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The reaching-for-the-moon aim of any natural history exhibition is to get the perfect combination of knock-your-socks-off-fun and wow-I-didn’t-know-that-informative, for both children and adults, because (obviously) that attracts the biggest crowd.

Appealing to everyone is pretty much an unobtainable goal. A wise man, who I call Dad, once relayed the phrase to me ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time’*. However some, albeit rare, exhibitions, through some manner of dark magic combined with an alignment of moons from all over the universe manage to come together in such a way that the exhibition is branded as ‘outstanding’ and ‘captivating’ by journalists and listed as ‘fun for all the family’ on websites and What to do with the kids this half-term guides. These exhibitions are termed blockbusters and are the envy of their less popular exhibition counterparts.

The Robot Zoo, you will probably have guessed by that prologue, is one such exhibition. I had nothing to do with its inception nor its creation, it’s a touring exhibition that has nested temporarily at the Horniman Museum until October. However, as Deputy Keeper of Natural History at said Museum, I feel a level of temporary ownership and pride in its success. Thus I shall sing and dance about it from now until October when it leaves us for another galaxy gallery far, far away.

Full sized white rhinoceros at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Full-sized white rhinoceros at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The exhibition, as it stands in our exhibition space, comprises eight huge animatronic animals, ranging from a full-scale white rhino (second largest land mammal in the world no less) to a gigantic house fly that is 200 x life-size (it’s really not as creepy as that sounds). Each of the models are colourful, moving (kinetically, not emotionally necessarily), and for the most part, interactive. You can lift the head of a white rhino using a crane, which goes some way to demonstrating the immense power of these beautiful animals in real life. You can also change the colours of the chameleon to make it feel either angry or sexy. Presumably, as it’s Valentine’s Day today, it will mostly be feeling sexy, though given the number of people visiting for half-term I suspect this week is going to be a rollercoaster of emotions.

The robots are built out of familiar human objects like microphones and light bulbs, which recreate the internal anatomy of the animals in a way that highlights their special features and biological adaptations. For example, the electrical sensors in the bill of the platypus are represented by large flashing lights (see below), and the mouth parts and digestive system of the house fly have been replaced by a vacuum cleaner that lights up to visually demonstrate how they suck up their self-liquefied lunch**.

Platypus model at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Platypus model at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Dotted around the exhibition are 11 interactive stations that allow you to see, swim and stick to a wall, like the animals featured in the exhibition. You can camouflage against a background like a chameleon (or not if you pick up the wrong outfit), or if you’re feeling more techy, you can echolocate like a bat. You just measure the distance to the prey, you don’t have to eat the bugs.

The colourful information panels, annotated images, interactive games, and impressively sized, moving and flashing animals (not in an inappropriate way) are what make this exhibition the gold star combination of knock-your-socks-off-fun and wow-I-didn’t-know-that-informative. It has something for every attention span, from those who got distracted from this blog before reaching the end of the first paragraph, to the type who reads every exhibition panel and takes notes to boot. (That’s me). I thoroughly advise paying The Robot Zoo a visit, and even better, you don’t need children as an excuse.

*Originally said by John Lydgate

**A fly will dribble saliva onto its meal which begins the digestion process externally. It will then suck up the liquefied goop. Yum.

Written by Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

Top Ten Most Read Blogs of 2016

Blogs to shout about (Dakshin, 2013, image in public domain)

Blogs to shout about (Dakshin, 2013, image in public domain)

2016 was a busy year for the NatSCA blog, we published 27 blogs from a super range of authors on an exciting variety of topics. When looking at the analytics of the blog to see what’s popular, it became apparent that people don’t just read what’s current in terms of publication date, they read what’s relevant to them at the time. This means that on top of the 27 blogs published last year, a further 102 blogs dating back to 2012 were also viewed from our archive, in 2016.

Since its inception in August 2012, there have been 182 blogs published on the NatSCA website, and so with such a large number, it’s really interesting to see what grabbed people’s attention, or search engines, the most.

The top ten most read blogs in 2016 are as follows:

1- Project Airless (2016)

2- Micromuseum: The slide collection of J T Quekett (2016)

3- Cold Case Curation (2016)

4- Vote for the NatSCA Editor (2016)

5- Curators of the Caribbean (2016)

6- How to Store Taxidermy (2016)

7- Margaret Gatty’s Algal Herbarium in St Andrews (2013)

8- Bournemouth’s ‘New’ Museum (2016)

9- Art, Nature, Engagement, and Rural Life (2016)

10- Handle with Care: Bringing Museum Egg Collections to Life (2016)

Of course, the top ten most read blogs in 2016 is different from the top ten blogs OF 2016. As you can see from the dates, only eight of the above ten were published last year. If we discount this archival material, then in ninth place would be Meet the NatSCA Committee: Paolo Viscardi and in tenth place, I was overly excited to see, is the NatSCA Digital Digest; October 2016 (smug face).

2017 has already seen the publication of four blogs posts (five including this one), and a host of exciting goodies are awaiting your perusal in February. You lucky, lucky people.

As editors, my colleagues and I are always looking for new content and avenues of excitement to merrily skip down. So if you would like to get in touch, please email us at blog@natsca.org.

Nature Notes

In 2016 the Herbert held its first in-house natural history exhibition since a major redevelopment was completed in 2008. The exhibition, Nature Notes, explored the seasonal changes in local wildlife by displaying taxidermy, nests, insects, botany and fungi, botanical watercolours, oil paintings and contemporary artworks. It encouraged visitors to look at the natural world around them and the artworks aimed to inspire visitors to respond to nature in a creative way.

Nature Notes was designed to be enjoyed by all and accessibility was a key consideration in developing the interpretation and interactives. Additions to the exhibition included Makaton on the text panels and interactive tables; and the provision of accessibility aids such as torches, magnifying sheets and ear defenders. We considered contradictory needs such specific learning difficulties and visual impairments by producing lower contrast labels and providing high contrast large print text to take round the space.

Gallery view of Nature Notes.

Gallery view of Nature Notes. The seasonal display runs around the wall, with interactives and handling specimens in the centre.

The most popular part of the exhibition was the multi-sensory interactive tables with things to touch, smell and listen to. These were created by using low cost tables with adjustable legs with a vinyl graphic applied so they tied in with the exhibition’s design. Five pieces of taxidermy were commissioned – one of each season, plus a spare mouse. We worked with a local group of disabled and non-disabled teenagers to help us choose the right smells for each table – only the brave dared to smell the otter dung! As each offered the same experience of touch, smell and sound this meant queues did not form around one table, allowing for a better visitor experience.

Nature Notes ran for 20 weeks from July to November 2016 and the visitor target was set at 15,000. The final total was 24,000 visits – over 1200 a week – making Nature Notes one of the most visited exhibitions in that space. We evaluated the impact of the exhibition in several ways including analysis of the comments book and a report conducted by students over the summer holidays.

One of the interactive sensory tables.

One of the interactive sensory tables. The taxidermy specimens were prepared specially for this exhibition.

In the comments book 95% of responses were positive, 2% neutral and 3% negative although most of the negative comments were about taxidermy, rather than the exhibition. The student evaluation included 50 surveys, tracking of 50 visitors and general observation. They found that the sensory tables were the most popular part of Nature Notes. It was also noted the importance of gallery staff to help engage visitors with the tables and guiding them on the use of the accessibility tools available. Overall 40% of those asked wanted another natural sciences exhibition at the Herbert!

Nature Notes was designed to become part of the Herbert Touring programme once the run in Coventry finished. Despite being advertised via the Touring Exhibitions Group and our website, unfortunately we did not have any takers. Feedback has suggested that larger museums already have a gallery on local wildlife and smaller museums were not able to afford the cost of the exhibition, as the touring programme is not subsidised in any way.

However Nature Notes will have a legacy both for the Herbert and more widely. The sensory tables have been kept and one will be lent a local wildlife reserve in April 2017 for their Easter activities. We are considering how best to use the tables in the long term – they might acquire castors and become supervised holiday activities in the permanent galleries.

Locker with accessibility aids, step stools and panel with Makaton

Locker with accessibility aids, step stools and panel with Makaton.

We have learnt a lot through creating Nature Notes and will be applying this knowledge to make future exhibitions more accessible. This project has shown that a lot can be done on a relatively small budget and that this investment can be used beyond the project’s lifetime. As well as the interactive tables being used again the accessibility aids are due to be relocated to the museum’s reception.

On a personal note, delivering this exhibition and getting visitor feedback has been a real pleasure. One moment in particular that stood out was during an audio description tour trial. The gentleman I was guiding had had no visual perception for 30 years and was only partially engaged by the spoken descriptions of objects. However, when I took him to the sensory table and he was able to feel the ears, eyes and nose of the fox he said ‘the exhibition has just come alive for me’.

We would like to thank our funders, NatSCA, the Bill Pettit Memorial Fund and Mander Hadley, whose contributions allowed us to create the exciting sensory tables that proved so popular.

If you would like to find out more about the exhibition please contact Ali Wells, Curator at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum on ali.wells@culturecoventry.com. @HerbertCurators

Written by Ali Wells

SPNHC Annual Meeting 2016

The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) Annual Meeting – Berlin, Germany June 2016

Green Museum – How to Practice what we  Preach

The 31st annual meeting of SPNHC was jointly hosted by the Museum fur Naturkunde (Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science) and the Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum, Berlin (Freie Universitat Berlin).  The GGBN conference on genomics ran in parallel with a joint opening session, trade show and dinner at the Botanical Garden; in all there were probably around four hundred delegates.

The venue was Hotel andel’s with its substantial conference facility, on the northeastern side of the central part of the city.  Unlike the five other SPNHC annual meetings I’ve been able to attend, on this occasion, the conference poster, trade fair and presentations and most of the delegates (other than those of us who sought out cheaper accommodation) were based on one site.  That this was not a museum did feel a bit strange. Evening networking was aided by some great organised activities – a pub quiz at a beer garden in Spandau, a bicycle tour of the city centre (including a stop at the reconstructed section of the Berlin wall) and a meal and dancing at the Botanical Garden.  Museum tours were available in conjunction with the icebreaker session on the Friday afternoon.  The main conference ran from midday Tuesday to midday Friday. The extensive poster display was located within the trade fair and lunch venue so was easy to access.  Voting slips and prizes for the best posters encouraged delegates to engage with this part of the conference.  Unfortunately, I was not able to stay for the weekend of post-conference workshops or enjoy any of the pre-conference trips.

A view within the Botanic Garden, Berlin. (Mauruszat, 2006, image in public domain).

A view within the Botanic Gardens, Berlin. (Mauruszat, 2006, image in public domain).

My reason for attending was to update my knowledge of digitisation and find out what other natural science museums had tried out and succeeded within this field, as well as to promote the geology collection digitisation project at Ludlow Museum via a presentation.  I therefore attended mainly imaging and digitisation sessions.  Sessions covered preventative conservation, iDigBio, SYNTHESIS, GBIF, collections for the future and the Green Museum theme.  By Thursday, in order to accommodate the large number of practitioner presentations, the number of parallel sessions and different themes became rather overwhelming.  Although sessions largely kept to time allowing delegates the option of planning a ‘play-list’ of presentations to attend, the number of concurrent sessions, late nights, 8.30am starts and possibly also the acronyms, meant that audiences were a little sparse in some sessions.

At 200 pages long, the conference publication contained the programme, normal length abstracts of the posters and something I’ve not come across before; two or three page short papers complete with illustrations and references for most of the oral presentations.   This has allowed me to check back, post-conference, on what it was that I missed. However, it was really rather too dense to absorb during the meeting itself.

Highlights – as ever, the multidisciplinary nature of SPNHC meant that people from all branches of the natural sciences and all museum roles were at the meeting allowing for a rich free flowing of ideas.  Paul Mayer of the Field Museum Chicago presented on how digitisation tamed the Tully monster, describing how in three weeks, digital images taken in low angle and polarised light of 1305 specimens in siderite nodules from the US Mazon Creek Formation, Westpahlian D, were used to identify the frequency of morphological features.  The result was the classification of a creature, well known from specimens (and presentations at at least two previous SPNHC meetings) but until this project, un-classified, as an Agnathan fish. This really jumped into focus standing next to Paul looking at hammerhead sharks in the fluid collection gallery on the Museum tour.  Personally, I  was also able to catch up with friends and former colleagues from across the world, some of whom I  haven’t seen for more than a decade.

Presentations ranged from the cutting edge and erudite, through practical solutions, to the wicked issues of collections management.  I learnt that babies could be carbon positive if nappies were cellulose based and recycled into compost, that the synthetic black delegate bag was probably the least green thing about the conference and that as well as benefiting biodiversity, garden based agriculture was far more efficient than large scale agribusiness.  In a twist on the usual apes and human statistic, I was pleased to hear that Homo sapiens and elephants share 70% of the same DNA.  I was also taken back to a task I was allocated in 1988 by ‘a rock is just a rock if it has no data’ in a presentation covering the rationalisation and curation of university Ph.D. research collections.  I was pleased to hear that tight climate control in museums is slowly coming to be recognised as potentially damaging due to rapid fluctuations around the set point, unnecessary and too expensive to operate.  In the refurbishment of the upper floors of the Museum fur Naturkunde it is also deemed to be un-affordable.  The solution developed in the fluid collection gallery is cooling of the gallery walls with buried pipes routing chilled water, and in the upper floor areas currently being refurbished, a sorbent earth based render and plaster wall finish (described as loam) which will serve to buffer extremes of relative humidity.  The pressure to use resources effectively (including the knowledge and ideas to achieve this) was a common theme across all types of museums present at the meeting, with austerity worldwide a key driver – a very different feel to annual meetings I attended early in my museum career where good practice (but also a degree of one upmanship) was the main driver and financial considerations for larger institutions didn’t really come in to it.

Humans and elephants share 70% of the same DNA. (Franklin, 2005, image in public domain).

Humans and elephants share 70% of the same DNA. (Franklin, 2005, image in public domain).

The SPNHC business meeting included a well-deserved award to David Pinniger for his work in developing Integrated Pest Management systems for museums.  It also provided the opportunity to showcase the venue for SPNHC 2017 (Denver, Colorado) and for the team from Otago, New Zealand to present on their proposal to host the meeting in a few years’ time.

Organising a SPNHC annual meeting and conference is a hugely complex process. This meeting was one of the biggest natural history meetings I have ever attended, so must have been especially difficult.  Congratulations must go to the local organising committee, I hope they enjoyed a well earned rest before getting back to their museum jobs.  I would also like to thank the Friends of Ludlow Museum for supporting a significant part of the cost of my attendance at the meeting from the FISH digitization project funds and NatSCA for a training bursary.

By Kate Andrew