Diving into a Coral Reef with Cambridge Communities

Written by Sara Steele, Museum Education Assistant, Museum of Zoology and Roz Wade, Learning Officer, Museum of Zoology.

This article was first published as a blog for University of Cambridge Museums, 1st June 2020.

Our audiences are full of creativity, something we see in bucketfuls at our events and workshops. We wanted to go further, and showcase audience creations and collaborations in our programming and displays.

As a Museum celebrating the wonders of the natural world, we have an innate desire to protect it. We have committed to embedding sustainability into our public programme : tackling the materials we use and considering the impacts of activity outputs. Not all craft day creations end up on the fridge, let alone as an item cherished for life. Could we bear the thought of our logo sitting atop a landfill?

With this focus on collaboration and sustainability in mind, and with the help of the artistic mind of volunteer Fanny Bara Moreau, we designed a summer activity with longevity at its core.

Every summer, the University of Cambridge Museums box up their wares and head out into the weather with themed activities to communities across the city with Cambridge City Council’s Big Weekend and Children and Young People’s Participation Service (ChYpPs). Summer 2019 had a tropical oceans theme at the Museum of Zoology, with the goal of inspiring conversations around the conservation of our coral reefs. We wanted to use this as an opportunity to bring audiences together through shared making and showcase their creations in our programmes and displays.

We took inspiration from our ‘Patchwork World Map’ project, created from individually-made sections sewn into a large tactile map of the world populated by animals.

We also piloted a collaborative family making activity at our Zoology Live festival in June 2019.

We wanted to emulate the collaborative aspect of these projects, as well as create another resource for future programming and activities.

Not forgetting our overall goal of using sustainable materials, we had our work cut out for us.

What came out of several conversations over (essential) coffee was a 5-metre long scroll of empty reef, soon to be populated with corals. From our point of view we liked how transportable it was, neatly rolling up, and that the only materials were paper, paper straws, and water-based paint. Huzzah!

Alongside handling boxes, participants could explore real coral specimens and had the opportunity to create (reusable) collages from shells. Families across Cambridge were invited to add to the reef using pools of very watery paint, blown into organic branching patterns with a paper straw. There were several ‘races’ to the top of the paper over the course of the summer.

We were so happy with what our Cambridge communities created that we began to embed it within further activities, including as a backdrop to an underwater drama created by our Young Zoologists Club and to recycled makes created by visitors to our ‘Winter Wildlife: A Christmas Coral’ (excuse the pun) family day.

Just as we did for our patchwork map, we found a space in the gallery to show-case the work of visitors. We settled on a long table-case on our mezzanine level. It was the perfect shape for our scroll of a reef, and was a space that most visitors would see. Unfortunately, it is not a fully accessible space, and for future projects we are considering how to make its content available to audiences unable to use the stairs.

The knitted and crocheted animals that you can see here were created by our local WI attendees to Creature Crafternoons, with our early years audiences in mind, and a desire from the team for more diverse ocean dwelling creatures in toy form.

Best of all, we not only generated meaningful conversations and activities for our visitors, but also new resources for future programmes, and a wonderful, colourful, collaborative display for all to see.

Of course, to be used in our learning programmes, the resources had to come out of the display case. However, our collaborative coral reef has inspired further projects displaying work created by our visitors. In March 2020, we ran a workshop in partnership with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and led by artist Hilary Cox Condron to create a vision of Cambridge where we can live in harmony with nature. The collaborative artwork created during this ‘World of Tomorrow’ workshop was made from recycled materials, and included wonderful creative solutions for sustainable transport, homes for wildlife and food production. This was put on display in our ‘Communities Case’ on the mezzanine with the aim of inspiring further conversations about wildlife conservation between our visitors.

We entered 2020 with a view to either using the materials we already have, or ordering only recyclable and sustainable materials. Not only does this do us good, but it also allows visitors to see the potential of craft materials that are not harmful to the planet.

While our non-recyclable materials stock is shrinking, our bank of bespoke and inspired resources is growing. The reef continues to give in the form of new online resources. Families can get stuck into making their own at home or gain help with home schooling during lockdown:

https://museumofzoologyblog.com/2020/05/04/dive-into-a-coral-reef/

https://museumofzoologyblog.com/2020/05/11/our-changing-reef-habitats/

By creating a space within the gallery amid the zoological specimens for community collaborations, we hope to provide a sense of ownership of space for our audiences. Our programmes aim to celebrate the animal kingdom and nurture a desire to protect it. We are proud of the passion our visitors have for the natural world, and through these projects hope to encourage more conversations about wildlife conservation.

We want to make the most of the creations by our wildlife-loving audiences, and during the lockdown our community space has moved online. Here you can add to the ‘World of Tomorrow’ with your creative recycled solutions to live in harmony with nature.

Have you created something animal-themed during lockdown? Or spotted some wildlife from your window? Why not add it to your Community Gallery of lockdown wildlife sightings.

We hope to be able to include more photos of sightings and makes as time goes on so do get in touch via our social media platforms or umzc@zoo.cam.ac.uk to submit.

Frequently Asked Questions in Taxidermy

Written by Ella Berry (also available here), amateur taxidermist & MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University. An extended version of this blog was published here on 12 March 2020.

In March of this year I helped out on the Conservation stand at an evening event as part of my role as Volunteer Intern at National Museum Cardiff. It was a fun event, with a turnout of 852 curious visitors. Art conservators and natural history conservators collaborated to show how natural history specimens could inform and create imagery and art.

Photo of me (left) talking to guests at the National Museum Cardiff ‘After Dark’ event alongside Vertebrate Curator Jennifer Gallichan (centre) and local artist Nichola Hope (right) drawing. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Jenkins.

Throughout the event both children and adults came up and asked a lot of questions about the objects, and I noticed some reoccurring queries, especially around the ethics of taxidermy. I have attempted to answer some of these here, so that if anyone else reading this faces the same conundrums, this article will set their mind at ease, or enable them to answer the questions confidently.

Is it ‘ethical’?

‘Ethical’ is a subjective term, therefore what is considered ethical varies between taxidermists. Whether the preservation of animal remains, without the inherently unobtainable consent of the animal, is in itself ethical is up to each individual to decide. ‘Ethical-taxidermy’ has become a more frequently used term generally referring to the animal not being killed specifically for the purpose of becoming a mount. However, this refers to a wide range of sources and can range from accidental deaths such as finding an animal dead or road kill, right through to by-products of culling, pet food supply animals and pest control salvages.

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Museums Beyond Covid

Written by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth.

The sun was hot on my neck as I walked up the stone steps of the largest museum in America. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is on every natural curators museums to visit list, and I was full of youthful excitement!

Inside was cool, and I was met with a grand hall, with a beautiful taxidermy elephant in the centre. The space buzzes with the echoing chatter and the scuttling of excited little feet. I walk on to the stairs, past the large mass of people queuing for the lift, and head up the stairs, patiently waiting for people to pass, so I can meet my ancestors. Here in the Human Origins gallery, there are wonderful displays and interactives all about the evolution of our species. Children run from case to case. Prams block display panels. Interactives are bashed.

I move along to the mammal gallery, where it seems like twenty different schools have chosen to visit at the same time. The cases are two deep with visitors peering at mammals from continents away: children squashed at the front, adults squeezing and pushing to get a glimpse. Reminiscent of a Friday night at our student bar. The air is stale and dry. The noise of a thousand different conversations ring loud in my head. There’s a feeling of being moved along by an invisible force of hunger: not for food, but to ‘see’ the next thing.

Beautiful taxidermy work of lions attacking a buffalo. I patiently waited 15 minutes until the case was clear of visitors for this photo. Photo by Jan Freedman.

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The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s Lost Mammals

Written by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and author of Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects.

A good title goes a long way, and based on that alone I was excited to receive a review copy of Ross Barnett’s new book through the post. I knew of Ross from Twitter – and I can heartily recommend following him for a whole host of natural history-related wonders, particularly around climate change, ancient mammal DNA and palaeontology. As a result, I was slightly surprised that he had written a book that I assumed – from the clever title – was about reintroducing the lynx to Britain.

That is, in fact, not what the book is about. Instead, it takes us species-by-species, chapter-by-chapter, through the incredible range of beasts that have disappeared from the British Isles in recent millennia (I should have paid more attention to the subtitle). We learn about the woolly mammoths and rhinos, the huge cave bears and their slightly smaller relatives, cave lions and cave hyenas, sabretooth cats, massive species of cattle and deer, as well as wolves, beavers and, yes, lynx. All of these stories are told in the voice of a person clearly fascinated and excited by the things he has been studying all his life, and with a dry sense of humour.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – March

Compiled by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.

It’s that time again when we look at some great events and conferences, writing, and jobs, chosen just for you!

What Should I Read?

Dodo’s in Leeds. Not alive, obviously, but still extremely fascinating. A lovely post by Clare Brown at Leeds Museums and Galleries. Harry Higginson: Distributing dodos in the 1860s.

Plants. Pressed. Old. Difficult to look after. Here’s a nice post by Imogen Crarey: Five lessons for life from working on the Horniman’s Historical Herbarium.

How do you print a dinosaur to make it look lifelike and realistic? Let Alex Peaker tell you: Printing a dinosaur.

Want to discover some incredible women in science? Of course you do! Scroll through excellent, engaging and accessible blog posts all about female archaeologists and palaeontologists on the TrowelBlazers website.

What Should I Do?

Perhaps the biggest event of the year, the annual NatSCA conference, is now taking bookings!

Dead Interesting: Secrets of Collections Success
Wednesday 1st – Friday 3rd May 2019
National Museum of Ireland, Dublin – Collins Barracks site
The #NatSCA2019 conference aims to unlock the secrets of collections success by sharing how our members and colleagues in the wider sector have used collections to benefit their organisations, communities and the wider world.
We will host three themed sessions, with a focus on:
Collections: Reveal your collections care, research and access secrets.
Engagement: What are your engagement success stories and how did you make them happen?
Museums and Tech: How has technology helped you unlock, understand and unleash your collections?

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