Improving Specimen-Data Recording and Access in a Life Sciences Museum

The Museum of Life Sciences at King’s College London contains teaching and research material from King’s College London (KCL) and elsewhere. The collections include Botany, Zoology and Pharmacy specimens, including microscope slides, from around the world and a small, unique exhibition of glass sculptures recently created to commemorate the role of KCL in the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Paper and electronic (Access) databases were first created in 2003 and contained data for the then KCL Zoology and Botany Collections. In the last few years, volunteers have been recording specimens in paper (form-based) or electronic (Excel) formats and we have all been learning ‘on the job’. Inevitably specimens have been catalogued in different ways to record various kinds of information and many specimens remain uncatalogued. Some groups of specimens from a single collector/preparer or from a single source have been catalogued together as eg ‘The Daws Collection’, The Challenger Collection’.  The accumulating data were becoming unwieldy as there are now more than 8000 records.

The form

Example of the paper based record sheet for the Zoology specimens.

excel spreadseet form

Original electronic format for the Zoology Collections.

We are now rationalising our system of information storage and accessibility by bringing together all this information into one comprehensive electronic database. So far 106 information fields have been identified from the old database or allocated to the new database.  These allow information on all types of specimens to be entered into the new database. We will soon be able to include and readily update information on storage location, type and state of the specimen, any conservation taken or needed and whether specimens are out on loan. This vastly improves the accessibility of information to staff, students and volunteers, making management of the collections far more efficient and effective, but the process has had its problems.

The specimens in each collection were catalogued using a letter-based system to denote the taxon to which a specimen belonged followed by a number to denote the order in which the specimen was entered into that taxon. This lead to some specimens from different collections being given the same catalogue identifier, for example, B1 is both a Porifera (sponge) specimen in the Zoology Collection and a Cyanobacteria specimen in the Botany Collection. We have now created five core Museum of Life Sciences Collections; Zoology (ZY), Botany (BY), Pharmacy (PH), Microscopy (MI) and there will be a Cranio-Facial (CF) collection record when the relevant information is available. Under this scheme Zoology specimen B1 becomes ZY B1 and Botany specimen B1 becomes BY B1, allowing both B1 records to co-exist.

Where the taxonomic status of specimens has changed, they are now reclassified and labelled with accepted synonyms of the binomial name and the original name moved to a Synonym(s) field. It is now possible to search for the currently named specimen or to search for the historical synonym.

The previous electronic database was ‘flat-file’ which allowed for a record to have a row of data for each specimen allowing data to be accessed as a simple table although the paper catalogue was used mostly for accessing data. The integrated museum database now employs the power of relational data bases so Recorders can use either a table view or a form view data entry (see examples below) which are now interchangeable for each of the five collections.

The new form

The new table-form for the data.

The screen

The new form view of a Botany specimen showing data and related image.

The basic format of our new and integrated database is now functional. There is still much to be done to be done to upload information on all our specimens and to integrate the various data sets seamlessly into the database. This will improve recognition and identification of individual specimens without having to sort through actual specimens or paper records and will also help to minimise damage to delicate specimens.

We are grateful to the Bill Pettit Memorial Award for part funding this work. The original KCL databases were compiled by Ms M Bavington, based on systems used at The Grant Museum. The work and knowledge of the Ms Bavington and the continuing help and advice of colleagues at the Grant Museum elsewhere are gratefully acknowledged.

Written by Dr Gillian Sales. Curator, Museum of Life Sciences at the Gordon Museum.

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

The Bill Pettit Memorial Award 2015

NatSCA is pleased to invite applications to this year’s Bill Pettit Memorial Award. Up to  £1,500 of grant money will be made available to NatSCA members every year to support projects including the conservation, access, and use of natural science collections.

colour-logo(900pxwide)Charles Arthur William ‘Bill’ Pettit (1937 – 2009) started his career with the National Institute of Oceanography, but moved to the Manchester Museum in 1975 to become Assistant Keeper of Zoology. In his time at Manchester, Bill worked tirelessly for the collections and was instrumental in projects such as FENSCORE, as well as numerous publications. It is in recognition of his commitment to natural science collections that we would like to offer this annual award.

Applications are invited under a wide range of categories. Each project will be considered on its own merits by the NatSCA committee and the committee’s decision, including not awarding any money that year, will be final. Grants up to £1,500 are available. To apply, please put together a 700-word project proposal, which must include:

  • The name and status (e.g. charity, individual, local authority) of the applicant
  • The proposed outcomes of the project and benefits to the museum
  • Detailed costs
  • Accurate timescale (including any work undertaken so far and the project end date)
  • Details of other funding/match funding already secured for the project

Grants will be considered on an annual basis in January or February.

Deadline for 2015 applications: Friday 11th December

Successful applicants will be announced at the NatSCA annual general meeting and are required to produce a report/article on their project for publication.

Applications are open to NatSCA individual or institutional members only.

Please contact David Gelsthorpe (david.gelsthorpe@manchester.ac.uk, 0161 3061601) for further information or to submit a grant application.

Bill Pettit Memorial Fund: Discovery Collections Project

The Bill Pettit Memorial Award was set up a few years ago by NatSCA to support projects including the conservation, access, and use of natural science collections. One of the recent projects we have been able to help with was the curation of some amazing specimens from the voyage of the Discovery. Hear more about the project from Tammy below.

David Gelsthorpe

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In early 2013 we set about organising the task to begin with the curation of the largest, most recent and least organised of the three collections – that of the ECOMAR collection. The start of the ECOMAR project coincided with commissioning of the new UK Royal Research Ship James Cook officially named by the Princess Royal on 6 February 2007. The first ECOMAR cruise departed from Southampton on 13 July 2007. The ECOMAR project was designed to investigate the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone area which lies approximately mid-way between Iceland and the Azores. Four super stations were defined (two north of the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone and two to the south), all had the same bottom depth (2500m) and were revisited during voyages by the R.R.S. James Cook and the R.R.S. Discovery during the years 2007–2010 to replicate sampling, time-series investigations and flux studies.

The Discovery Collections have no full-time curatorial post and we rely on the goodwill and interest of students and other volunteers (including scientific visitors and work experience volunteers) to help with cataloguing, labelling, respiriting, and general curatorial jobs. The samples, though incredibly valuable should be considered at risk. I look after the collections in as much that I manage the visitors to the collections, host students, and manage public enquiries, visits and displays of the specimens. I am also a taxonomist employed to conduct research, describing new species and studying the ecology of the deep-sea benthic fauna. I was employed for four years to work on the ECOMAR program to describe the ecology of the scavenging fauna of the area. I therefore had a particular interest in the curation of this collection.

We employed Amanda Serpell-Stevens, to work on this project, but we had funds for only 8 weeks of her time. Thus the project was reduced from cataloguing the three large collections to just one. When Amanda’s contract ended there was still much reshelving and reordering of the material to be carried out which was carried out on an ad hoc basis by myself, a retired member of staff, Mike Thurston, and Amanda who returned on a voluntary basis to continue work on the project.

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The project began by working shelf by shelf to curate and to catalogue (in paper record) what was held including location and size of each jar, and to change containers for those specimens that were in plastic containers or inappropriate sized jars. The preservative was also replaced in most of the jars and a new label produced for each specimen, as many were poorly labelled. This curation and cataloguing process took the majority of the 8 weeks, with just enough time remaining to enter the data into Excel.

With the availability of a digital catalogue the task of reorganising the lots into taxonomic order was greatly eased. This meant adjustment of shelf heights to incorporate the various sizes of tubs and jars (some of the lots are 20 litre tubs full of holothurian specimens of a single species), and removing all the specimens in turn, which were then replaced first by taxonomic order then by station order using Excel to sort the data. The spreadsheet was updated with the new locations of the specimens as we progressed. The final part of the process involved cross referencing the specimens with the newly published papers and updating the names where they had changed (on both the specimen labels and in the spreadsheet).

There were numerous new species described during the ECOMAR project, which meant further problems in allocating the correct new name to specimens in the collections variously named as e.g. Peniagone sp. nov ‘pink’. While holotypes have been registered in the NHM, London, the rest of the material needs updating to current knowledge, a process which is often neglected, despite it being referenced in the many new publications resulting from the project.

It is very satisfying to have the ECOMAR collection properly curated and to know that I can locate any specimen needed easily. In total we curated, relabelled and catalogued a total of 1300 lots comprised of 1148 smaller jars, 88 tubs (between 5 and 20 litres) and 64 loan specimens. We plan to publish a detailed analysis of this work for the NatSCA journal, including a list of available species, and will make the catalogue available online when time and funding allow. In the meantime interested parties can contact Tammy Horton (tammy.horton@noc.ac.uk) for a copy.

Dr Tammy Horton
Ocean Biogeochemistry and Ecosystems
National Oceanography Centre,
Waterfront Campus,
European Way, Southampton SO14 3ZH
UK