NatSCA Digital Digest – September

(Image from the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery)

What  should I read?

Love the posters at this years NatSCA conference? Want to read and admire them in more detail? You can! Read them with pleasure at your leisure, because they are now all available free to look at!

Did you know there were ten different species of mammoth? A long read over your lunch time, spanning 5 million years in fact, visiting some very big and some very small mammoths!

A great piece by Mark Carnall, Life Collections Manager at Oxford University Museum of Natural History , looking at rudely shaped rocks! A fun piece with giants, owls and very early palaeontology.

What do you call woodlice?

Just one of the many species of woodlice. Or is that roly poly, or sow bug, or …. (Image by Franco Filini, Public Domain)

A little map of woodlice names was shared on BBC’s Springwatch blog earlier this week. It has led to dozens more names of woodlice. Jan Freedman (that’s me!) is gathering up names and wants to update the map, so do get in touch if you know of any historic references or names.

What can I see?

The Dinosaurs of China exhibition at Wollaton Hall is on until the end of October. Visit beautiful grounds with deer, and explore some truly magnificent creatures in the exhibition, from the time of the dinosaurs.

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

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


Vote for the NatSCA Editor

At the end of this week we have our annual conference and AGM, which will be held at the Silk Mill in Derby. The conference is always a great opportunity to mix with other natural history and museum professionals, catch up with what’s going on and elect the committee members who will keep NatSCA on an even keel.

This year, for the first time, we have two people standing for the Editor position so we will be holding a vote. In order to provide you with a bit of background to help make your voting decision, so below is a brief overview from each candidate (in alphabetical order).

Jan Freedman


I am the curator of natural history at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. One of the most wonderful things about our job is the variety of work we get involved in: from conservation of specimens to using collections to engage with the public. For us, who look after natural science collections, we are constantly improving our knowledge of how best to care for and promote our collections. One way of doing this is by contributing to, and reading, the Journal of Natural Science Collections, which includes the latest up-to-date case studies and information to help.

I have been very proud to have been the Editor for NatSCA for some years now. I was the editor for NatSCA News, which included more informal articles, but I wanted the NatSCA membership to get more from their Journal. Along with the support of the NatSCA committee I have developed a high-quality journal with fully peer reviewed and up to date articles from colleagues in the sector; your Journal of Natural Science Collections.

I really enjoy networking with international colleagues to bring the membership the most useful and interesting articles. For the majority of the time, curators and other museum staff do work alone, and I believe that the excellent work that we are doing should be shared amongst colleagues. As well as articles being sent for the Journal, I have approached people to write articles which will be interesting for others to read. The Journal is for the membership, and I have strived to make your journal as tool you can you in your work.

I enjoy being on the NatSCA committee, with such wonderful committee members. As a committee member, I not only format and edit the journal, but contribute to other areas of NatSCA business. I have been privileged to be involved with some exciting projects over the years, and would be truly honoured to be a part of where NatSCA is going in the future.

I would be delighted if you were to vote for me as the role of Editor on the NatSCA committee.

Rachel Jennings


I have volunteered for NatSCA for the last few years, and would like to join the committee as Editor so that I can contribute more to the organisation, and help give our members a stronger voice to advocate for the importance of our work and collections to the wider museum sector.

As a volunteer, I have acted as Facebook Editor since 2013, advertising NatSCA events and finding natural science-related content to share that is interesting and engaging. During my tenure as Facebook Editor, the number of likes on the page has trebled, increasing our public reach. I set up a Storify account for NatSCA last year, and have created stories for the 2015 Conference and other events, so that those who couldn’t be there can still enjoy them!

I also joined the editorial team on the NatSCA blog last year, responsible for sourcing content, liaising with authors, editing and scheduling posts. I have really enjoyed this role, and I’d love to be able to take the next step and be your new NatSCA Editor!

We hope to see you at the AGM on Thursday, ready to cast your vote!

NatSCA Digital Digest


A mounted skeleton of a fruitbat leers at the camera

Welcome to the March edition of the Digital Digest! Without further ado…


Booking is open for the 2016 NatSCA Conference and AGM, ‘The Nature of Collections – How museums inspire our connection to the natural world‘, which will be held at the Derby Museum & Art Gallery and The Silk Mill on 21 – 22 April.

We have invited papers and posters looking at how museums have inspired and shaped the relationship of visitors and users of the collections to the natural world:

  • Projects between wildlife/environmental organisations/parks and museums.
  • The training & developing of naturalist skills using collections.
  • Artists projects connecting collections/gallery to outside spaces.
  • Looking at the relationship between natural history societies, their collections & museums.
  • Exhibition examples linking preserved specimens and our environment.

The Early Bird deadline is TODAY (Thursday 10 March), so get booking and save money!

If you’re not yet a NatSCA member, now is a great time to join – you can purchase membership and get the member’s conference rate for the same cost as a non-member ticket! See our membership page to join.

If you are a member, email the NatSCA Membership Secretary ( for your booking discount code.


Geologist, Scarborough Museums Trust. A great opportunity for any rock and fossil enthusiasts! Application deadline: Friday 8 April.

Research and Data Coordinator in Science Policy (CITES), Kew. One of a selection of interesting posts currently on offer at Kew, the application deadline for this post is Wednesday 16 March.

Around the Web

A taxidermy warehouse in London was broken into on Tuesday this week, and 18 specimens were stolen. The Met police are appealing for information:

DNA from museum specimens confirms a new species of forest thrush.

Why was the pink-headed duck’s head pink? Museum specimens reveal the secrets of this extinct species.

NatSCA Digital Digest


Jobs and Traineeships

If, like many, your world will never be the same again once Dippy the Diplodocus retires from his position adorning the entrance hall to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, you can at least help secure him a happy future by going for the job of Corporate Partnerships Manager- Dippy the Dinosaur on Tour at the NHM. The deadline is the 25th January so there’s still time to affect the life of this semi-retired much loved icon.

If digital engagement is more your thing then the University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) are currently looking for a Digital Engagement Specialist. The deadline for this post is also the 25th January, with interviews on the 8th February.

Events and Exhibitions

The London Transport Museum is holding an interesting half day symposium on 7th March 2016 called Contemporary Collecting. The symposium is free and includes an evening reception at the Museum. There are six areas of focus listed on the website, ranging from risks of collecting to acquisitions that ‘are inherently, and/or overtly, political’. Sounds exciting!

Around the Web

The project of digitising the Charles Lyell Fossil Collections is well underway at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The blog (link above) is a fun and interesting read but more importantly, if you have any Charles Lyell specimens in your collection, Sarah Joomun and Eliza Howlett at the OUMNH would love to hear from you.


Fight at the museum: filming and fees

This post is a late addition to our series of write-ups from the 2015 NatSCA Conference.

Fisticuffs are threatened between Paolo Viscardi and Jack Ashby, in the Grant Museum of Zoology's Micrarium.


(Twitter notes on discussion Storified here:

There was an ongoing disagreement between Jack Ashby (of the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL) and Paolo Viscardi (at the time of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, but coincidentally now also of the Grant Museum) that finally came to a head-to-head debate at the 2015 NatSCA conference. The proposition put forward to frame the debate was: “This house believes that public museums should not charge for filming when the production content aligns with the museum’s objectives”.

As with any debate, there were terms and conditions that needed to be clarified to avoid the argument from becoming mired in semantics or polemics, so it was mutually agreed that filming conducted primarily for promotional purposes (for example, in a programme that was directly about the work of the museum) and filming that only used the museum as a backdrop (for example, in an advert for a fast food restaurant) be excluded from discussion, since the former would be justifiably free and the latter would always be expected to pay a fee.

Round 1: Delivering your mission?

Paolo in proposition

The first point made was that public museums maintain collections for the benefit of their audiences, so where the use of the collections in filming supports the mission of the museum, it allows the collections to reach a wider audience, helping to fulfil their potential. In order for this to be worthwhile the museum should always be named, but need not always be paid.

Jack in opposition

So Paolo is arguing that working with film crews for free is simply another way of delivering a museum’s mission. To unpick that, let’s look at a typical museum mission statement. This one is from the Horniman Museum:

To use our worldwide collections and the Gardens to encourage a wider appreciation of the world, its peoples and their cultures, and its environments.

It is very easy for a production company to meet this aim, which means that the museum could easily give away a lot of money to these companies. But should they?

I would argue there are three things museums should be compensated for to pay for by film crews:

  • Staff time
  • Reduced productivity
  • The intellectual property (IP) inherent in the objects and displays.

It’s very easy to put a price on staff time, relatively easy to put it on reduced productivity but very hard to put it on IP. But it’s the IP that most interests the film crews.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the staff and productivity costs of a day of filming are £500 – that could be two members of staff, costing £50 per hour for five hours, plus two school groups you didn’t book in, plus not being able to use the phone for a day.

That is how much the Museum is paying to facilitate a film crew, and doesn’t include the value of the IP.

If a film company were undertaking a project outside the museum that closely shared the museum’s objectives, and they asked you to donate that same £500, you would send them packing.

It really is the same thing.

Filming companies are commercial entities, who make money. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Whatever you charge, they will make money off of your collection.

It’s not right that other people profit from your collection if the museum is left out of pocket.

Round 2: The marketing value?

Paolo in proposition

Jack is right to point out the costs of filming, but he hasn’t factored in the benefits that can be gained. This is possibly because it can be very difficult to put a value to the benefits in financial terms. If filming results in a positive message about your organisation, your staff and your collections – in line with your mission – then it can raise awareness about your organisation and demonstrate its value to potentially huge new audiences.

Of course, TV audience sizes will vary, but to get a sense of potential numbers reached, the BBC4 Secrets of Bones series, which used collections from all over the UK, had a weekly viewing figure of 494,000 between February 17th and 23rd 2014*. How much would you expect to spend on advertising to reach a similar audience? Keep in mind that the cost of a single 30 second advertising slot on one of the ITV channels averages £2,932 – a figure calculated from the 2015 ITV spot cost rates, which vary from £50 to £16,540 depending on the time of day and region.

Another example of the potential audience reached by featuring in a TV programme is illustrated by the One Show broadcast on 4th June 2014 featuring an interview about cat anatomy in the Horniman Museum & Gardens Study Collections Centre. This had an audience of 3,610,000 viewers that week*. Put in perspective that means a specimen which had been off display for several decades was used to engage more than 4 times the number of people who visited the Horniman that same year (859,698 – taken from the Horniman annual report 2014-15), at a time when museums are being encouraged to make their stored collections more accessible. Compared to the amount of work required to supervise public tours of museum stores, prepare exhibitions, or administer loans, providing access for a film crew is remarkably cost effective for the potential engagement outcome.

When it comes to reporting, how might this kind of exposure be viewed by your trustees or the local councillors responsible for funding your service? For large organisations with high-profile activities it may not be so important, but for some smaller organisations with less exposure it may count for a lot more. Of course, I’m not saying that all filming in museums should be free of charge, but where the filming is sympathetic to what the organisation is trying to achieve, I think that the benefits can outweigh the costs.

Jack in opposition

It’s easy to see why this kind of argument is tempting – these are impressive numbers. It’s the same line the production companies use when trying to con you out of charging a fee.

However, I strongly believe that simply appearing in documentary as a venue has extraordinarily small impact on visitor numbers – or at least one that we haven’t been able to measure. Comments like “I saw you on the One Show” appear extremely infrequently in our visitor studies. I have never encountered a non-marketing production that generated any useful audience development. (But I do recognise that not all profile raising activity is about real life visitor figures.)

As much as they may try to tell you otherwise, I don’t believe that the simple “honour” of being seen on the BBC translates to strategic marketing. In all likelihood, the people that already know you are the ones that recognise you on TV, not new audiences.

Not only that, but it is essentially impossible to guarantee that mention of the museum’s (correct) name makes it into the final cut, and in my experience many companies won’t commit to doing so in the contract (for the logistical reason that they can’t keep track of all the people they might agree to include as editing progresses). This means you may think you’re getting good coverage, but then it ends up simply saying “I’m in this museum” on the final show, and you scream yourself hoarse at the TV (this has happened to us more than once, but fortunately we were paid so all was not lost).

To end, I can’t get away from the most important point of all:

Even if you do share their values, AND they agree to mention the museum’s name every thirty seconds, the production company is STILL willing to pay (whatever they tell you). Film crews ALWAYS have a locations budget, except perhaps News (please tell me if I’ve been sold a lie on that one!).

I feel bad pointing this out, but the Grant Museum also featured well in Secrets of Bones, and the One Show, with plenty of name credits. The thing is, they paid us.

The point is that you can meet your shared aim AND get paid. No brainer.

Thoughts from the floor:

Different organisations have different levels of demand for filming, so there are different degrees of cost and potential benefit. Bristol and the Grant Museum get lots of requests, so they become a major drain on resources and get plenty of exposure of their collections. Collections that aren’t situated near TV production companies get a lot less interest and may benefit far more from the exposure – and not charging may help encourage their use.


*Figures obtained from the BARB database []


Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology

Paolo Viscardi is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology, and that the time of the conference was the Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.