Meet the NatSCA Committee – Paul A. Brown

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Archivist

Name: Paul A. Brown

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee? I am the Archivist, responsible for collecting together the archives from our previous incarnations; The Biology Curators’ Group and The Natural Sciences Conservation Group and more recent NatSCA documents. Most of this sits by my desk. Do any of you membership have anything that could be added?

Job title and institution: Senior Curator, Hemiptera (Sternorrhyncha), Thysanoptera, Phthiraptera, Psocoptera, Collembola, Thysanura, Archaeognatha, Diplura & Protura, Insect Small Orders section, Life Sciences Department, Natural History Museum, London.

Twitter username: I am too old to learn how to have one!

On field work at Scolt Head, Norfolk

On field work at Scolt Head, Norfolk

Tell us about your day job: I am presently responsible for part of the ‘small’ orders listed above. This entails re-curating and data-basing the mostly microscope slide collections and dealing with scientific visitors, loans of material and answering enquiries. I still do some research into the taxonomy of Aphids in particular (see research-gate). Almost 40 years in Museums so according to some, I might know something? If you have problems with microscope slides then who ya gonna call, ‘slide busters?’!

Natural science collections are very popular with visitors. Why do you think this is? The public want to see real or proper models of objects to which they can relate to. Museums are not so much dead zoos as a way to show what there is out there, without having to get your boots muddy during long hours of waiting to see the living things which may only be a fleeting glimpse, in the wild or even in a zoo.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now? Even the National Museums have an uncertain future so there are many great challenges to keep our NatSCA profile high with government and funding bodies so as to continue a proper level of care of and access to our collections. During my working career, there has been a steady erosion of curatorial and conservator expertise and staffing levels and knowledge of the taxonomy of our objects which greatly saddens me. Please do look for information on our website at collections at risk, and join us in defending ours and the nations’ natural heritage.

What would be your career in an alternate universe without museums? Over and above my knowledge of Natural History, I have an interest in writing, photography, drawing genealogy, geomorphology, molinology, ancient buildings, archaeology and history and have been a farm labourer and forester (I still wield a chainsaw). So, without museums, I would probably be a reserve or historic site warden of some sort somewhere in the world.

What is your favourite museum, and why? It has to be the Smithsonian as they have so many real specimens on show and excellent dioramas which have such a ‘wow’ factor and must stimulate visitors to have a love of nature much more than any other museum I have visited! Otherwise maybe H.M.S. Belfast (2nd World War Cruiser) because it is a museum object in its own right and all the problems that this entails, as well as being a ‘museum’ full of objects.

Written by Paul A Brown, Senior Curator at the Natural History Museum, London

NatSCA Digital Digest – April

Colobus monkey © E-L Nicholls

What Should I Read?

I came across a very entertaining blog by Lily Nadine Wilks which looks at the frustrations of museum documentation in Mysteries of the Past. She has been working on the Charles Lyell digitisation project at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Having noticed lately that there are more harlequin ladybirds in my house than there are Lego sets*, I was interested to come across A decade of invasion – a story of Harlequin Ladybird in the UK. I can’t believe THAT many ladybirds exist in the UK having only arrived in 2004. They are clearly a prolific species, if only I could teach them to write research papers.

What Should I Do?

The long awaited 2017 reopening of the Cambridge Museum of Zoology has been put back slightly, and they are still trying to raise funds to get their iconic whale skeleton conserved and remounted. So you may not be able to visit (yet) but what you can do if you’d like is to help fund the whale through the delightfully named Help us #RaisetheWhale fundraising project. Plus you can reap a whaley reward to boot. You can also get the inside scoop on progress if you’re coming to the NatSCA conference later this month!

It is currently Hippo Week at Leeds City Museum. Having popped by yesterday I can say with authority it’s a great museum if you haven’t visited yet, with the ex-rug tiger taxidermy a particular highlight! Until the 9th April, you can also see the entries to the Armley Hippo & Friends drawing and story competition.

What’s Can  I Apply For?

The senior management teams of all natural history collections appear to have got together and declared a moratorium on vacancies at the moment. Don’t despair though, something will come along.

In the mean time, there are two positions at the Horniman Museum if you prefer your collections alive to dead, and quite a few at Kew if your preferred subjects are both alive and botany-shaped, details here.

Before You Go…

If you have seen an exhibition, visited a museum, or want to tell us about your work, do get in touch as we are always looking for material from external authors. Email us with your ideas at blog@natsca.org.

* Several hundred

Famous Flies – Petiver

Yes. That is the title and this is a blog telling you about some of them. I was tasked with the job of hunting through the thousands of drawers, the hundreds of jars and the millions of slides to find the most famous or most infamous of specimens within the Collection at the Natural History Museum London. I have worked on the fly collection at the museum for over ten years now but still regularly come across hidden gems in the collection. Just in the fly collection, we have approximately 3-4 million specimens (when you see jars swimming with flies you will understand why this estimate has such a large degree of error), that have been collected since the early 17th Century from every geographical region around the world. Some of the collectors are recognisable whilst others are less so but have come to mean so much to us who deal with the collection.

So, let me welcome you to the collection. It is arguably the best fly collection in the world – I admit I may be a little biased but please be patient with me. I get very excited about the flies and forget most of my impartiality.

The collection comprises 9000 drawers of pinned specimens, 2,500,000 specimens (or so) in jars, approximately 200,000 slides, and a further molecular collection (both DNA and tissues), frozen in liquid nitrogen tanks at -80oC. Some are housed in the most up to date cases that are appropriate for insect collections whilst others have been kept, preserved in time, exactly as they were when presented to the Museum. This is the case for some of the earliest preserved insect collections at the Museum.

The Natural History Museum was born thanks to the generosity and far sightedness of Sir Hans Sloane. He was an old-school collector and back in the 1800’s he amassed a collection of such importance that folks came from far and wide to visit and study it, including none other than Carl Linnaeus – the father of Binomial nomenclature. Sloane was not a collector of insects or other objects himself but rather a purchaser and receptor of other people’s collections. One of those acquired was from James Petiver, a shop keeper who owned an Apothecary store in London. As well as having herbs and spices necessary for his work, he also collected plants, shells and insects and had a vast network of friends and connections who passed them onto him too.

The boxes of books and the instructions of care.             © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Not only does the age of this collection merit attention, the majority were collected in the late 1700s, but also the method of storage. For these insects, butterflies, beetles, flies etc, were presented as flattened specimens in books. After ‘drowning’ the insects in ‘spirits’ he would press them between the leaves and here they remained for over 300 years. Unsurprisingly not many survived to the present day due to poor preservation but some did.

Unsurprisingly not many survived to the present day due to poor preservation but some did. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Not only do we have the books but we also have little boxes, and within these there are many insects and arachnids. More importantly for me there are many flies.

We also have little boxes. Lots of little boxes.                   © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

This collection has many questions associated with it, including where are the actual specimens from? A common problem and one that has obviously been there from the beginning of collecting. It is interesting to think though that even material that we have held in the NHM for hundreds of years still needs to be investigated.

But to me just looking at specimens of flies that are three hundred years old is quite something. Not all have them have survived – many specimens are ghosts of what they were.

© Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Amongst all of this, there are amazing specimens – some rather famous flies. Shown below are, we think, Eristalis arbustorum – a common hover fly found across Europe. These specimens here are some of the oldest preserved flies on the planet. There is an older collection but the flies are not as well preserved. These little boxes have been inspiring taxonomists for hundreds of years.

Hover flies. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Those hover flies are good but the real gem lies still within the pages of Petiver’s book and it is a rather odd looking hornet robber fly.

The hornet robberfly Asilus Crabroniformis. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

This has always been one of my favourite flies and this specimen is arguably the oldest specimen of this species in the world. It would be many years before this specimen even got a name!  And it is amazing to consider that for a specimen over 300 years old that, albeit being a bit squashed and misshaped, that it is still utterly recognisable and has retained its colour. Guess I should get around to entering that data to the British Robber fly scheme….

Written by Dr Erica McAlister, Collections Manager- Flies, Fleas, Arachnida, Myripoda, at the Natural History Museum, London.

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.

Conservation of a Venus Flower Basket

Venus flower basket. (NOAA, 2012, Image in public domain)

Venus flower basket. (NOAA, 2012, Image in public domain)

At The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum, a proposed case re-display was to focus on design. Thus the Art Curator and the Natural Historian got together and produced 13 grubby Venus flower baskets (a type of glass sponge).

As a trained objects conservator I have seen many items come across my desk, however these were a first. Never having seen these deep sea siliceous sponges before, I found them quite fascinating. There are 13 in our collection and at least one of them came from the Challenger Expedition of 1870. The sponges themselves offer a fascinating insight into the first date hotel; a young shrimp couple enter the skeleton of the sponge and mate for life – a jolly good love affair or entrapment? Whichever side you fall on, the actual construction of the sponge is what fascinated the Art Curator. The lattice work formation of the skeleton, which is incredibly strong and functional yet also beautiful, has inspired architects and engineers. Norman Foster’s ‘Gherkin’ building owes a lot to this design of nature. Even David Attenborough listed them in his ‘Attenborough’s Ark’ aired in 2012.

But, how was I to treat them?

As luck would have it I was due to attend a Fluid Preservation course at the University of Dundee, delivered by Natural History Conservator Simon Moore. After some gentle persuasion he came of his own free will to our Museum store to look at them and gave some very sound advice.

I subsequently embarked upon treatment of our 13 specimens, which were verging on 50 shades of grey. They were all housed in the same box with no separation. Although some had lost the long fibres that would have anchored them to the sea bed, most were intact, showing how resistant they are to mechanical forces. All were photographed prior to treatment.

Venus flower basket, before and after conservation. © McManus Collections Unit

Venus flower basket, before and after conservation treatment. © McManus Collections Unit

I started with a bath of acetone to remove any possible historic consolidant which looked to have been sprayed on (no past treatment reports could be found to confirm this). This was followed by a bath in the ultrasonic cleaner, just in water, where the dust could be seen lifting away from the sponges. Repeating the steps produced the difference seen in the image above. They were then left to air dry on blotting paper.

A local company made one of the sponges a bespoke perspex mount and it now sits happily in the new display. The others are now housed in a drawer in a plastazote support with bespoke cut outs for each sponge.

Venus flower basket on display. © McManus Collections Unit

Venus flower basket on display, post-conservation. © McManus Collections Unit

We are not sure why they would have been sprayed with consolidant as they hold their form perfectly well post treatment. A more invasive treatment involving hydrogen peroxide and ammonia was discussed, but this drastic measure was not needed as the conservation treatment was a complete success, and now the only shades of grey we look at is the sky!

Written by Rebecca Jackson-Hunt, Conservator, The McManus Collections Unit

How to Store Taxidermy

We all know that discussing issues with other museum professionals within Subject Specialist Networks is an efficient way of disseminating information within the sector, but the following article provides a perspective from a generalist commercial storage company; a voice we don’t usually hear from.

Safestore, the UK’s largest self-storage provider, recently made a video series called ‘Stuff is Great‘ which focused on collectors and their individual passions. Among other client case studies, the series featured Suzette Field and her collection of taxidermy specimens. The following article, How to Store Taxidermy, was written by Safestore themselves and provides useful guidance on how to use these public facilities for storing such material.

This taxidermy collection featured in the Safestore project 'Stuff is Great'. © Safestore

This taxidermy collection featured in the Safestore project ‘Stuff is Great’. © Safestore

As any taxidermy enthusiast will know, a sizable collection can take years to build.  During that time your life and circumstances will change; you may welcome children into your life, move home, change job, all the while accumulating more pieces.  At some point you may be faced with the challenge of storing your taxidermy and with the right know-how it’s not as painful a process as it sounds!

Safestore recently stored a taxidermy collection and found it to be the safest environment for high value taxidermy.  Your attic or garage may seem like a cheaper alternative but both locations are affected by the changing climate throughout the year, putting undue stress on your collection.

Follow these tips for storing your taxidermy safely…

  1. Use wooden crates.

Using a wooden crate for each taxidermy piece means you can affix the mounts to the inside of the crates.  This will keep the taxidermy from touching the inside of the crate and allow air to circulate the piece.  Cardboard isn’t sturdy enough for large taxidermy pieces and doesn’t offer the same protection.

  1. Keep the damp away.

Storage units are typically very dry but the climate can vary from time to time.  Add silica gel packets to each crate as they will absorb any moisture in the air and keep your taxidermy dry.

  1. Keep the pests away.

Moths and small bugs would love nothing more than nibbling away at your taxidermy pieces so using ‘no pest strips’ or moth killer strips will help to keep your crates critter free.

  1. Climate and humidity.

When looking for self storage units for your taxidermy, ensure your unit is somewhat climate controlled.  Units on the outer edge of the building may be more prone to temperature changes so ask for a unit that remains cool and dry throughout the year.

Taxidermy is expensive and some pieces are one of a kind, therefore it is imperative to ensure your items are safe and secure once in storage.  Look for self storage facilities with 24hr CCTV, restricted access, sole key holder policies and intruder alarms.

  1. Check!

It’s super important to check your taxidermy from time to time, especially if you’re storing for a number of months.  Make sure you replace the pest strips and silica packets and check for any signs of damage or stress.  It’s easier to rectify a problem sooner rather than later!

Ultimately taxidermy is for displaying and enjoying, however if you’re in need of an interim home for your collection you’re not short of options.  Keeping your pieces safe and in good condition is easy so long as each item is packed with due care and is stored somewhere out of harm’s reach.

By Tiffiny Franklin, Digital Outreach Executive, Safestore

Cold Case Curation

Museums have many curious objects behind closed doors. Recently, volunteers discovered some ‘cold ones’ at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust.

Behind Closed Doors

If museums are icebergs, then museum exhibits are just the tip; and the remaining 90% or so of specimens are tucked away safely behind closed doors. Many people, lucky enough to have visited these museum storage areas (‘behind-the-scenes’), will be familiar with almost endless rows of racks and shelves packed with all sorts of different objects, ranging from Chinese vases to taxidermy monitor lizards. But few non-curators would be familiar with the idea of freezers full of dead animals!

We have two large freezers, at our off-site storage facility, packed full of animals; we needed to know exactly how many animals were in there and where they were from, hence this project- Cold Case Curation. The specimens also have excellent provenance; labels with location details including specific grid references and dates. Therefore this Cold Case Curation project was as much a biological survey (albeit indoors) as a detailed museum inventory.

Cold Case Curation in action; the team of five volunteers “surveying” the “fauna” of our freezers

Cold Case Curation in action; the team of five volunteers surveying the ‘Fauna of our Freezers’.

Volunteer-Power

Enter our team of volunteers. They were specially recruited for a day for this Cold Case Curation task; to survey the frozen fauna, matching specimens against existing inventory records. This was a joint initiative with our Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre (hosted at the Museum), to capture biological records. Most of our volunteers are long-term with the Museum and the Centre, and are current university students.

As our team of five volunteers eagerly crowded around the two huge freezers, they were fascinated with the idea of freezing animals to preserve them before they are stuffed and prepared as taxidermy specimens (but don’t worry, they all died naturally!).

In teams, the volunteers enthusiastically worked their way through documenting the freezer contents. 241 individual specimens later, we had documented 11 species of mammal and 48 species of bird. Interesting discoveries included a bittern, a little grebe chick, 10 waxwings and a white-tailed tropic bird (with stomach contents). Volunteers delighted in handling iconic British species including 54 red squirrels and 24 barn owls.

Volunteer, Jessica Mitchell proudly wielding a polecat from the freezer “faunal assemblage"

Volunteer, Jessica Mitchell proudly wielding a polecat from the freezer faunal assemblage.

Their experiences are best summarised in their own words;

“After helping out at Tullie House with their cold case curation, recording everything they had in the freezers, we found some amazing specimens from polecats to owls, your typical garden birds to brown hares, but I have to say my favourite by far was the river otter. This otter was fantastic and it was brilliant to see it so upclose as it is a creature I have only seen from afar in the wild. This event was extremely educational and rewarding to myself as I’m studying zoology here in Carlisle”.  Volunteer, Laura Carter.

Volunteer, Laura Carter with River Otter discovery from freezer

Volunteer, Laura Carter with a River Otter discovery from the freezer.

Another volunteer, Donna Salter was also drawn to the otter:

“It’s a bit obvious to go for the big, furry, cute mammal, but my favourite has to be the otter. I was somewhat of an otter obsessed child: other girls wrote fan letters to Mark Owen or Ronan Keating while I wrote to Philip Wayre, founder of the Otter Trust (he sent back a signed visitors guide – I still have it). So for me, getting to hold and see the details of an otter can’t really be beaten!”

Cold Case Reflections; Learning from the Model

The Museum has greatly benefited from this exercise with our detailed inventories and biological records which will go into our database and ultimately end up on the Global Biodiversity Network Gateway for public access (and we also have the data we need to make more informed decisions over which specimens we decide to formally accession). However, this project proved to be a particularly successful public engagement event. It was a combination of the fact that volunteers were seeing and handling a variety of animals and that they were ‘discovering specimens’, whilst working together as a team, which is vastly more enjoyable than lone working. The event was enhanced with use of Twitter  (#coldcasecuration), which captured some of the magical moments of discovery.

This exercise illustrates how a relatively routine (inventory) collections management exercise can be turned into an exciting public engagement project, capturing critical data for the museum and inspiring a future generation of potential young scientists and curators.

By Simon Jackson, Curator, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust