NatSCA Digital Digest – September

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

Welcome to the September edition of NatSCA Digital Digest!

Where Should I Go?

A new exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, First Animals explores the evolution of the earliest animal life more than 500 million years ago. Highlights include 55 exceptionally-preserved fossils from the Chengjiang biota, on loan from Yunnan University and displayed outside of China for the very first time, and virtual reconstructions of the early Cambrian sea floor, made possible through close collaboration between researchers at the two universities. The exhibition is open until 24th February 2020.

How can we highlight the biggest issues threatening our planet today? It’s difficult with permanent displays, but not impossible. Bristol Museum & Art Gallery have addressed biodiversity loss and extinction in a unique way without new display cases. The natural science curators have covered endangered animals on display with a black veil. Standing out from the other animals, this has a huge visual impact on visitors. This innovative way of showing our impact on the planet was covered by The Guardian last month.

A chimpanzee on permanent display, covered with the black veil. © Bristol Culture

I recently visited As I Live and Breathe at the Horniman Museum, a very impactful exhibit about plastics. At the front of the natural history gallery, taxidermy animals were displayed as if they were dead, with thousands of pieces of black plastic erupting from their mouths, and a hedgehog dead in a fast food container. The message is clear: plastic pollution is killing our wildlife.

A powerful display at the Horniman museum. A dead fox with plastic erupting from it’s mouth. (Image by Jan Freedman)

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery recently were awarded a certificate of excellence by the Curry Fund. This amazing acknowledgment was for the engaging exhibition, Pliosaur! about the life of the almost complete Pliosaur specimen found at Westbury, Wiltshire. The exhibition, which received funding from The Curry Fund, took the visitor into the past to explore the world that this giant reptile lived in.

What Should I Read?

With many of us holding Pleistocene collections, a new book written by Dr Ross Barnett, The Missing Lynx, can help us understand them more. It looks at the lost mammals of Britain. Mammoths, sabre tooth cats, beavers, and more fill this prehistoric safari. It is full of life histories of the animals and their extinction, the history of their finds, and if they could be reintroduced into Britain. It’s a fascinating, and fun read, and highly recommended! Our very own Jack Ashby has just written a great review of it for our blog.

The Missing Lynx, the new book about Britain’s lost beasts. (Image Jan Freedman)

Where Should I Work?

The Royal Horticultural Society is looking for a horticultural taxonomist to join their horticultural taxonomy team at Wisley, working with one of the largest plant collections in the UK.

Job title: Horticultural taxonomist. Full time. £26,498 per annum. For more information, click here.

Kew Gardens is looking for a botanical horticulturalist to work with their tropical nurseries.

Job title: Botanical Horticulturist – decorative nursery. 1 year, fixed term. £18,590 per annum. For more information, click here.

Before You Go…

If you have visited an exhibition/museum, have something to say about a current topic, or perhaps you want to tell us what you’ve been working on, please drop Jen an email at blog@natsca.org. Thanks!

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 – August

Compiled by Glenn Roadley, Curator (Natural Science), The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

Welcome to the August edition of NatSCA Digital Digest!

What Should I Read?

We’ve got three great NatSCA blogs to read this month. Donna Young, Herbarium Curator at World Museum, Liverpool, writes of her quest to map and document botanical models manufactured by the Brendel Company of Berlin, now found in collections across the world. Be sure to fill in the survey if you have any in your institution.

A blog by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, tells us about the aims and processes behind a new art exhibition at the museum, ‘Evolution as Inspiration’.

Christine Taylor, Curator of Natural History, Portsmouth Museums, writes about the HLF (or NHLF) funded project to share and raise the profile of the city’s natural history collections, ‘Wild about Portsmouth’.

The Museums Association has published articles covering a range of political issues affecting the sector. Nicky Morgan has become the latest Culture Secretary through the rotating door of cabinet members, and further cuts to local authorities have put museums in Bradford under threat of redundancies and closure. The sector-wide discussions surrounding the decolonisation of collections, human rights and corporate sponsorship continue as Ahdaf Soueif resigns from the British Museum’s board of trustees, citing the museums lack of a ‘clear ethical position’ on such issues.

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Brendel Plant Model Survey

Written by Donna Young, Curator of Herbarium, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool

Inspired by the project led by the Corning Museum of Glass, which looked at holdings of Blaschka models, I am embarking on a project to map and document collections of Brendel botanical models worldwide.

The objective of this project is not only to provide a useful resource to be used in the curation of anatomical models, but to document their past and present use – promoting and bringing awareness of these collections to new audiences.

Brendel model Papaver rhoeas
© National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

Anatomical Models

The nineteenth century was the golden age of scientific discovery, and as the century progressed, the teaching of science in schools, academies and museums evolved to reach a new mass public audience. Science was no longer the exclusive preserve of an elite few.

Changing teaching techniques promoted this transformation and pedagogical inquiry was seen as a constructive and involved way of learning. The written and spoken word was supported by the use of visually instructive wall charts and classroom demonstrations. The introduction of interactive teaching models encouraged audiences to understand nature using new and original perspectives.

Botanical models were used to illustrate and demonstrate plant anatomy. Unlike living material, their use was not restricted by seasonal availability and they were ideal for demonstrating small or ephemeral details which are difficult to preserve.

In 1827 Louis Auzoux established his workshop in France, manufacturing human and veterinary anatomical models from papier-mâché. The company also produced botanical models, which were widely distributed to universities and schools in France, particularly to support the expansion in teaching agricultural science.

Brendel model Centaurea cyanus ‘dissected’
© National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

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The Dead and the Living: Natural History’s Two Key Pillars in New Art Exhibition

Written by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and curator of ‘Evolution as Inspiration’

Over the past year, I’ve been working with one of the world’s leading naturalists, Jonathan Kingdon, to produce an exhibition of his artworks, entitled Evolution as Inspiration. Translating his science through his art, Kingdon has sought to explore and explain the how’s of why’s of animal appearances.

Beaks as Flags (detail), 2010. Jonathan Kingdon

Although it is an art exhibition of ceramics, sculpture, paintings and drawings, in several senses a natural history museum like ours is the perfect place for this show. Evolution as Inspiration is arranged in two parts. One focusses on the drawings Kingdon made whilst dissecting animal carcasses as he sought to document and understand the adaptations beneath the skin; the other explores his scientific analysis of the evolution of animal signalling and colouration, resulting from decades of observing the behaviours of wild animals.

These two elements of Kingdon’s work reflect two central pillars of natural history: what we can learn from dead specimens is very different to what we can understand by watching live animals in the field. These dual strands of zoological research are also embodied by the history of our collections, and by the people who work and study here in the Museum, in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology in which we are embedded, and in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) with whom we worked with to co-curate this exhibition.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – July

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

Welcome to the July edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.

Where Should I Go?

Dippy is in Newcastle over the summer, so if you haven’t seen this iconic cast, pop on over!

A nice exhibition is on at the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, Evolution as Inspiration. A mixture of artworks and natural history specimens look at how animals have evolved visual cues.

What Should I Read?

There’s a new book coming out on Britain’s lost ice age giants. The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s lost mammals is out on 11th July. Written by the co-creator of Twilight Beasts, this book explores the history of some of our amazing large mammals that once roamed Britain. Rewilding, ancient DNA, cave fossils and more – it’s a fabulous book (I’ve had a sneak peak!). And well worth one for the reading list!

Six North Atlantic Right Whales have been found dead in the last 3 months. With just 400 individuals left in the world, this species is highly threatened. In museums we are in a unique position to help highlight species at risk, so if you have any North Atlantic Right Whale specimens on display, lets update our labels! Read about it here.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – June

Compiled by Sam Barnett, NatSCA Volunteer and PubSci Committee Member.

Welcome one and all to the June 2019 edition of the Digest.

What should I read?

New experiments in flight design don’t crop up every day – which is why the discovery of Yi qi, the creature that looked like a bird had tried to imitate a bat and an aye-aye at the same time, was so surprising. The problem was that the remains were so scrappy it left a lot of interpretation as to how that membrane of skin fit around its wing (see image from the paper for a couple of proposals). Thankfully that picture is getting clearer due to the discovery of a second member of the family: named Ambopteryx, this little beauty helps fill the gaps in our understanding. You can read more about Ambopteryx in the Nature paper or over at The Atlantic for the lowdown by Ed Yong.

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