The ‘Social History of Natural History: People and Plants’ Workshop One

March 11th 2022, Powell-Cotton Museum

Written by Alexandra Slucky (Assistant Heritage Consultant & Environmental Archaeologist, Atkins, York Office) and Fiona Roberts (Collaborative ESRC PhD student, Cardiff University & Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales).

Decolonizing collections has been at the forefront of museums for quite some time. Thinking beyond the Western museum structure, many institutions have taken new opportunities to view indigenous knowledge from indigenous perspectives by revisiting old collections of anthropological material intermixed with botanical specimens. Four years in the making, Workshop One is part of a one-year project called People and Plants: reactivating ethnobotanical collections as material archives of indigenous ecological knowledge, beginning in January 2022. It is led by National Museums Scotland, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Powell-Cotton Museum, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Entrance to Powell Cotton Museum, Birchington-on-Sea, England, Photo by Alexandra Slucky

The main aim of the project is to engage with three unique indigenous collections located in UK institutions; Somalian, Amazonian, and Aboriginal Australian. The project examines the value and relevance of ethnobotanical collections, both in the present and the future, aiming to bring academics, researchers, museum professionals, botanists and indigenous knowledge holders together in conversation. To focus on sharing authority, it gives a museum voice to women of colour through a process of reactivation, recovery, and relationships, with the result creating more inclusive conditions for future collections.

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Unravelling the Golden Thread: The Silk and Cocoon Collection at the Manchester Museum

Written by Piotr Korpak, Visitor Team Assistant, Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester.

Last August saw the Manchester Museum entering the final phase of its capital project called hello future when it closed to the public for over a year, until February 2023. Major redevelopments like this tend to be quite stressful for most institutions, but also bring a lot of excitement and many valuable opportunities for individuals. Being closed to the public meant no visitors and so I was able to support work in other departments. Always interested in natural history collections, I welcomed the chance to work with the Curatorial Team in the Entomology Department with true delight.

The Museum’s arthropod collections are amongst the top three in the UK, with over 3 million specimens, out of which about 2.5 million are insects (Logunov and Merriman, 2012). As is the case with many museums, the collections are vast, the staff numbers small, and it can be difficult for curators to catch up with the backlog of past acquisitions and historic materials. No doubt one could find boxes, cabinets, and all other imaginable storage units full of specimens still awaiting their official accessioning, cataloguing, research, and digitisation in any museum.

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‘Marvellous Molluscs’ – Increasing Accessibility, Improving Storage & Unlocking Research Potential At The University Of Aberdeen

Written by Hannah Clarke, Assistant Curator (Collections Access), University of Aberdeen.

In April 2021, The University of Aberdeen’s Zoology Museum, with support from NatSCA’s Bill Pettit Memorial Award, undertook a year-long project to rehouse and improve the accessibility of the University’s mollusc collection.

The collection comprises approximately 2550, mostly British specimens, collected from the 1840s to the 1970s. The specimens were gifted to the museum by former students, academic staff, and amateur shell collectors, they also include several specimens from as far afield as the Pacific, Africa, China, Madagascar, America, and Canada.

The molluscs form part of the University’s extensive Zoology Collections, which are recognised as being of National Significance. As such, we are constantly striving to improve access to these collections, and the ‘Marvellous Molluscs’ Project aimed to do just that.

Assistant Curator, Hannah Clarke, identifying storage issues in specimen cupboards.

Having identified the collections both in storage and on display, a project plan was created that would tackle not only the rehousing, but also the documentation of the specimens on the museum database. The majority of specimens were poorly stored several layers deep in drawers, had outdated taxonomy, and lacked any database records or collections data.

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The First Steps Of An Epic Move

Written by Clare Valentine, Head of Life Science collections, Natural History Museum, London.

Securing £182m to build a new science and digitisation centre in March 2020 was an incredible moment for the Natural History Museum, and the culmination of many years of hard work across the organisation to make the case for better facilities for the collections and research. The support from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport provides an opportunity to secure the future of the collections by moving them into bespoke, accessible storage, to accelerate digitisation of the collections to expand access for researchers globally and transform the study of natural history through an investment in new analytical facilities, technologies and techniques.

Receiving confirmation of the funding just a matter of days before the UK shutdown for the best part of 2 years didn’t come without its challenges, but it’s been incredible to see the progress that has been made towards our immense plan to build the centre and move tens of millions of specimens there by 2027.

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A Sunfish, a Sheriff and a Register

By Eimear Ashe, Documentation Officer, National Museum of Ireland – Natural History.

NatSCA friends, I’d like to tell you a little about our current Inventory Project in the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) – Natural History. But first, back in 2009-2017, we ran a project that allowed us to catalogue 170,000 specimens in our collections management system (Adlib). We proposed another project to continue these efforts. The start date of the project regrettably coincided with the pandemic as well as the untimely loss of a key colleague (Dr Matthew Parkes). We regrouped and decided to postpone the physical inventory of objects and instead to focus on the work that could be done remotely by the team of inventory assistants.

On this project, I manage a team of three contracted inventory assistants. The cataloguers work on Natural History for two or three days per week, and other NMI projects for the rest of their week. I spend one full day each week doing project-related work, that is, supervision, answering queries, checking work and reporting.

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