Decolonising Natural Sciences Collections

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, The Manchester Museum.

Decolonising museums is in the headlines a lot at the moment and so it should be. I’ve chatted to a few people about this recently and it isn’t very clear what it means, how it relates to natural science collections and how we can start to decolonise our collections, so I thought I’d share my own thoughts.

Much of the discussion in the museum sector has been around ethnography collections with some great work that goes some way to redress our colonial past (including from my own institution Manchester Museum who have returned sacred aboriginal objects). Some ethnography objects are made from bark, fur or ivory, but these materials don’t often form part of the decolonisation debate.

The reality is that many natural history collections, particularly in the western world have a colonial origin. Many objects were traded on slave ships and were an attempt to map and tame the British Empire. Miranda Lowe and Subhadra Das have done some brilliant work to highlight this and the Grant Museum’s new exhibition on their Colonial Histories is a great first step in bringing this to the public.

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Meet The NatSCA Committee – Amanda Callaghan

Written by Amanda Callaghan, Curator/Director of the Cole Museum of Zoology at the University of Reading.

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee?

I only recently joined the Committee but will be taking over the organisation of training courses from Clare Brown in the New Year. NatSCA offers really interesting and relevant courses for people working in this sector and I would welcome any ideas of courses you would like to see, or repeats of courses you missed. I attended a couple of these recently, including by far the smelliest day I have ever spent, at the skeleton preparation course at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth.

Job title and Institution

Curator/Director of the Cole Museum of Zoology at the University of Reading/Professor of Invertebrate Zoology.

Twitter username

@ACallaZoo

Tell us about your day job?

Working as a University academic means that you have lots of hats. My hats include teaching undergraduate zoology, supervising PhD and undergraduate student research and no end of random teaching leadership roles. These roles are all very interesting but by far the best part of my working week is spent in the Cole Museum where I have been the curator for the past 15 years.

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Provenance, Provenance, Provenance

Written by Yvette Harvey, Keeper of the Herbarium, Royal Horticultural Society, RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey.

When all is quiet, the crowds have long-gone home and the lights have been dimmed, the back rooms come alive for the curators who have long finished their official hours. For it is the time for tracking down rogue specimens, delving into the past or anticipating the future. What I am trying to say is that it is the time for research and the inevitable Miss Marple style adventures to be discovered when finding details to add to the current knowledge of a historic specimen. I say current because invariably details will have been lost or not even deemed worthy to have been recorded on labels, or written in a language so obscure as to not be recognised by the modern eye.

Perhaps lost details are just a phenomenon of the botanical world, but I suspect not, and I will explain what I am alluding to above using just a couple of examples of specimens made by a single collector, John Forbes, who undertook a voyage from 1822 until his death in 1823, almost 200 years ago.

John Forbes was one of the Horticultural Society of London’s (now the Royal Horticultural Society) early plant collectors. Head-hunted from the Liverpool Botanical Garden for his horticultural skills, he was employed to travel to Southern Africa to bring back plants to introduce to British gardens. He sailed with Captain Owen on the HMS Leven, a voyage tasked with making a survey of the east coast of Africa, visiting (in the following order): Madeira, Tenerife, Santa Cruz, Cape Verde Islands, Brazil, South Africa, Mozambique (Forbes is noted as the second botanist to collect there (Exell & Hayes: 130)), Madagascar, Comoros, Mozambique, South Africa and finally Mozambique (where Forbes died, 16th August 1823).

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Meet the NatSCA Committee – Kirsty Lloyd

Written by Kirsty Lloyd, BBSRC CryoArks Technician at the Natural History Museum, London.

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee?

I have recently become a member of the NatSCA committee after attending their conferences and events for several years.

Thus far I have taken on the role of tracking and supporting collections at risk. A natural sciences collection provides a perpetual physical snapshot of the natural world and holds important information which can help us better understand our planet today. However, this valuable resource is often the first to experience the strain of funding cuts, staff shortages and redundancies. Collections in long-term storage, especially those that exist outside of the public eye, are frequently underutilized and therefore undervalued.

NatSCA is trying to keep track of threats to collections and offer our support to those in need; with the intention of increasing awareness and acknowledgement of the value of natural sciences collection and the people with the skills to care for them. If you know of any collections that are at risk from staff loss or collection disposal, please get in touch at advocacy@natsca.org.

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Meet The NatSCA Committee – Glenn Roadley

Written by Glenn Roadley, Curator (Natural Science), The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

What is your role on the NatSCA committee?

Though new to the committee, I’ve been volunteering for NatSCA for about 5 years, primarily updating the NatSCA Jobs Listings web page. I’ll be continuing to help out with keeping our website up to date, and I’m looking forward to assisting with the organisation of future NatSCA conferences.

Job title and institution

Curator (Natural Science), The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Twitter username

@batdrawer1

Tell us about your day job

As Curator of Natural Science at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, I am responsible for caring for and providing access to the ~150,000 Natural Science specimens held by Stoke-on-Trent City Council. As the main repository for Natural Science specimens in Staffordshire, the museum holds a robust representation of local flora and fauna, backed by strong links with the local biological recording community. My day to day work usually involves answering enquiries (usually requests for identification), organising both Natural Science and cross-disciplinary displays and exhibitions, developing the collections through both acquisitions and disposals and facilitating visitors and loans. I’m lucky to work with a great team of volunteers, who perform invaluable work documenting and digitising our specimens.

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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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