NatSCA Digital Digest – December

Written by Jan Freedman, NatSCA Committee Member and Curator of Natural History at Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Festive celebrations are beginning, and this monthly digest is a bonanza of great things!

What Should I Do?

Big Natural Science conferences: Dates for your diaries!

Dead Interesting: Secrets of Collections Success: The NatSCA 2019 conference and AGM will be held at the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin between 1st and 3rd May 2019. The conference aims to unlock the secrets of collections success by sharing how we have used collections to benefit their organisations, communities and the wider world. The conference will focus on three themes:

  • Collections: Reveal your collections care, research and access secrets.
  • Engagement: What are your engagement success stories and how did you make them happen?
  • Museums and Tech: How has technology helped you unlock, understand and unleash your collections?

The call for abstracts is open, so have a look and present some of your amazing work to colleagues! All the information is here.

Making the Case for Natural History Collections: The annual conference for the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) is happening in Chicago between 25th and 31st May 2019. The theme is focusing on what curators and collections staff do and why their collections are so important. More information about the conference is here. A long way to travel? Don’t worry, there are travel grants available.

Trading Nature: The summer meeting and AGM of the Society for the History of Natural History, is this year being jointly organised with The Geological Curators Group. It will be held at the King’s Manor, University of York between 4th and 5th June 2019. The interesting theme will look at the role of agents, dealers and commercial enterprises in the history of natural history.

NatSCA have organised a seminar day on fundraising, to take place on Wednesday 30th January 2019. The seminar, Finding Funds for Fossils, Ferns and Flamingos: How to secure money for museum collections, is packed full of interesting talks which can help us to look for funding for projects. For details and booking, click here.

What Should I apply For?

Fancy a move? The San Bernardino County Museum, in California, is looking for a Curator of Earth Sciences. Full details here.

What Should I Read?

Sit back, grab a mince pie, and relax. There’s lots to read over Christmas:

Kirsty Lloyd, CryoArks Technician at the Natural History Museum, London, has written about Making Replicas of your Specimens on the Geological Curators’ Group blog– Forget 3D printing, this is the cheaper, original, and still very detailed way of doing it!

Nadine Gabriel wrote about an interesting one day event focusing on Collectors, Collections and the Geology of SW Britain. From map makers to Ice Age animals, there’s a lot happening in the South West!

Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History at Plymouth Museums, Galleries and Archives, wrote a little about label writing in museums: can museum labels be more fun and engaging?

Brian Switek talks about the many ways women get left out of palaeontology. A really interesting, mind-opening read.

From Adam Koszary, social media manager at The Merl, Seven broad statements that may or may not help your museum do a bit better at social media. A great and interesting read.

Or why not just browse through our growing Notes & Comments, online publications, from book reviews to exhibitions, there’s some nice articles to get your teeth into.

From all the NatSCA committee, we wish all our members a very happy and relaxing Christmas break!

Wild About Portsmouth – Discovering Portsmouth’s Natural History Collection

Written by Christine Taylor, Curator of Natural History, Portsmouth Museums

In March 2018 Portsmouth City Council was awarded a £79,700 grant to deliver a ‘Wild about Portsmouth project in order to raise the profile of the city’s Natural History collection. In addition to appointing a curator and an assistant, the project enables the development of natural history advocates and a team of volunteers to work on and promote the collection. The project also aims to engage with people in a variety of ways, from family activities to specialist workshops, with the view of participants helping to inform priorities for collection development and new displays.

As a curator with over 20 years’ experience in Hampshire, I have always been aware of the collection but had very little knowledge of it. The last Natural History Curator was 10 years ago and, apart from the occasional request, little had been done to develop the collection. An initial overview showed that the collection was (mainly) in good condition, packed into archival and museum quality boxes awaiting rediscovery.

One of the first tasks was to get an idea of the scope of the collections and their associated collectors. Another task was to recruit volunteers to assist with rearranging the collections to get them into taxonomic order and to catalogue them or update the Modes database with provenance data. To date 10 volunteers have been recruited and are currently working on the geology, shell and botany collections. Once the entomology collections have rehoused over the next few months (the cabinets are currently stored side-on making access to them rather difficult), volunteers will be recruited to re-stage, re-organise and catalogue them.

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And the Winner is…

Written by Lucie Mascord, Natural History Conservator, and NatSCA Committee Member.

Through August to October this year, NatSCA ran its very first competition. Running up to the Caring for Natural Science Collections one-day conference at Oxford University Museum of Natural History (on 17th October 2018), the competition asked participants to post natural history conservation themed photographs to Twitter with the hashtags #NatSCAConservation and #photocomp.

Whilst it took a little while to warm up, buoyed by some fantastic images posted by the NatSCA conservation working group, we received some excellent entries, resulting in a close competition for first place.

The entries ranged from geology to taxidermy, from the humorous to the technical. This was the exact response we were looking for, illustrating the variety and accessibility of conservation.

When it came down to it, the winning photograph was an excellent composition, highlighting the complexities of conserving an unusual object.

The winner is this fantastic entry from Anastasia van Gaver, which features Anastasia and her colleague Samuel Suarez Ferreira on their first day at work at the Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge, (@ZoologyMuseum), image taken by Natalie Jones. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end with this monster of a giant spider crab. Both Anastasia and Sam attended the conference in October and gave talks on specific conservation experiences during their contracts at the Museum of Zoology. To be able to spotlight emerging professionals working with natural history collections was one of the main achievements of the conference and competition.

The winning entry from Anastasia van Gaver, Natalie Jones, and Samuel Suarez Ferreira. © Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge.

Anastasia says; “The Cambridge University Museum of Zoology reopened in June, following a major HLF funded redevelopment. I was lucky to be one of the conservators to join the team for this project and this picture was taken on my very first day at the Museum, in August 2017. Having just visited the stores and the lab, my new colleague Samuel Suarrez Ferreira and I got given the task of making this Japanese spider crab fit for display! I submitted this picture for the competition not only because of the great memories I have of the best possible first day a natural sciences conservator could ask for, but also because it is a good example of team work: Sam and I decided on treatment together, then each conserved one side of ‘Krabby’, before the mountmaker Rebecca Ash designed an intricate bespoke metal support for it.”

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Harry Higginson: Distributing Dodos in the 1860s

Written by Clare Brown, Curator of Natural Science, Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Curators are often asked to name their favourite object. I’ve got loads and swap between them all the time: the adult longhorn beetle that emerged from someone’s wooden sofa after a few years of chewing, our thylacine mount, the dude-y little rock hyrax with attitude, the Peruvian “mummy’s eyes” (read squid lenses), that gorgeous La Brea tar pits water beetle… My favourites at the moment are our dodo bones. Yes they’re dodo bones and so, obviously, are amazing but the story behind how Leeds came to have them is wonderful too.

It all started in 1838 in Thormanby near York where little Harry Higginson was born. He progressed through school in Leicester and an apprenticeship in Manchester to a railway construction job in Mauritius in 1862. Harry’s completely brilliant ‘Reminiscences of Life and Travel‘ is a great read. It’s packed full of amazing 19th century colonial derring-do from out-galloping the monsoon in a gorge to unbelievable childcare practices (burying them up to their necks in sand) to feeding a friend a dead – and extremely tough – donkey ‘as a lark’. It is in this book that Harry describes the moment when the dodo story gets more interesting:

Shortly before the completion of the railway I was walking along the embankment one morning, when I noticed some [locals] removing some peat soil from a small morass. They were separating and placing into heaps, a number of bones, of various sorts, among the debris. I stopped and examined them, as they appeared to belong to birds and reptiles, and we had always been on the lookout for bones of the then mythical Dodo. So I filled my pocket with the most promising ones for further examination.

And guess what? They were dodo bones and Higginson then kindly sent a box full to York, Liverpool and Leeds Museums. We all still have them.

This beautiful watercolour of a dodo dates back to the 17th Century. During this period, ‘dronte’ (as seen in the image) was the word used in Dutch, French and Italian for the dodo. © Image in public domain.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – October

Compiled by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

What Should I Read?

You may or may not own/have heard of ‘Dinosaurs, How They Lived and Evolved‘ by Dr Darren Naish and Dr Paul Barrett, but either way the good news is there’s now a literally-just-released-second-edition, which is the most up to date a (printed) book can possibly be really. There is a lot of talk about it already but my tuppence is- I have a copy and it’s brilliant. That description fully extends to the captivating cover art by Bob Nicholls of Paleocreations, featuring a hungry Tianyulong (that’s a dinosaur, in case you weren’t sure).

I came across a charming article about getting children into natural sciences recently called ‘Kids and caterpillars: Fostering a child’s interest in nature by rearing Lepidoptera (moth and butterfly) larvae‘. I’m not suggesting we all go out and start rearing leps, but in an age where human lives are ruled by technology, it’s a beautiful story and heart warming example of an intra-familial cross-generational citizen science project by an Assistant Curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and his son.

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Crochetdermy® at the Horniman

Written by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

We all have our hobbies, though some are definitely more gloat-worthy than others. Personally, I do have some respectable things on my list like visiting other natural history collections and reading history books, but then I also have less conventional interests like attending Destination Star Trek, and building model WWII airplanes. Whatever makes you happy, I say! Last Christmas I got a new hobby- I was given a Star Wars crochet set and, having wiled away the cold winter nights using it to learn how to knot wool into shapes*, I used my new found ‘skills’ to make this awesome, if far from perfect, crochet Yoda for my sister’s birthday. I was pretty chuffed with myself to be frank**, but if you happen to know my sister, don’t look at Yoda’s cloak too closely next time you pop round to see her.

My first crochet project; A little Yoda for my sister. © Emma Nicholls.

It is through the eyes of someone with this specific level of skill (loose term in my case) that I introduce you with awe to the new installation in the Inspired by Nature temporary exhibition space at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. When I first saw the lioness peering out over the Natural History Gallery, I let out an audible and involuntary ‘wow’. The exhibition, by artist Shauna Richardson, is called EVOLUTION of The Artist and the Exhibited Works. The exhibition comprises seven 3-dimensional sculptures, and one ‘skin’; a baboon that hasn’t been stuffed in order to show, in part, the process of how her sculptures have been created. Shauna devised the term ‘Crochetdermy®’ as an obvious yet genius amalgamation of the words ‘crochet’ and ‘taxidermy’ to describe her sculptures, which it does really rather well I’d say. The skill required to produce these life-size pieces, speaking from the bottom rung of the crochet skill set ladder, is phenomenal (and I think people on much higher steps than I would have to agree). You can see the muscles in the lioness’s neck, the facial features are as realistic as you like, and the size and impact of the pieces on the visitors is obvious, whenever I walk past.

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Nature’s Empire

Opportunities for international research are rare when working in a regional museum. So when one arose I grabbed it with both hands.

Thanks to two external specialists, Martyn Rix and Henry Noltie (of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Edinburgh respectively), we already knew that a group of 86 beautiful Indian paintings of plants and animals in RAMM’s collection were important. The works were painted by Indian artists under the instruction of European scientists while India was under British rule.  They also recognised that the plants depicted were economically useful for medicines, dyes and timbers. So in 2016 RAMM displayed half of the works in an exhibition called Flower Power – Botanical Drawings from India. The artworks were all conserved through funding from Arts Council England’s PRISM fund, as outlined in this article Preparing for Flower Power.

Sheah Gosh. Watercolour and gouache, c.1770-80 by an unknown artist. Cresswell collection. © 2018 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council. This depiction of a lynx is by an unknown artist. In Urdu it is known as ‘siyah gosh’ meaning ‘black-eared’. The animal was probably kept in a menagerie.

The collection caught the attention of two University of Exeter lecturers, Dr Nandini Chatterjee and Dr Andrew Rudd, as well as Dr Jayanta Sengupta; a visiting curator from India. I explained that although we had learnt a lot about the collection already, there was still much we did not know. Such as:

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