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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Why Cultivated Plants Matter in an Urban Environment

A subject close to our hearts at the Horticultural Taxonomy department of the Royal Horticultural Society is the vastness of the UK cultivated flora – in fact, the latest RHS Plant Finder 2018 lists over 76,000 plants grown in the UK. Stroll through any village, town or city and it is clear that the botanical life of our urban places is dominated by cultivated plants. However, cultivated plants appear only rarely in Floras, the scientific work that catalogues the plant life of a given area. Recording introduced plants is essential if the ecosystems of our towns and cities are to be fully understood.

London street trees providing welcome shade for pedestrians on a sunny day. © Yvette Harvey.

Why Does this Matter?

There is increasing evidence that plants grown for ornament serve more than just an aesthetic function. The flexibility of fauna in adapting to available vegetation has been documented in a 30-year study of a suburban domestic garden (Owen, 2010). The four-year RHS experiment known as Plants for Bugs found that to encourage pollinating insects in gardens the best strategy is to plant a mixture of native and exotic flowering plants (Salisbury et al., 2015). There is also a greater understanding that the human environment can be managed by an informed use of cultivated plants. Examples include the value of street trees and green walls in mitigating heat island effect and the role of green spaces in reducing water runoff.

Pollinators visiting an ornamental flower bed. © Yvette Harvey.

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Impressions of My First NatSCA Conference

Last April I had the opportunity to attend the NatSCA conference at Leeds City Museum. I have been a member of NatSCA since I came to live in the UK three years ago and finally this year, thanks to one of the NatSCA bursaries, I was able to attend the conference. With more than 70 participants from all over the UK and beyond each day, more than 20 talks, interesting stands showing projects and new technology, good coffee and lunch in a uniquely-shaped hall, the event was very successful.

Over the two-day conference, I met colleagues from work, I recognised familiar faces from previous events and the most exciting part was to meet new people and to hear about the amazing projects and experiences from different experts in the museum environment. We also heard about the benefit of working with communities, schoolchildren, teachers, volunteers, undergraduate students, artists and many other groups.

After thinking carefully about what really impressed me (a difficult job with so many good talks), I would like to highlight the following topics.

Facing Challenges and Thinking Up New Strategies to Engage

The first two talks about the exhibition Dinosaurs of China in Nottingham really impressed me. The project involved extraordinary team work in organising the loans, the trips, the installation of the tallest dinosaur skeleton ever displayed in the UK, and the running of a very successful event with large numbers of visitors. The second talk showed brilliantly the role of theatre to enhance the visitor’s experience and engage the public while also showing a good marketing strategy. Moreover, selecting the artist with the required performance skills was very demanding work.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – July

What Should I Read?

On the palaeo-blog by ever prolific palaeoartist Mark Witton, a new piece called Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles at 25: a palaeontological retrospective looks back on the Age of Reptiles comic series, that first appeared in 1993. It is full of palaeoartistry insights, entertaining musings, and images from both Witton and the comic series.

The Geological Curators’ Group blog is a hive of activity with new content now coming out fortnightly. The latest article, published a couple of days ago, is a review of the very popular and highly successful pyrite workshop that took place at the Natural History Museum, London. With really useful content, the article by Deborah Hutchinson, Curator of Geology at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, is called Pyrite Oxidation: Where Are We Now?

Some fantastic new dinosaur skeletons, with thought-provoking growth rings within the bones…., are currently being unearthed in Argentina. Read about this Triassic site in the following article from the BBC; Fossil of ‘first giant’ dinosaur discovered in Argentina.

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Transforming Scientific Natural History 3D Data into an Immersive Interactive Exhibition Experience

Interspectral is a Swedish company that provides an interactive exhibition system called Inside Explorer using 3D volumetric scanning, such as CT and micro CT, real-time graphics visualisation and a large touch table to enable gallery visitors to interactively explore natural history subjects using modern science techniques.

Inside Explorer is today used at museums worldwide, for example the British Museum, Natural History Museum London, Utah Natural History Museum, Denver Museum of Science and Nature and many more.

A recent collaboration between Interspectral and Wakehurst; Kew’s wild botanic garden for their Millennium Seed Bank Visitor Atrium, has resulted in some spectacular results. These can be seen in the specially commissioned Secret Structures exhibition. The Inside Explorer system at the exhibition enables visitors to the Millennium Seed Bank to not only marvel at plants, but to learn from them and to understand our need to protect them. The Inside Explorer Digital Table invites them to peel back the layers of intriguing, scanned objects from RBG Kew’s collections; a Brazil nut, a piece of oak, an orchid and a carved walnut shell.

© Kew Gardens

Wakehurst and Interspectral worked with London’s Natural History Museum’s imaging labs to micro CT scan the subjects for the exhibits. These were then produced for exhibition by Interspectral and Wakehurst.

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So You Think You Know About Dinosaurs?

Ben Garrod’s new book series could be a hit with audiences of all ages.

So you think you know about dinosaurs? The evocative title perfectly reflects the contradictory upbeat attitude and challenging facts of Ben Garrod‘s series of dinosaur books for children. Each book is focused on a different dino species and is chock full of hard facts and science aimed at enthralling, teaching and challenging kids to think for themselves. While at an absolutely ANCIENT age of 23 years I am perhaps not the demographic that Ben is aiming at, nonetheless I immensely enjoyed these charming books and surprised myself by learning a lot about Triceratops, Diplodocus and Tyrannosaurus Rex.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – June

The beautiful mineral Cuprite, from Phoenix Mine, Cornwall. (© Plymouth Museums, Galleries, Archives).

Post-Conference Blues

It’s been a few months since our 2018 conference and AGM at Leeds City Museum. It was wonderful to see so many people there – to catch up with old friends and to meet new ones. And as always, I am so sad when it is over. I guess this is why it’s nice to revisit what went on for the two days. There have been a few different write ups about the conference:

David Waterhouse, Senior Curator of Natural History, Norfolk Museums Service, wrote his first blog post ever all about his time at the conference here.

Glenys Wass, Heritage Collections Manager at Peterborough Museum wrote about her summary of the conference talks here.

Jan Freedman (me), Curator of Natural History, at Plymouth Museums, Galleries, Archives, shared my experiences of the conference here.

Plus, the talks from the conference will be written up either for the NatSCA blog, the Notes & Comments, or the Journal of Natural Science Collections.

The Future of Museum Collections

Leading on from the conference, one talk by Alistair Brown at the Museums Association, looked at where collections will be in 2030. This new research project will be working with museum staff to understand issues that currently face museums and where they want them to be in less than 15 years time. A write up of the Collections 2030 project can be found here.

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