Playing with Time

Cave palaeontology collections as vessels of truth and creativity…

Big Beasts Stalk The Mind of Sir William Boyd Dawkins. Two pages from a flip-book showing animated giant deer, steppe bison, spotted hyaena, horse, pages from Sir William’s notebook relating to the excavation of the Hyaena Den at Wookey Hole and a Palaeolithic hand axe unearthed there. (C) Sean Harris.

Beasts of tooth and claw have always stalked the darker corners of my mind. But we could probably all say that couldn’t we? However, a recent creative collaboration – for which Wells and Mendip Museum’s seminal collection of Pleistocene mammal bone provided the focus – presented a new slant on the mind/ cave analogy.

My grandparents, who exerted such a powerful influence on my formation, did their very best to nurture a natural scientist of some shape or form. They would, I think, have been proud of a geologist, ornithologist, zoologist – also perhaps an archaeologist; maybe even an anthropologist. Someone of great standing and integrity, qualities probably manifest in a really solid moustache.

Consequently, growing up, I spent a lot of time in museums, in hides and ranging across fields with a geologist’s hammer; all activities accompanied with a notebook and pencil. However, to the considerable bafflement (and perhaps frustration) of my well-intentioned elders, a compulsive urge to express the images and narratives that formed themselves in my mind’s eye – ironically borne of hours gazing into cases at the minutiae of taxidermied creatures, patinated bones, geological specimens – won out and instead of a scientist they got an artist and animator.

However, having now, over the course of a career, worked with a diverse array of researchers in museums and conservation organisations, I know that I’m on the same spectrum as a great many of them – albeit perched at a slightly different position along it. Whilst our motivations and the languages we use to communicate our discoveries may be different, we’re all explorers of a type. I wish I could have the opportunity to explain that to my grandmother – though maybe she knew it anyway.

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Taxidermy Koala – The Language of Natural History

This article has been re-posted from the Grant Museum of Zoology blog, with permission of the author Jack Ashby.

With generic terms like mankind and Homo sapiens (“wise man”), people of all genders are well aware that it is the masculine that has dominated the vocabulary of humanity. Not so in the animal kingdom.

Across UCL Culture we are celebrating the centenary of some women first getting the vote in the UK in a number of different ways. In the run up to International Women’s Day, here on the blog our Specimens of the Week will be exploring themes like women in natural history, female specimens, and – in this case – the language of natural history. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…

Koalas are one of many Australian mammals that are named after a characteristic that only females have. Their scientific name Phascolarctos means “pouched bear”. LDUCZ-Z65. (C) UCL Grant Museum of Zoology

***The Taxidermy Koala***

I find it interesting to think about animals that are named after features that only one sex has. How would you feel if your species was defined by a characteristic that you yourself didn’t possess?* My own passion is the mammals of Australia. Unlike many other groups (for example there are entire groups of insects that can only be identified by studying male genitalia), for those animals which are named for sex-specific features, Australian mammals are almost** universally named after things that only appear in females.

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Meet the Committee – Isla Gladstone

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee?

I help promote information sharing and collaboration between NatSCA and closely allied subject specialist network the Geological Curators’ Group. These groups share core aims and, increasingly with loss of specialist curatorial posts, a membership. It’s exciting to explore how we can capitalise their individual strengths for the benefit of natural sciences collections and the people who work with them. 

Job title and institution

Senior Curator (Natural Sciences), Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Bristol Culture

Twitter username

@isla_gladstone

Tell us about your day job

I work with a small team (Biology Curator Rhian Rowson and Geology Curator Deborah Hutchinson) to curate over one million natural sciences specimens of all shapes and sizes. As many a curator will recognise, this varies from high level strategic work to lifting, shifting, labelling and cleaning – a medley of activities to enable diverse access to and preserve these astonishing collections.

Medicinal plant on a page from Bristol’s earliest natural sciences collection – the Broughton herbarium, Bristol & Jamaica, 1779-90. (C) Bristol Culture.

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Top Ten Most Read Blogs of 2017

This year has been a riotous 365 days of wolves in dresses, spiral poo, and googly-eyed owls, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve had more articles (up by *84%* on 2016) (that number surely requires bold text), more comments, more feedback, and most importantly- more authors than ever before. The NatSCA blog is clearly the place to find stupendous stories, pretty pictures, wondrous wisdom, and… alluring alliteration it seems. To round up 2017, we have identified the top ten most read blogs of 2017, and, because we are super nice, we have even included links to save you searching for them and facilitate your viewing pleasure. You’re welcome, enjoy, and…

Happy New Year to you all!

The top ten most read blogs in 2017:

1- The curious life of a museum curator

2- Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be?

3- Stirring the hornet’s nest – are natural science collections even legal?

4- National Gorilla Day! (or Racist Skeletons in our Closets)

5- Private Bone/Taxidermy Collection: The Good, The Bad and The Illegal

6- Famous Flies – Petiver

7- Top Ten Most Read Blogs of 2016   (curiously)

8- It’s All In The Subconscious

9- Making Nature; at Wellcome Collection

10- What is a museum curator made of? Slugs and snails and puppy dog tails, and then some…

The number of blogs that have been published through NatSCA this year is the highest we’ve ever had, but next year we want to beat that record so do get in touch with your idea/s if you would like to submit an article to us. You don’t have to be a professional in natural history, as blogs are relatively informal by nature (no pun intended), it just needs to be related to a natural sciences subject which, let’s face it, with the right twist can encompass just about anything. So drop us an email, or peruse the guidelines and then send us a submission; blog@natsca.org. We look forward to hearing from you after you’ve recovered from the turkey and mince pies.

Written by Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens and NatSCA Blog Manager.

Making the Most of a Move

Making the Most of a Move: Geological Curators’ Group Conference, Day Two

We like to share the goodies in the field of natural history, so in the first ever cross-over of its kind, Part I (comprising Day One) of this blog can be found over on the Geological Curator’s Group website. No need to take the time to google it, let me give you a hand over there.

Night Early Morning at the Museum

The only thing that beats going to a natural history museum is visiting it when you’re not meant to be. The trump card of such a visit, is when you’re allowed to go to parts of the collections, not normally accessible to the general public. After a day in the lecture theatre, the 35+ members of the “Making the Most of a Move” conference assembled the following morning outside the Natural History gallery of the National Museum of Ireland, in order to tick off every one of the above, on the Museum Treats Bingo Card*.

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The Addition of Enthusiasts

In a blog series hosted by the Horniman Museum, each month I (the Deputy Keeper of Natural History at said Museum) select a specimen from our collections, do a little research, hopefully find out some riveting and hitherto unknown piece of historical information about it that can be added to our database, and write a blog in a format accessible for the general public. It is one of my pride and joys in my job as it covers so many different aspects of museum life- public engagement, outreach, research, museum documentation, collections management, etc. This month I managed to go a step further and incorporate not just exhibition content into the article (British Wildlife Photographer Awards temporary exhibition), but also a new avenue of research and interest; a 6000 strong army of hawfinch enthusiasts who take to Twitter to record sightings of this shy but glorious little bird. I asked the followers of @HawfinchesUK if they would like to publish an image they had taken and was subsequently presented not just with photographs, but with fascinating insider information of the birding world that I may not have found by my own research.

What a wonderful collaboration of scientists and enthusiasts, and an exceptional reward for the utilisation of social media. Please enjoy:

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NatSCA Digital Digest – October

What Should I Read?

I was just thinking last week that social media has taken over the world as the most thing in existence, corporeal or not, when this article came out about how scientists should all be trained in its use; Social Media; More Scientists Needed. No hope of escape for any of us then. (I say on a social media platform).

Last Wednesday, sadly, New Walk Museum had items stolen from display; From Rhino horns to Egyptian jewels. Whilst the objects stolen last week weren’t of natural history origin, this article (if you can see it through the adverts) also reveals that rhino horn was stolen from there a few years ago. The huge rhino horn problem faced by museums, primarily in 2012, was largely curbed by museums removing all horn from display. An update on this situation was published on our website recently in Rhinos and Museums.

Finally, if you’re looking for something a little more breathing than the average museum specimen, Jack Ashby recently wrote about Australian wildlife in an article called Does an animal’s name affect whether people care about it?

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