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

I was wrapping up a particularly difficult male peacock with a helper a few weeks ago and we were discussing natural science collections. “Do you think one day they’ll just be made illegal?” she asked, straight-faced and sincere. I was miffed – this was someone saying to a natural science curator that really, it shouldn’t be allowed. I sighed and spent the rest of the wrapping session (porcupine was also tricky) explaining how wonderful – and legal – natural science collections are.

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Confessions of an Amateur Aquarist: Having an Aquarium in a Museum Exhibition

Sea Life: Glimpses of the Wonderful‘ is the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery’s (RAMM) 2017 summer exhibition. It takes inspiration from the works of PH Gosse. Gosse was a Victorian naturalist who lived near Torquay and spent his time exploring the coast. He wrote many popular books and RAMM is fortunate to have over 100 of his original artworks.

Devonshire cup coral. Teaching aid drawn in coloured chalk by PH Gosse. (Image courtesy of Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery).

Gosse is well known for his interest in aquariums. He invented the word aquarium and was among the first to keep animals alive successfully. In 1856 he published a book; ‘The aquarium: an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea’, and was also partly responsible for the aquarium craze that gripped Victorian England.

The exhibition team decided that no exhibition on rock pooling and aquariums was complete without a real one set up in the gallery.  Kids keep fish as pets – can’t be that hard … or so we thought. I’d like to share a few things we have learnt over the past few months: Continue reading

NatSCA Digital Digest – May

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What a month we’ve had! The Conference at Cambridge on the 20th to 21st April was a roaring success. Over 100 museum delegates gathered together beneath the mantle of a Finback whale skeleton, to swap notes and revive old connections. Many heated exchanges were had over issues ranging from fungi to frocked wolves. No museum-based conference is complete without a tour of the stores – big thanks once again to the Zoology Museum for having us. We got a sneak-preview of the new gallery space too and, while I can’t post pictures of that, I can tell you that you have to go and see it when they open. Highlights for me included an elephant from Sri Lanka with links to Stanley Kubrik, and a Diorama of a beach with added surprises for future conservators. Continue reading

Cold Case Curation

Museums have many curious objects behind closed doors. Recently, volunteers discovered some ‘cold ones’ at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust.

Behind Closed Doors

If museums are icebergs, then museum exhibits are just the tip; and the remaining 90% or so of specimens are tucked away safely behind closed doors. Many people, lucky enough to have visited these museum storage areas (‘behind-the-scenes’), will be familiar with almost endless rows of racks and shelves packed with all sorts of different objects, ranging from Chinese vases to taxidermy monitor lizards. But few non-curators would be familiar with the idea of freezers full of dead animals!

We have two large freezers, at our off-site storage facility, packed full of animals; we needed to know exactly how many animals were in there and where they were from, hence this project- Cold Case Curation. The specimens also have excellent provenance; labels with location details including specific grid references and dates. Therefore this Cold Case Curation project was as much a biological survey (albeit indoors) as a detailed museum inventory.

Cold Case Curation in action; the team of five volunteers “surveying” the “fauna” of our freezers

Cold Case Curation in action; the team of five volunteers surveying the ‘Fauna of our Freezers’.

Volunteer-Power

Enter our team of volunteers. They were specially recruited for a day for this Cold Case Curation task; to survey the frozen fauna, matching specimens against existing inventory records. This was a joint initiative with our Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre (hosted at the Museum), to capture biological records. Most of our volunteers are long-term with the Museum and the Centre, and are current university students.

As our team of five volunteers eagerly crowded around the two huge freezers, they were fascinated with the idea of freezing animals to preserve them before they are stuffed and prepared as taxidermy specimens (but don’t worry, they all died naturally!).

In teams, the volunteers enthusiastically worked their way through documenting the freezer contents. 241 individual specimens later, we had documented 11 species of mammal and 48 species of bird. Interesting discoveries included a bittern, a little grebe chick, 10 waxwings and a white-tailed tropic bird (with stomach contents). Volunteers delighted in handling iconic British species including 54 red squirrels and 24 barn owls.

Volunteer, Jessica Mitchell proudly wielding a polecat from the freezer “faunal assemblage"

Volunteer, Jessica Mitchell proudly wielding a polecat from the freezer faunal assemblage.

Their experiences are best summarised in their own words;

“After helping out at Tullie House with their cold case curation, recording everything they had in the freezers, we found some amazing specimens from polecats to owls, your typical garden birds to brown hares, but I have to say my favourite by far was the river otter. This otter was fantastic and it was brilliant to see it so upclose as it is a creature I have only seen from afar in the wild. This event was extremely educational and rewarding to myself as I’m studying zoology here in Carlisle”.  Volunteer, Laura Carter.

Volunteer, Laura Carter with River Otter discovery from freezer

Volunteer, Laura Carter with a River Otter discovery from the freezer.

Another volunteer, Donna Salter was also drawn to the otter:

“It’s a bit obvious to go for the big, furry, cute mammal, but my favourite has to be the otter. I was somewhat of an otter obsessed child: other girls wrote fan letters to Mark Owen or Ronan Keating while I wrote to Philip Wayre, founder of the Otter Trust (he sent back a signed visitors guide – I still have it). So for me, getting to hold and see the details of an otter can’t really be beaten!”

Cold Case Reflections; Learning from the Model

The Museum has greatly benefited from this exercise with our detailed inventories and biological records which will go into our database and ultimately end up on the Global Biodiversity Network Gateway for public access (and we also have the data we need to make more informed decisions over which specimens we decide to formally accession). However, this project proved to be a particularly successful public engagement event. It was a combination of the fact that volunteers were seeing and handling a variety of animals and that they were ‘discovering specimens’, whilst working together as a team, which is vastly more enjoyable than lone working. The event was enhanced with use of Twitter  (#coldcasecuration), which captured some of the magical moments of discovery.

This exercise illustrates how a relatively routine (inventory) collections management exercise can be turned into an exciting public engagement project, capturing critical data for the museum and inspiring a future generation of potential young scientists and curators.

By Simon Jackson, Curator, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust

NatSCA Digital Digest

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Jobs and Traineeships

Norfolk Museums Service is offering six 12-month paid traineeships, including one post in natural history. The closing date for applications is 3 January 2016. See here for details.

Curatorial Assistant, Anthropology Audit: Natural History Museum (NHM), London. Six-month collections-based role. Applications close 7 December 2015.

Documentation Officer (job share): Horniman Museum & Gardens, London. 19 hours/week. Applications close 14 December 2015.

Events and Exhibitions

Introduction to Diptera Families. Oxford University Museum of Natural History. A two-day workshop on the ecology and identification of flies.

Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed. Manchester Museum. An exhibition showing how modern science can help explain the ancient practice of animal mummification. Open now until 17 April 2016.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015. Natural History Museum, London. As always, this is a stunningly beautiful exhibition, and well worth seeing. If you can’t make it to London, you can also see it on tour at other museums around the UK.

Collected and Possessed. Horniman Museum & Gardens, London. An exhibition by artist Mark Fairnington, inspired by the collections of the Horniman, NHM, and Wellcome Collection. Open now, until 24 January 2016.

Around the Web

A WNPR podcast looking behind the glass of the taxidermy dioramas the the Peabody Museum.

Who’s digitising what? The New York Times guide to online natural science collections.

In pursuit of plants: The Marianne North Gallery at Kew.

Funny Bones

I wanted to be an Archaeologist when I was 11, and this was certainly down to a fascination with the bones of animals. My inspiration from a very young age came from the wonderful series of ‘Funny Bones’ books by Allan and Janet Ahlberg. The skeletons certainly made me think about how the bones of humans and animals (admittedly not 100% accurate) moved together. I trace my later interest to the many books on dinosaurs and prehistoric life that I assiduously read in my school library. Fast forward 20 years and as an intern at Auckland War Memorial Museum in 2012, I was allowed to ‘have a go’ at preparing some native birds for skeletonisation by de-fleshing them. At Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum, I worked on a small project to re-house some Moa bones whose storage and provenance needed to be updated. However, I wasn’t aware of the methods to clean and maintain bone and re-mount skeletal collections in museums.

I was therefore pleased when NatSCA and conservators from the Cambridge Museum of Zoology put together an amazing conference and workshop called ‘Bone Collections: using, conserving and understanding osteology in museums’. Depending on your area of interest, you could attend for some or all of the talks, or take part in a bone cleaning workshop hosted by Bethany Palumbo, Conservator at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and Vicky Singleton and Natalie Jones of Cambridge University Museums. By taking part, I was able to gain some practical hands on experience of handling and observing bones in collections, and using a variety of dry and wet cleaning methods that are recommended as safe to use, easy to apply, and non-invasive.

Bone cleaning in progress (Image: Anthony Roach)

Bone cleaning in progress (Image: Anthony Roach)

Bethany began by outlining the structure and composition of bone and the impact that light, humidity, and temperature can have on bone if not properly cared for. Bone can become bleached through exposure to light. The surface of bones can crack if they become too hot or suffer mould damage if left in cold, damp conditions. Bethany explained that the bone itself can also cause problems, such as with the secretion of natural fats and oils, which are acidic and can ooze out of specimens long after they have been cleaned and erected for display. This can lead to acid burn. Mechanical damage of bones can also occur, where wire is excessively tight in articulated specimens, or fatty acids react with copper wire and pins to cause Verdigris.

Vicky Singleton,  Conservator at Cambridge University Museums  pictured demonstrating dry cleaning methods (Image: Anthony Roach)

Vicky Singleton, Conservator at Cambridge University Museums pictured demonstrating dry cleaning methods (Image: Anthony Roach)

Vicky Singleton and Natalie Jones then systematically went through the various methods for dry and wet cleaning of bones. The methods for dry cleaning include using a vacuum and brush, smoke sponge, a ‘groom stick’ made of natural rubber, and air. These methods are less time consuming, less invasive, and more cost effective than wet methods. I was able to choose specimens from a box of assorted bones, and see the impact of the methods for myself. I could see the difference literally first hand on the digits of a primate hand, using the various dry methods. I then used the wet methods on a collection of horse vertebrae. The wet methods made a dramatic difference to the surface of the bone. These include using solvents such as de-ionised water, ethanol, and white spirit, enzymes, and detergents (e.g. Synperonic A7). I was amazed by the impact of white spirit on greasy bones, where water made little or no impact. The clear favourite to remove dirt in general was actually something I hadn’t ever considered: human saliva, which is full of enzymes. Human saliva! Who knew?

Bones shown partially cleaned by various solvents including water, ethanol and white spirit, as part of the wet cleaning methods (Image: Anthony Roach)

Bones shown partially cleaned by various solvents including water, ethanol and white spirit, as part of the wet cleaning methods (Image: Anthony Roach)

The talks were equally excellent, such as the session by Paolo Viscardi on the uses of skeletal reference collections at Sheffield University, which consists of over 1800 specimens, organised in a useful way for teaching and research. Jack Ashby’s #BoneIdols talk about the successful crowdsourcing project to protect some of the Grant Museum’s most scientifically important and rare specimens was also inspiring. The quagga, for instance, has became something of a celebrity in its own right through a very successful marketing campaign where visitors could see the conservation, re-mounting, and re-storage of the specimen. Interest was also maintained through press releases and blogs about the Quagga and the use of technology used in museums. Jan Freedman’s ‘Game of Bones’ talk on the methods for preparing animals for skeletonisation and using bone collections was also memorable.

Anthony Roach, Natural History Museum (NHM)

Caring for your Bones – No Calcium or Exercise Required!

In our modern, health-conscious society, just about everyone knows that properly caring for one’s own bones involves adequate ingestion of certain nutrients (calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K) and maintaining bone mineral density through exercise – or so the common wisdom goes, anyway. What about caring for someone else’s bones, however? When that “someone else” turns out to be vertebrate animals whose bones have wound up in a museum collection, the answer involves neither mineral supplements nor resistance training exercises, although saliva might come into the picture (more about this below)!

I learned all about the basics of curating an osteological collection at the NatSCA event entitled ‘Bone Collections: Using, Conserving and Understanding Osteology in Museums’, held at the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge on September 8, 2015. The day involved a workshop focused on cleaning bone specimens, talks touching on osteology from both biological and museological perspectives, and a series of posters presenting various case studies concerning the treatment of skeletal material (ranging in nature from modern to sub-fossil and fossil) that required cleaning and repair.

Workshop participants busily trying out various techniques for cleaning osteological specimens that had just been demonstrated on the monitors seen overhead.

Workshop participants busily trying out various techniques for cleaning osteological specimens

At the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN), where I am employed as a research assistant and collections manager, we have an extensive osteological collection that was established through the collaboration of the museum’s vertebrate zoology staff and the researchers who operated the now defunct Zooarchaeology Identification Centre (ZIC). Use of our osteological comparative material has declined greatly since ZIC ceased to operate in 1996, and relatively few zooarchaeologists working in Canada are aware of our holdings, which is a shame as the osteology collection represents a great national resource that would benefit archaeological research in the country. I am setting out to change this situation.

Having a research background in zooarchaeology – something I have in common with Kathlyn Stewart, head of the CMN Palaeobiology Section – I would love to see the rebirth of an active zooarchaeology programme at the museum. Kathy and I are joining forces to foster growth of the osteology collection in several directions, including expanding the number of specimens to include taxa that are currently underrepresented, increasing knowledge of the collection as a comparative research tool in the archaeological community, and developing CMN-based zooarchaeological research projects.

The Bone Day in Cambridge was therefore the perfect opportunity for me to gain hands-on experience in the care and maintenance of osteological collections.  I spent many years working with osteological collections as a research aid, but I have had little experience in curating such collections. Supported in part through a generous NatSCA bursary, I was able to attend the workshop and conference, affording me the occasion to investigate several topics in greater depth with osteology experts and fellow museum workers. Most important for my goals was learning about techniques for the care of bone and the preparation of skeletal specimens from carcasses.

The skull of a babirusa, and Indonesian wild pig, used in the workshop to test cleaning methods.

The skull of a babirusa, and Indonesian wild pig, used in the workshop to test cleaning methods.

The babirusa skull after a cursory cleaning using brushes, smoke sponge, swabs dipped in Synperonic A7, and yes, even some spit.

The babirusa skull after a cursory cleaning using brushes, smoke sponge, swabs dipped in Synperonic A7, and yes, even some spit.

The day began for me with the morning bone cleaning workshop, where we were introduced to some of the safest and most effective ways of removing deposits that accumulate on the surface of bone specimens, ranging from dust and dirt to bone grease and adipocere (a waxy substance that develops from fats such as bone grease under certain conditions). Gentle brushing and vacuuming, combined with the use of products such as smoke sponge and Groom/Stick natural rubber, remove a significant amount of particulate matter from the surface of bone. For stubborn accumulations, especially those involving bone grease, ethanol solutions and surfactants such as Synperonic A7 (an alcohol ethoxylate) work wonders. Surprisingly, saliva is also an effective cleaning agent, the enzymes in human spit serving quite well to loosen up agglomerations of dust and oil!

The afternoon talks, which included an overview of the importance of osteological collections for archaeological work as well as a discussion concerning an enzyme-based method for skeletonising carcasses, were particularly relevant for me with regard to resurrecting zooarcheological research at the CMN. I believe that several of the presenters from the conference’s slate of lecturers, as well as the leaders of the workshops, are considering submitting blog posts about their contributions to the osteology event, so I will refrain from providing any additional details here. Rather, I will encourage you to stay tuned for future entries concerning the care of bone.

I learned a great deal during the NatSCA Bone Day and made several fruitful contacts with NatSCA members, making it well worth the time and effort of “crossing the pond” from Canada to the UK. I certainly look forward to continuing my association with NatSCA into the future.  Many thanks to the organisation for sponsoring the osteology event and kindly providing support for my attendance, and I hope that I will be able to work with NatSCA to hold a similar ‘bone day’ here in North America sometime soon—I know it would be well received!

Scott Rufalo, Canadian Museum of Nature