NatSCA Digital Digest – March

The bob tailed squid. (Image from the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery)

What Should I See and Do?

The fantastic ‘Extinction or Survival‘ exhibition at the Manchester Museum is still on until the 26th April. If you are visiting nearby, then you must pop into this museum!

Something is coming…..Bristol Museum and Art Gallery will be having a prehistoric adventure with their new Pliosaur exhibition opening in June this year. Expect lots of fossils, digital recreations, and I hear there will be a life-sized model of their incredible specimen. More updates as the beast swims towards June…

What Can  I Apply For?

There is an opening for a curator of natural science at Birmingham Museums. With collections covering geology, botany and zoology, this post is an exciting opportunity! The deadline is 20th March, so hurry! More information on their website here.

Twitter

Keep your eyes out on Twitter for some great ways to share our collections. They are a great way of showing a much larger audience specimens in our store rooms. Have a look and join in!

February had the tongue in cheek #MuseumPromo hashtag that showed the wonderful ways curators pose for the press.

Every week there are a number of museum related hashtags to join in with, including #MineralMonday, #TaxidermyTuesday and #FossilFriday.

Journal online

After one year of publication, our Journal of Natural Science Collections is freely available online.

Volume 1 held exciting articles covering collections reviews, conservation projects and how to manage radioactive collections. All articles are freely available here.

Volume 2 includes articles about DNA damage to specimens, making models and how to create a successful social media strategy for your department. The articles are all freely available here.

Before You Go…

If you have seen an exhibition, visited a museum, or want to tell us about your work, do get in touch as we are always looking for new blog authors. Email us with your ideas at blog@natsca.org.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be?

An exceptionally fragile Blaschka glass model of a radiolarian in Dublin.

An exceptionally fragile Blaschka glass model of a radiolarian in Dublin – would you lend it?

In museums, collections are key. They are the resource that we rely on to drive our exhibitions, research, outreach, educational activities and even our marketing. We use this resource sustainably, ensuring it will be available for future generations. Our policies and standards protect them, keeping them safe by providing an appropriate environment and managing access – and while this is not always easy, at least we have control.

And then there are loans.

Loans are an area fraught with worry for the museum professional, since they take our objects from an environment that we understand and place them in a new environment that we don’t know and don’t control. There are processes and systems in place to manage this – the UKRG provide useful report templates for facilities, cases and security, so we can find out all the important details about where our object is going and how safe it will be when it gets there. There’s a lot of paperwork involved and when trying to organise insurance valuations and the various rights to take and use images it can get complicated. Of course this quagmire of agreements applies to the borrower too.

Then there is that tricky bit which involves the object moving to its temporary home. You can’t just send a delicate object from one safe, secure and cosy case to another by chucking it in the back of a van – it would rather defeat the point. That’s where art handlers and couriers come in. People trained in handling delicate objects and getting them from A to B without rendering them into a pile of dust. Of course, to do this safely the objects need to be properly packed for transport, so they are inspected, supported and carefully cushioned, to minimise the risk of damage.

fedex

Not chucked in the back of a truck. Carefully packaged, cushioned and secured in the back of an air-ride, art-handling truck.

This isn’t such a problem when taking some plastic dinosaurs around the corner (my last job at the Grant Museum was couriering a loan for the Making Nature exhibition at the Wellcome), but it was at the forefront of my mind when I was asked to courier two Blaschka glass models back from the USA during my first month in my new job as Zoology Curator at the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History (affectionately known by locals as the Dead Zoo). We have the largest collection of Blaschkas in Europe and before I started we had lent two of them to the cracking (pun intended) Corning Museum of Glass, which is in Upstate New York.

dinosaurs

Dinosaurs from the Grant Museum of Zoology on loan to the Wellcome for ‘Making Nature’.

The Blaschkas are popular in the art world so they are quite valuable, they’re old and thin glass so they’re very fragile and because they were hand-crafted using techniques that died with Rudolf Blaschka in 1939 they are irreplaceable. So no pressure.

dsc06064-edited

In the process of supporting the base of a Blaschka anemone.

I’ve had to move Blaschkas before and it’s always a bit of a nerve-wracking experience, but I was fortunate that Corning has some of the best glass conservators in the world on hand to help pack the objects. In fact, the whole trip was carefully planned by Masterpiece International and the excellent registration teams in Corning and Dublin. The people I worked with were all very experienced and diligent professionals who dealt with everything, including driving the FedEx truck, art storage, preflight clearance, in fact everything to standing on the airport tarmac overseeing the loading onto and off the plane. All I had to worry about was the objects themselves. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know that they safely made the journey home in one piece.

crate

The specimens crated up, strapped down and covered with sensors to tell what kid of forces it was exposed to in the hold of the plane.

On my return I had a more fiddly loan to deal with myself. The Museum has a lot of type material that needs to be accessible for scientific purposes and I had a loan request from a researcher in Italy. Now research loans aren’t like exhibition loans, since the real value of the material lies is in its scientific importance, which is only unlocked if the specimen can be used for research. The loan conditions for this sort of specimen tend to be along the lines of “send it back when you’re finished”, “cite the specimen properly when you publish” and “don’t cut it up without asking us first”.

research_loan

Not as pretty as a Blaschka, but much more important to science.

Transporting these sorts of specimens is a rather different process to managing a loan for exhibition, since it is illegal to take specimens stored in alcohol or formalin on a plane. However, the classification of specimens as Dangerous Goods when handled by a registered carrier like FedEx or DHL changed in 2011 and as long as certain packing requirements are met specimens in fluid can be sent using a carrier.

At least in theory.

In practice it took several weeks of being passed between different departments and badgering a variety of people before I finally managed to get the package sent. The only reason I didn’t give up was the glimmer of hope from the advice I received from Miranda Lowe at the NHM (who happens to also be a valued member of the NatSCA committee) who told me the secret of the IATA Special Provision A180 to Ship Preserved Specimens and assured me it was possible. I have since managed three overseas research loans now that the systems in place. Thanks Miranda!

Managing loans is a lot of work, but it’s an important part of making collections accessible, so it is worth the effort!

Making Nature; at Wellcome Collection

Budgie specimens illustrating colour variations (c) Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Budgie specimens illustrating colour variations (c) Trustees of the Natural History Museum

In December the exhibition Making Nature: How we see animals opened at London’s Wellcome Collection. Rather than being an exhibition of natural history (because natural history museums are better placed to provide such things), it is an exhibition about natural history. Wellcome is fundamentally interested in humans, and Making Nature explores the human perspective on nature. How do we engage with and try to make sense of the natural world?

The exhibition takes us through four different themes – ordering, displaying, observing and making nature. Together, they demonstrate that human ways of encountering, standardising and talking about nature are essentially unnatural. But it’s the only way we know how.

This is not an impartial review of the exhibition, as I was involved in it for over a year as its natural history consultant, but what I will say as a natural history museum professional is that I don’t think that a natural history museum could have put on this exhibition.

Wellcome Collection goes by the strapline “a free destination for the incurably curious”, has permanent galleries around the history of science and medicine with a lot of science-inspired art, and a varied temporary exhibitions programme. With these “it explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future”. I think they have carved out a niche for themselves whereby they are distant enough from the natural history sector to impartially critique it, but close enough to have a good view.

Not that Making Nature is critical of natural history museums, but it tells the story of our discipline, through those four themes, in a way where the human story – rather than the animal or plant one – is at the centre.

Opening with the “Ordering” section, the exhibition considers the artificial structures that humans have imposed upon the natural world through our varied taxonomic systems, asking why and how we have sought to classify. Linnaeus is obviously the focus, but any fans of taxonomic history will be pleased to see that the fictitious classification of Jorge Luis Borges (who claimed it was from an ancient Chinese text called “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge”) is included.

Mocking the idea that all attempts to classify are artificial (as much as they are essential), he splits all animals into 14 categories:

Those that belong to the emperor

Embalmed ones

Those that are trained

Suckling pigs

Mermaids (or Sirens)

Fabulous ones

Stray dogs

Those that are included in this classification

Those that tremble as if they were mad

Innumerable ones

Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush

Et cetera

Those that have just broken the flower vase

Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

The exhibition is arguably more 3D that many that Wellcome produce (which often heavily rely on 2D art and library special collections), which reflects the object-based focus of natural history. Objects have been borrowed from a wide number of institutions and there are some real treats in there – Darwin’s pigeons and a Linnaean type specimen are among them.

(c) Richard Ross, Museum National D'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France 1982 2-1

(c) Richard Ross, Museum National D’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France 1982 2-1

The art is also particularly evocative. In the “Displaying” section, which puts the magnifying glass up to the practices of natural history museums and the ways in which their displays neither truly reflect the natural world, or indeed their own stored collections. I was taken by a piece by Hiroshi Sugimoto. It is a fantastically crisp photograph of a large museum diorama, with all suggestion that it is not a photograph of a real, living habitat having been removed. The casing, glass, and boundaries between the painted background and the 3D objects are imperceptible. It makes one think about the way we see natural history specimens (and indeed “How we see animals” is the tag line for the whole exhibition).

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Galapagos, 1980 © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy Pace Gallery.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Galapagos, 1980 © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy Pace Gallery.

The arrangement and architecture of natural history museums (particularly the one in South Kensington), as well as zoos, get examined in the Displaying and Observing sections, picking apart the politics behind the designs. Finally, the exhibition ends on the eponymous “Making” nature section, which was curated by the Center for Post-Natural History in Pittsburgh.

This section focuses on animals that have been modified by people, through artificial selection and genetic engineering. Richard Pell, the Director of the Center tells an interesting story of how he came to notice that natural history museums collections are not even in their coverage, and how the hand of human interest impacts the natural world, and our relationship with it. Whilst working at a major American museum, he noticed that the rodent collections were heavily biased towards sites where the US had undertaken nuclear testing.

Making Nature was an absolute joy to work on, it allowed me to take a step away from the natural history museum and explore stories that we would not be able to tell ourselves.

Making Nature: How we see animals is on at Wellcome Collection until 21st May 2017.

Written by Jack Ashby, Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, University Ccollege London

Top Ten Most Read Blogs of 2016

Blogs to shout about (Dakshin, 2013, image in public domain)

Blogs to shout about (Dakshin, 2013, image in public domain)

2016 was a busy year for the NatSCA blog, we published 27 blogs from a super range of authors on an exciting variety of topics. When looking at the analytics of the blog to see what’s popular, it became apparent that people don’t just read what’s current in terms of publication date, they read what’s relevant to them at the time. This means that on top of the 27 blogs published last year, a further 102 blogs dating back to 2012 were also viewed from our archive, in 2016.

Since its inception in August 2012, there have been 182 blogs published on the NatSCA website, and so with such a large number, it’s really interesting to see what grabbed people’s attention, or search engines, the most.

The top ten most read blogs in 2016 are as follows:

1- Project Airless (2016)

2- Micromuseum: The slide collection of J T Quekett (2016)

3- Cold Case Curation (2016)

4- Vote for the NatSCA Editor (2016)

5- Curators of the Caribbean (2016)

6- How to Store Taxidermy (2016)

7- Margaret Gatty’s Algal Herbarium in St Andrews (2013)

8- Bournemouth’s ‘New’ Museum (2016)

9- Art, Nature, Engagement, and Rural Life (2016)

10- Handle with Care: Bringing Museum Egg Collections to Life (2016)

Of course, the top ten most read blogs in 2016 is different from the top ten blogs OF 2016. As you can see from the dates, only eight of the above ten were published last year. If we discount this archival material, then in ninth place would be Meet the NatSCA Committee: Paolo Viscardi and in tenth place, I was overly excited to see, is the NatSCA Digital Digest; October 2016 (smug face).

2017 has already seen the publication of four blogs posts (five including this one), and a host of exciting goodies are awaiting your perusal in February. You lucky, lucky people.

As editors, my colleagues and I are always looking for new content and avenues of excitement to merrily skip down. So if you would like to get in touch, please email us at blog@natsca.org.

Conservation of a Venus Flower Basket

Venus flower basket. (NOAA, 2012, Image in public domain)

Venus flower basket. (NOAA, 2012, Image in public domain)

At The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum, a proposed case re-display was to focus on design. Thus the Art Curator and the Natural Historian got together and produced 13 grubby Venus flower baskets (a type of glass sponge).

As a trained objects conservator I have seen many items come across my desk, however these were a first. Never having seen these deep sea siliceous sponges before, I found them quite fascinating. There are 13 in our collection and at least one of them came from the Challenger Expedition of 1870. The sponges themselves offer a fascinating insight into the first date hotel; a young shrimp couple enter the skeleton of the sponge and mate for life – a jolly good love affair or entrapment? Whichever side you fall on, the actual construction of the sponge is what fascinated the Art Curator. The lattice work formation of the skeleton, which is incredibly strong and functional yet also beautiful, has inspired architects and engineers. Norman Foster’s ‘Gherkin’ building owes a lot to this design of nature. Even David Attenborough listed them in his ‘Attenborough’s Ark’ aired in 2012.

But, how was I to treat them?

As luck would have it I was due to attend a Fluid Preservation course at the University of Dundee, delivered by Natural History Conservator Simon Moore. After some gentle persuasion he came of his own free will to our Museum store to look at them and gave some very sound advice.

I subsequently embarked upon treatment of our 13 specimens, which were verging on 50 shades of grey. They were all housed in the same box with no separation. Although some had lost the long fibres that would have anchored them to the sea bed, most were intact, showing how resistant they are to mechanical forces. All were photographed prior to treatment.

Venus flower basket, before and after conservation. © McManus Collections Unit

Venus flower basket, before and after conservation treatment. © McManus Collections Unit

I started with a bath of acetone to remove any possible historic consolidant which looked to have been sprayed on (no past treatment reports could be found to confirm this). This was followed by a bath in the ultrasonic cleaner, just in water, where the dust could be seen lifting away from the sponges. Repeating the steps produced the difference seen in the image above. They were then left to air dry on blotting paper.

A local company made one of the sponges a bespoke perspex mount and it now sits happily in the new display. The others are now housed in a drawer in a plastazote support with bespoke cut outs for each sponge.

Venus flower basket on display. © McManus Collections Unit

Venus flower basket on display, post-conservation. © McManus Collections Unit

We are not sure why they would have been sprayed with consolidant as they hold their form perfectly well post treatment. A more invasive treatment involving hydrogen peroxide and ammonia was discussed, but this drastic measure was not needed as the conservation treatment was a complete success, and now the only shades of grey we look at is the sky!

Written by Rebecca Jackson-Hunt, Conservator, The McManus Collections Unit

Improving Specimen-Data Recording and Access in a Life Sciences Museum

The Museum of Life Sciences at King’s College London contains teaching and research material from King’s College London (KCL) and elsewhere. The collections include Botany, Zoology and Pharmacy specimens, including microscope slides, from around the world and a small, unique exhibition of glass sculptures recently created to commemorate the role of KCL in the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Paper and electronic (Access) databases were first created in 2003 and contained data for the then KCL Zoology and Botany Collections. In the last few years, volunteers have been recording specimens in paper (form-based) or electronic (Excel) formats and we have all been learning ‘on the job’. Inevitably specimens have been catalogued in different ways to record various kinds of information and many specimens remain uncatalogued. Some groups of specimens from a single collector/preparer or from a single source have been catalogued together as eg ‘The Daws Collection’, The Challenger Collection’.  The accumulating data were becoming unwieldy as there are now more than 8000 records.

The form

Example of the paper based record sheet for the Zoology specimens.

excel spreadseet form

Original electronic format for the Zoology Collections.

We are now rationalising our system of information storage and accessibility by bringing together all this information into one comprehensive electronic database. So far 106 information fields have been identified from the old database or allocated to the new database.  These allow information on all types of specimens to be entered into the new database. We will soon be able to include and readily update information on storage location, type and state of the specimen, any conservation taken or needed and whether specimens are out on loan. This vastly improves the accessibility of information to staff, students and volunteers, making management of the collections far more efficient and effective, but the process has had its problems.

The specimens in each collection were catalogued using a letter-based system to denote the taxon to which a specimen belonged followed by a number to denote the order in which the specimen was entered into that taxon. This lead to some specimens from different collections being given the same catalogue identifier, for example, B1 is both a Porifera (sponge) specimen in the Zoology Collection and a Cyanobacteria specimen in the Botany Collection. We have now created five core Museum of Life Sciences Collections; Zoology (ZY), Botany (BY), Pharmacy (PH), Microscopy (MI) and there will be a Cranio-Facial (CF) collection record when the relevant information is available. Under this scheme Zoology specimen B1 becomes ZY B1 and Botany specimen B1 becomes BY B1, allowing both B1 records to co-exist.

Where the taxonomic status of specimens has changed, they are now reclassified and labelled with accepted synonyms of the binomial name and the original name moved to a Synonym(s) field. It is now possible to search for the currently named specimen or to search for the historical synonym.

The previous electronic database was ‘flat-file’ which allowed for a record to have a row of data for each specimen allowing data to be accessed as a simple table although the paper catalogue was used mostly for accessing data. The integrated museum database now employs the power of relational data bases so Recorders can use either a table view or a form view data entry (see examples below) which are now interchangeable for each of the five collections.

The new form

The new table-form for the data.

The screen

The new form view of a Botany specimen showing data and related image.

The basic format of our new and integrated database is now functional. There is still much to be done to be done to upload information on all our specimens and to integrate the various data sets seamlessly into the database. This will improve recognition and identification of individual specimens without having to sort through actual specimens or paper records and will also help to minimise damage to delicate specimens.

We are grateful to the Bill Pettit Memorial Award for part funding this work. The original KCL databases were compiled by Ms M Bavington, based on systems used at The Grant Museum. The work and knowledge of the Ms Bavington and the continuing help and advice of colleagues at the Grant Museum elsewhere are gratefully acknowledged.

Written by Dr Gillian Sales. Curator, Museum of Life Sciences at the Gordon Museum.

Nature Notes

In 2016 the Herbert held its first in-house natural history exhibition since a major redevelopment was completed in 2008. The exhibition, Nature Notes, explored the seasonal changes in local wildlife by displaying taxidermy, nests, insects, botany and fungi, botanical watercolours, oil paintings and contemporary artworks. It encouraged visitors to look at the natural world around them and the artworks aimed to inspire visitors to respond to nature in a creative way.

Nature Notes was designed to be enjoyed by all and accessibility was a key consideration in developing the interpretation and interactives. Additions to the exhibition included Makaton on the text panels and interactive tables; and the provision of accessibility aids such as torches, magnifying sheets and ear defenders. We considered contradictory needs such specific learning difficulties and visual impairments by producing lower contrast labels and providing high contrast large print text to take round the space.

Gallery view of Nature Notes.

Gallery view of Nature Notes. The seasonal display runs around the wall, with interactives and handling specimens in the centre.

The most popular part of the exhibition was the multi-sensory interactive tables with things to touch, smell and listen to. These were created by using low cost tables with adjustable legs with a vinyl graphic applied so they tied in with the exhibition’s design. Five pieces of taxidermy were commissioned – one of each season, plus a spare mouse. We worked with a local group of disabled and non-disabled teenagers to help us choose the right smells for each table – only the brave dared to smell the otter dung! As each offered the same experience of touch, smell and sound this meant queues did not form around one table, allowing for a better visitor experience.

Nature Notes ran for 20 weeks from July to November 2016 and the visitor target was set at 15,000. The final total was 24,000 visits – over 1200 a week – making Nature Notes one of the most visited exhibitions in that space. We evaluated the impact of the exhibition in several ways including analysis of the comments book and a report conducted by students over the summer holidays.

One of the interactive sensory tables.

One of the interactive sensory tables. The taxidermy specimens were prepared specially for this exhibition.

In the comments book 95% of responses were positive, 2% neutral and 3% negative although most of the negative comments were about taxidermy, rather than the exhibition. The student evaluation included 50 surveys, tracking of 50 visitors and general observation. They found that the sensory tables were the most popular part of Nature Notes. It was also noted the importance of gallery staff to help engage visitors with the tables and guiding them on the use of the accessibility tools available. Overall 40% of those asked wanted another natural sciences exhibition at the Herbert!

Nature Notes was designed to become part of the Herbert Touring programme once the run in Coventry finished. Despite being advertised via the Touring Exhibitions Group and our website, unfortunately we did not have any takers. Feedback has suggested that larger museums already have a gallery on local wildlife and smaller museums were not able to afford the cost of the exhibition, as the touring programme is not subsidised in any way.

However Nature Notes will have a legacy both for the Herbert and more widely. The sensory tables have been kept and one will be lent a local wildlife reserve in April 2017 for their Easter activities. We are considering how best to use the tables in the long term – they might acquire castors and become supervised holiday activities in the permanent galleries.

Locker with accessibility aids, step stools and panel with Makaton

Locker with accessibility aids, step stools and panel with Makaton.

We have learnt a lot through creating Nature Notes and will be applying this knowledge to make future exhibitions more accessible. This project has shown that a lot can be done on a relatively small budget and that this investment can be used beyond the project’s lifetime. As well as the interactive tables being used again the accessibility aids are due to be relocated to the museum’s reception.

On a personal note, delivering this exhibition and getting visitor feedback has been a real pleasure. One moment in particular that stood out was during an audio description tour trial. The gentleman I was guiding had had no visual perception for 30 years and was only partially engaged by the spoken descriptions of objects. However, when I took him to the sensory table and he was able to feel the ears, eyes and nose of the fox he said ‘the exhibition has just come alive for me’.

We would like to thank our funders, NatSCA, the Bill Pettit Memorial Fund and Mander Hadley, whose contributions allowed us to create the exciting sensory tables that proved so popular.

If you would like to find out more about the exhibition please contact Ali Wells, Curator at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum on ali.wells@culturecoventry.com. @HerbertCurators

Written by Ali Wells