CryoArks Biobank and COVID-19

Written by Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates, National Museums Scotland.

Biobanks may sound a bit dull when compared to shelves teeming with boxes filled with fascinating skeletons, or cabinets stuffed with colourful skins, beautiful eggs or pinned insects. Serried ranks of anonymous freezers, enhanced with the odd fridge magnet, could make your heart sink, but peep inside the biobanks’ databases and you will see an amazing array of biodiversity. 

CryoArks Biobank at National Museums Scotland ©National Museums Scotland

At National Museums Scotland we host one of the main hubs of the CryoArks Biobank initiative alongside our partners at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who also host a hub of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria Biobank, and the Natural History Museum in London. CryoArks is a project led by Professor Mike Bruford of Cardiff University and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to establish zoological biobanking in the UK. As well as the -80o freezer infrastructure to store the tissue samples long term, CryoArks is developing an online database that will allow researchers to find out what genetic resources are available in the CryoArks Biobank hubs and in member institutions. With the advent of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefits Sharing in 2014, access to genetic samples from species from range countries is more challenging. Therefore, it is vital that we make the best use of the samples already available in the UK and make these freely available to support research, much of which may benefit the conservation of endangered species worldwide. 

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Conserving Garden Plant Diversity

Written by Yvette Harvey, Keeper of the Herbarium, Royal Horticultural Society, RHS Garden Wisley.

We live at a period in time where we are very familiar with the concept of mass extinctions that are likely to be caused by human intervention (from burning of the rain-forests, hunting and desertification through to global warming). As the years/decades/centuries progress, our preserved plant and animal [by which I mean anything that moves] collections find themselves being useful tools to provide empirical evidence for the causes of the above, outside of their main purpose of pure taxonomy (Thiers 2020: 219-242).

Following the recent closure of Kew’s Red Listing department, conservation is a subject that readily springs to mind. With c. 390 million specimens contained within the World’s herbaria, information captured in specimen labels has ultimately provided the data for calculating the Area of Occupancy and Extent of Occurrence, both of which play a large part in assessing the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red listing of a plant.

I am lucky to work with a specialist herbarium collection – one that contains ornamental plants based at RHS Garden Wisley. Yes, highly unlikely to play a role in an IUCN assessment, but all the same, a dried ornamental plant collection does play a vital role in conservation. Whilst Plant Heritage aims to conserve living plants, a herbarium that specialises in ornamentals (cultivars) can preserve material of long lost or even recently lost garden plants.

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Legacies Of Jamaica: A Not So Elegant Priest!

Presented by Mama D Ujuaje & Rhian Rowson, Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives.

Abstract

This presentation discusses a previous successfully curated public event, The Food Journey, held in the summer of 2019, forming part of a long term international project linked to our Jamaican botanical collection.

Addressing many of the contentions of Jamaican history, this presentation evokes a feel of mid-eighteenth century Jamaica by describing how making use of dramatic narrative, a soundscape, food tasting, aromas and textures of the time and geography, allow the context of the collection to come alive and to, as it were, ‘answer back’ to the authority of the author’s claims. We use costumed dialogue to help re-enact the immersive feel of the original production.

We include in our presentation a discussion of how the collection came about and its use over the years and how that might be critiqued in the context of slavery analyses over time and current notions concerning the erasure of traditional knowledge forms.

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James J. Harrison: Unnatural History

Presented by Jim Middleton, Scarborough Museums Trust.

Abstract

Scarborough Museums Trust holds an archive of the big game hunter James Jonathan Harrison (1857-1923) comprising of not only the usual hunting trophies, but also a large number of photographs and nine hunting diaries. Shortly after his death, his collection was donated to Scarborough Corporation, where for many years it was displayed in the upper rooms of the library before eventually making its way to the towns Natural History Museum when that opened in 1952.

After several years of neglect, many of the mounts and trophy heads were destroyed or removed from cases and only through careful detective work have a number of mounts been able to be definitively attributed to this collection.

One of the more interesting aspects of this collection are the photographs and diaries which give an insight into his privileged lifestyle and insatiable appetite for shooting. In 2021/22 the museum is planning an exhibition based around Harrison’s photography which will have to address a number of difficult issues regarding not only the slaughter of hundreds of animals but also the exploitation of the indigenous peoples of Africa and especially the Congo.

In 1904/5 Harrison brought six ‘Pygmies’ from the Congo which at the time was under the brutal rule of the Belgians and toured them around the UK before returning them home. This historically has always been related in a cheery, anecdotal way with little regard for the clearly exploitative nature of the venture (bearing in mind that at around the same time the Bronx Zoo had a Congolese man on display in a cage). This aspect of the narrative will be retold in a way which makes people think a little more about the inherent racism within collections and how we can redress this.

This presentation contains distressing images.

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Displays of Power: A Natural History Of Empire

Presented by Hannan Cornish, Luanne Meehitiya, Tannis Davidson, Subhadra Das, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL Culture.

Abstract

The Displays of Power exhibition explores the zoology collections of the Grant Museum, motivated by the conviction that, “there are stories of empire in any natural history collection – if you know how to look”.

Research found that empire played a key role in the development of the Grant Museum. The map of the British Empire was reflected in where the specimens were collected and empire helped to turn animals into objects for worldwide trade. Teaching specimens were used to promote racism and colonialism. Specimens hunted to extinction by colonists evidenced how empire affected the natural world. Hunting trophies demonstrated imperial attitudes towards animals that persist.

Displays of Power was inspired by a paper co-authored by Subhadra Das, one of our curatorial team, and Miranda Lowe, a Principal Curator at the Natural History Museum, which argues that natural history museums perpetuate racism and alienate BAME visitors by ignoring colonial histories. To remedy this erasure, Displays of Power foregrounds the legacy of empire throughout the museum display.

The exhibition takes the unusual approach of reframing and reinterpreting objects that are already on display. In this way, we turned a lack of temporary exhibition space into an opportunity to show that stories of empire are ubiquitous but untold throughout collections. Displays of Power was created as a means to open up the conversation around empire in as many different ways as possible. This includes a collaboration with poet Yomi Sode, visitor conversations with trained front of house staff and family and school activities and resources. Associated events include a community take over day and evenings exploring privilege through comedy and a giant immersive game of snakes and ladders. Visitor feedback highlights the deep personal impact of the exhibition. Visitors are sending a strong message that we (and other museums) need to continue decolonising our collections and that is what we intend to do.

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