Object Lessons; Manchester Museum

Most curators have those niggling objects at the back of their stores. Models and illustrations previously used for teaching or display in the dim and distant past, but kept for a rainy day. Not quite real objects and not the kind of thing you would necessarily want to accession.

Well, we’ve embraced these wonderful objects in our new exhibition: Object Lessons.

Brendel Models, George Loudon Collection

Brendel Models, George Loudon Collection

Object Lessons celebrates the scientific model and illustration collection of George Loudon. Each of these finely crafted objects was created for the purpose of understanding the natural world through education, demonstration and display.

The object-rich exhibition will look at this incredible collection through themes such as Craftsmanship, the Teaching Museum and the Microscopic.

George’s collection will be displayed alongside stunning models from Manchester Museum and World Museum, Liverpool.

Here’s a selection of some of my favorites in the exhibition:

Octopus, Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, Manchester Museum

Octopus, Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, Manchester Museum


Papier-mache wild turkey, George Loudon collection, (image courtesy of Rosamond Purcell)

Papier-mache wild turkey, George Loudon collection, (image courtesy of Rosamond Purcell)


Victorian Plesiosaur model, Manchester Museum

Victorian Plesiosaur model, Manchester Museum


Cactus teaching poster, Manchester Museum

Cactus teaching poster, Manchester Museum

There are loads more amazing things in the exhibition never been on display before. Can’t wait!

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, Manchester Museum


To dress a wolf

I like a nice little link to a place I am visiting. And there is a wonderful (if not a little tenuous) link between where I work in Plymouth and Cambridge. Charles Darwin studied theology at University of Cambridge in the old oak clad lecture theatres. And it was through the connections he made at Cambridge that set him on board the HMS Beagle, on a journey that would change the world of scientific thinking forever. The HMS Beagle, with Darwin and all the crew, set sail from in Plymouth after a three month delay. It’s a neat little link.

With such a strong historic links to science, there was perhaps no better place suited to hold the NatSCA conference 2017. Even the theme title linked in, with a little nod to Darwin (those clever committee members): Evolving ideas: provocative new ways of working with collections.

Despite being at the tail end of an enormous £3 million redevelopment project, The Cambridge Museum of Zoology hosted the conference. This was the biggest NatSCA conference to date, with 110 delegates attending. With this in mind, and the huge pressures with their redevelopment project, all the museum staff made it seemed effortless. Natalie Jones, Matt Lowe and colleagues at the Museum of Zoology did a fantastic job with everything from the set up to organising the conference meal.

The newly hung Finback Whale at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. (Photo by Paolo Viscardi)

The talks over the two days certainly were provocative, engaging and inspiring. There was quite a range of fantastic speakers from all over the UK, and even from Berlin, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. With 26 talks in total, it is impossible to summarise them all below. It is even more difficult to choose just a couple, because there were so many interesting topics covered; working with teenagers, destructive sampling, and even repatriating natural history collections to name a few. You can catch up on thoughts and comments on the talks with the conference hashtag #NatSCA2017. Over the next couple of months the talks will be shared on the blog, in the NatSCA Notes and Comments, or in the NatSCA Journal.

One talk in particular did seem to split the group: ‘Animals and Who’ presented by Ian Trumble at Bolton Library & Museum Service. This talk discussed a temporary exhibition using museum specimens in the library. The display used taxidermy specimens to link to popular children’s books: a wolf for Little Red Riding Hood, a rabbit for Peter Rabbit, etc. A nice idea. Only these museum taxidermy specimens were dressed in human clothing to make them look more like the characters from the books. They certainly looked different, and from the talk there were lots of positive comments from the visitors taken from their social media push; #AnimalsandUs (although we didn’t see any negative comments – all exhibitions have negative comments!). The displays linked nicely to the books, which is fantastic promotion for the library.

What big teeth you have. A specimen from the natural history collections at Bolton Library and Museum Service. Would you dress a taxidermy specimen from your natural history collections? Tweet your thoughts: #DressAWolf (Photo by Jack Ashby)

For me, I found it a little uncomfortable. The animals themselves are impressive, so I didn’t see the point in dressing them up. The argument was given that there was a greater visual impact with the animals in clothing, again, I disagreed. The display was in the main library in Bolton; on the ground floor (the Museum is up on another level). The library had never before had a museum display in their space, so clearly a taxidermy exhibition in that area is already visually impressive without the need for dressing it up. The taxidermy wolf was dressed in a nightie, similar to one from Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf is an incredible, impressive creature without making it look silly in a nightie. What I found most uncomfortable was that I felt the display took away the real beauty of those animals, and their stories for the Museum. The focus of the displays was the animals in the books, and I feel that these could have been even more dramatic and real for visitors by displaying the natural looking animals; these are what the authors took inspiration from.

Of course some people agreed with my arguments in the coffee break, and others really enjoyed the displays and the different ways of displaying taxidermy. Despite disagreeing personally with the display, I liked that the exhibition at Bolton Museum took a bold jump to do something different. Agree or disagree with the dressing up of taxidermy specimens, this talk did get people talking and thinking differently about how we can, and perhaps should, display our collections.

There were so many other talks that could have lengthy discussions: 3D printing specimens for handling and open display (is the real thing better?), destructive sampling (should we or shouldn’t we?), food in galleries (a big ‘no no’ or a great commercial opportunity?), and each discussion does not have a clear and simple answer.

It was an excellent conference. Not only were the talks and discussions thought provoking, the atmosphere was wonderfully positive and inspirational. Once a year we come together at the NatSCA conference. Old friends being geeky in a place they feel at home. New friends being welcomed. There is always a little sadness when I leave the conference: Sad that it will be another year before I see these wonderful people again. But I also leave feeling proud; to see how naturally and easily everyone gets along, and proud to belong to such an inspirational, incredibly talented group of professionals, whom I am also proud to call friends.

Written by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.

Not Just Old Birds in Cases

This article is reposted from the Stories from the Museum Floor blog by the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum

Not Just old Birds in Cases – The Value of Natural History Collections

The most recent exhibition ‘Extinction or Survival?’ at Manchester Museum has brought many interesting ideas and suggestions from a wide group of visitors about how we can change our future. Several comments have mentioned animals kept in museums and collections, for example, “Stop killing animals to put in a museum” or “help all the animals by collecting DNA … and … not get stuffed like … in museums”. These comments have inspired me to write about the importance of natural history collections, especially the value of bird collections.

deana 2Comment card left at the ‘Extinction or Survival?’ exhibition at Manchester Museum, 2017.

Whether collecting birds for science is still necessary remains a hotly debated topic. However, the value of scientific collections cannot be questioned. Research or reference collections are still making crucial contributions in documenting biodiversity in time and space, and understanding species’ ecology and evolution, vital for conservation strategies. Furthermore, collections and museum have an important role in preserving and caring for past and present natural heritage and providing educational opportunities.


Among the most significant causes of bird mortality in the UK are window strikes, for example against houses and buildings, and capture by domestic cats. The British Trust for Ornithology estimates that up to 33 million birds are killed by windows each year. The Mammal Society estimates that 55 million birds are caught by cats annually. By contrast, all bird collections in museums represent only a tiny fraction of the above numbers. But even cats do not cause decline in natural populations, in fact, the most significant threat to bird species worldwide is habitat loss.


Manchester Museum holds around 15,000 study skins, or bird specimens, from 3,000 different species, they were mostly collected between 1850 to 1950. All study skins are kept in labelled drawers in cabinets, organised in taxonomic order. If you want to know where the Manchester Museum’s birds come from, see here.

deana 3Drawers of study skins at Manchester Museum. (Photo: Ian McKerchar – see Further reading)

Study skins are different from taxidermy. Taxidermy preserves an animal in a lifelike position by stuffing and mounting the body for display in galleries and exhibitions. On the other hand, a study skin preserves the animal in a simple, un-lifelike position (in birds, resting on their backs), but useful for research. All the information associated with the specimen is kept on a label attached to the study skin.

diana 4Taxidermy of Pouter Pigeon (domesticated variety of Columba livia) and Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Living Worlds, Manchester Museum.

FullSizeRender (1)Study skin of the extinct Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum.


Natural history specimens provide useful information for disciplines such as taxonomy, anatomy, morphology and ecology, among many others. The information associated with each specimen, for example, date and location, also provide important information about distribution, diet, breeding, geographical variation and much more. Darwin’s theory of evolution would not have been conceived without collections.

dian 4Warbler Finch (Certhidea olivacea) study skin from Charles Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, held at Manchester Museum. (Photo: Manchester Museum, University of Manchester)

Many study skin labels can be found around the museum galleries.

diana 8aLabel of a male Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), now extinct, collected in Toronto, Canada in April 1875 by I. Morley. ‘Extinction or Survival?’ exhibition.

dian 5Label of the extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), collected in Enterprise, Florida, United States in February 1875 by I. Morley. Nature’s Library gallery.


1. Illustrations

Bird books have always been a useful tool, not only for ornithologists, but also for birdwatchers. To identify species, illustrations can describe patterns, colours, shapes, sizes and other characteristics better than photographs. Many illustrators and painters have been using bird study skins for this purpose since the early 19th century.

Johannes Gerardus Keulemans was a Dutch bird illustrator, working in England in the 19th century. His illustration of Great Northern Diver can be appreciated in Nature’s Library next to the bird specimen that inspired it. The specimen is part of Henry Dresser’s bird collection, held at the Manchester Museum since 1899.

Study skin of the Great Northern Diver (Gavia immer) collected by Henry Dresser and the painting by J.G. Keulemans in Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum.

Guy Tudor and John Gwynne, artists and bird illustrators, produced beautiful colour plates, modelled on specimens in bird collections, for the guide to the Birds of Colombia and the guide to the Birds of South America. The drawings show different plumage according to age, sex, breeding status and subspecies.

Cover: The Birds of South America.

2. Describing new species from old specimens

After many years of remaining lost in drawers in museum collections, new bird species can come to light. Ornithologists revising and working with collections have described new species that were previously confused with similar species, often due to poor data on their labels. Many of them are now rare or possibly extinct. For example, Antioquia Brush Finch (Atlapetes blancae) was described by British ornithologist Thomas Donegan in 2007 from just three specimens in Colombian museums. It has not been seen in the wild since it was collected in 1971. It is currently classified as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct).

dian 9Comparison of Antioquia Brush Finch (Atlapetes blancae) with similar species from Colombia. (Figure: Bulletin of the British Ornithological Club, 2007 – see Further reading)

Who knows what may be in Manchester Museum waiting to be discovered?

3. Effect of climate change on bird distributions

Locality information on labels, that is, where the specimen was found, is vital for studies to predict changes in animal distributions due to climate change. These modern techniques make use of specimens that were collected long before computers or scientific climate models. A study in Colombia using different scenarios to predict the effects of climate change on globally threatened birds showed that in most cases species were projected to have smaller ranges while some others disappeared as a consequence of climate change. Museum collections were the main source of data for the models.

diana 10Map showing the predicted percent of species’ range loss in Colombia. (Figure: Regional Environmental Change, 2012 – see further reading)

4. Revealing secrets of evolution

There are still many questions to be answered about evolution. A project attempting to understand how and why bird species evolved and colonized different places on Earth used 3D scanners to analyse the size and shape of bird beaks from the Natural History Museum at Tring and Manchester Museum. The project is being run by the University of Sheffield with help from more than 1500 volunteers. More information on how to take part can be found here.

dian 113D scanning equipment for ‘Mark My Bird’ project. (Photo: markmybird.org)

In conclusion, stuffed birds on show at museums, and in the vast collections behind the scenes, are not just dead animals, they are museum specimens, with important associated information. A vital role of museums is to make sure this information can be used today to help us understand more about birds and to conserve wild populations within their natural habitats.

Written by Diana Arzuza Buelvas, Visitor Team Assistant at Manchester Museum

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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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”.


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 generally 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.