It’s all in the subconscious

Biologically speaking, women (in general) are built lighter than men and with less physical strength. In the past this has been used to decide that women are therefore weaker in all ways, including in intelligence, and even worse, in worth. Putting aside those people whose brains are wired a little strangely and believe it’s genuinely ok to be racist, homophobic, sexist, misogynistic, etc, society at large, full of good, caring and wonderful people, still has a curious way of putting men first.

It is often by accident and sometimes it’s even in an errant attempt to put women first; for example I recently read a headline that said ‘Top Female Scientist Discovers…’. Great! But if it had been a male scientist, it wouldn’t have said ‘Top Male Scientist Discovers…’, it would have said top scientist. This perpetuates the idea that a scientist is a man unless otherwise stated. Another example aimed at a more general audience is that infuriating feminine hygiene product advert that has a sassy DJ jumping up and down saying ‘As a woman, I can step aside or step up’. Erm actually, men have the choice of whether to step aside or step up too. Being trod down and overlooked is not just for women.

For me, International Women’s Day is about two main objectives:

  • Reversing the damage done to any and every woman’s subconscious about what they are capable of, how seriously they should be taken, and how high up the career ladder they should be able to go. To name a few examples. We can do this by celebrating women’s achievements, encouraging our female colleagues to push harder, and mentoring younger generations to succeed.*
  • Reversing the gender stereotyping that still leaks its way into the minds of good people, men and women, and alters their subconscious beliefs. A random example, and not to point fingers, is WhatsApp who only recently brought out male and female emoticons for scientists/astronauts/runners, etc. This is a great step in the right direction but up until their release, it was another subtle, if accidental, way in which women are made second best in the subconscious of everyday people.

The new and improved range of emoticons

 

So, to start/continue the celebrations of International Women’s Day, here is a number of amazing natural history related articles and blogs for your enjoyment and dissemination:

ZSL Celebrates Dr Joan Procter for International Women’s Day, by Zoological Society of London

International Women’s Day; ARKive

IUCN Celebration of International Women’s Day; International Union for Conservation of Nature

Raising Horizons: Portraits of women in science; British Antarctic Survey

RSPB celebrates its female founders; Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (from 2014)

Namesake Minerals #3; Pangeology

* Obviously we should all do this for men too!

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

The Robot Zoo: A Must-See Exhibition

This bat robot is nearly 20 x life-size. The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

This bat robot is nearly 20 x life-size. The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The reaching-for-the-moon aim of any natural history exhibition is to get the perfect combination of knock-your-socks-off-fun and wow-I-didn’t-know-that-informative, for both children and adults, because (obviously) that attracts the biggest crowd.

Appealing to everyone is pretty much an unobtainable goal. A wise man, who I call Dad, once relayed the phrase to me ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time’*. However some, albeit rare, exhibitions, through some manner of dark magic combined with an alignment of moons from all over the universe manage to come together in such a way that the exhibition is branded as ‘outstanding’ and ‘captivating’ by journalists and listed as ‘fun for all the family’ on websites and What to do with the kids this half-term guides. These exhibitions are termed blockbusters and are the envy of their less popular exhibition counterparts.

The Robot Zoo, you will probably have guessed by that prologue, is one such exhibition. I had nothing to do with its inception nor its creation, it’s a touring exhibition that has nested temporarily at the Horniman Museum until October. However, as Deputy Keeper of Natural History at said Museum, I feel a level of temporary ownership and pride in its success. Thus I shall sing and dance about it from now until October when it leaves us for another galaxy gallery far, far away.

Full sized white rhinoceros at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Full-sized white rhinoceros at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The exhibition, as it stands in our exhibition space, comprises eight huge animatronic animals, ranging from a full-scale white rhino (second largest land mammal in the world no less) to a gigantic house fly that is 200 x life-size (it’s really not as creepy as that sounds). Each of the models are colourful, moving (kinetically, not emotionally necessarily), and for the most part, interactive. You can lift the head of a white rhino using a crane, which goes some way to demonstrating the immense power of these beautiful animals in real life. You can also change the colours of the chameleon to make it feel either angry or sexy. Presumably, as it’s Valentine’s Day today, it will mostly be feeling sexy, though given the number of people visiting for half-term I suspect this week is going to be a rollercoaster of emotions.

The robots are built out of familiar human objects like microphones and light bulbs, which recreate the internal anatomy of the animals in a way that highlights their special features and biological adaptations. For example, the electrical sensors in the bill of the platypus are represented by large flashing lights (see below), and the mouth parts and digestive system of the house fly have been replaced by a vacuum cleaner that lights up to visually demonstrate how they suck up their self-liquefied lunch**.

Platypus model at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Platypus model at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Dotted around the exhibition are 11 interactive stations that allow you to see, swim and stick to a wall, like the animals featured in the exhibition. You can camouflage against a background like a chameleon (or not if you pick up the wrong outfit), or if you’re feeling more techy, you can echolocate like a bat. You just measure the distance to the prey, you don’t have to eat the bugs.

The colourful information panels, annotated images, interactive games, and impressively sized, moving and flashing animals (not in an inappropriate way) are what make this exhibition the gold star combination of knock-your-socks-off-fun and wow-I-didn’t-know-that-informative. It has something for every attention span, from those who got distracted from this blog before reaching the end of the first paragraph, to the type who reads every exhibition panel and takes notes to boot. (That’s me). I thoroughly advise paying The Robot Zoo a visit, and even better, you don’t need children as an excuse.

*Originally said by John Lydgate

**A fly will dribble saliva onto its meal which begins the digestion process externally. It will then suck up the liquefied goop. Yum.

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

NatSCA Digital Digest- February

 

"What shall I do this month?" Namibian giraffe, image in public domain

“What shall I do this month?”  Namibian giraffe, image in public domain

What Should I See and Do?

I have had a number of people telling me how good the ‘Extinction or Survival‘ exhibition at the Manchester Museum is recently. You have until the 26th April to see it but we all know how fast time flies so don’t keep putting off your trip. And I’ll do the same.

This Saturday (11th February) the New Walk Museum is running ‘Fossils in Focus’ from 11am to 1pm, at which you can fondle some specimens and take in the Museum whilst you’re at it. For more information, check out the Museum’s website.

Opening soon is an exhibition at the Lapworth Museum of Geology (where I began my career! Ahhh fond memories…*) called ‘Where Land Meets Sea’. It is a photographic exhibition of work by Dr. Richard Greswell who, as both a scientist and photographer, has created what looks to be a stunning exhibition. A more detailed description of the exhibition can be found here.

*Completely irrelevant to this blog

What’s Can  I Apply For?

There are a number of natural history posts available at the Natural History Museum at the moment:

If you would like to help ‘maintain and develop a world-class collection of natural history specimens’, choose whether you are more of an Earth Science or a Life Science type museologist and apply to the relevant position here.

If you’re a little further along in your career, and it happens to have been focused on botany, then the same NHM is also looking for a ‘Senior Curator in Charge, Historical Collections and British and European Seed Plants’. Further information is on their website here.

Finally, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is looking for a Documentation Assistant. It may only be a temporary placement but collecting the OUMNH for your CV is well worth the faff.

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.

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