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!

Do you want to train to be Natural Science Curator?

Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Skills for the Future’

Natural History & Social History Training Opportunities

Support from the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Skills for the Future’ programme and Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) has created opportunities for four individuals to train in curatorial skills with a partnership of regional museums and heritage sites.

We are looking for people who are passionate and enthusiastic about Natural History/Sciences or Social History. These traineeships are available to anyone who might not have qualifications in the subject area, or are not from museum background, or are wanting a career change.

  • ·         One Natural History traineeship based at The Manchester Museum The University of Manchester
  • ·         One Natural History traineeship based at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre
  • ·         One Natural Science  traineeship based at Thinktank Science Museum, Birmingham Museum Trust
  • ·         One Social History traineeship based at The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry

Full information and application forms can be found within the job packs

Please follow link   www.bmag.org.uk/about/vacancies

Closing date is: 20 March 2013 at 10.00 AM   Proposed dates for interviews: W/C 14 April 2014
If you have any enquiries about these traineeship opportunities, please contact Paulette Francis-Green Project Manager by email projmangctrainee@aol.co.uk

Bill Pettit Memorial Project – Conservation of historic Taxidermy

Ann Ainsworth (Colchester and Ipswich Museums)

Hannah Clarke (Freelance Conservator)

Ipswich Museum has an important historic collection which dates back to its opening in 1847. A recognised strength of the natural history collection is the historically important Victorian and Edwardian taxidermy of animals from across the globe.

The taxidermy collection is stored in an old building which used to be an old coach depot and later a garage. The space had become very dusty and dirty and a significant mould problem had developed.

one

We followed a very simple methodology of light dusting with soft brushes using a vacuum containing a HEPA filter. This was followed by swabbing with an alcohol/water solution to remove the mould and kill the spores. Where possible specimens were covered or wrapped in polythene to act as a protective cover to protect from dust, provide an external surface for mould to grow on, and to prevent pest damage which is also a potential problem within the stores.

two

The variety of conservation problems, meant that many different treatment processes needed to be used by Hannah. Some of the processes included dry cleaning, wet cleaning, re-adhering, colour matching, re-inserting feathers, removing old varnish with solvents, mitring, sealing with brown gum tape, and applying and buffing wax. New panels of glass and sections of beading had to be sourced and cut to size.

The top panel of the pike case had warped and bowed, as the glass side panels had been broken previously. There were no structural supports on the front inside edges of the case either, meaning that the top of the case was unsupported from the front. The existing beadings on the rear inside edges were not secure, and the metal tacks used to hold the mitred sections of wood in place were very loose. New beading was sourced to match as close to the original as possible and was then colour matched and held in place using new tacks.

Cygnet before conservation

Cygnet before conservation

Cygnet after conservation

Cygnet after conservation

The Bill Pettit Memorial funding went towards payment for the freelance Conservator in terms of time and travel expenses and the purchase of replacement glass and beading for the cases where broken or damaged.

It was agreed that conserved cases would not be returned to store until the planned repair work had been successfully completed. As many of the conserved cases as possible were put on public display in the museum galleries. This has enabled part of the collection not normally seen by visitors to be on display. It has also helped to present a strong message of the Museum Services’ wish to improve the condition of specimens and its storage facilities and helped to raise the profile of the project.

Spicer platypus case after conservation

Spicer platypus case after conservation

 

Natural history under the hammer

Reblogged from UCL Museums & Collections Blog

Natural history under the hammer

By Mark Carnall, on 4 December 2013

Recently there have been a spate of high profile auctions of natural history specimens raising many issues about ownership, the value we should or shouldn’t put on natural history and the relationship between professional scientists, museums, amateurs and private collectors. My colleague Jack Ashby wrote about the recent dodo bones that were auctioned. Colleagues Dave Hone and Mark Graham give a balanced view of the recent sale of a Diplodocusskeleton over at the Guardian. The ‘duelling dinosaurs’ fossil was estimated to reach $9 million at auction in New York and last year the controversial proposed sale of an allegedly illicitly smuggled Tarbosaurus skeleton caused much debate.

I thought I’d add my thoughts on the subject here, in particular about the relationship between collectors, museums and ethics.

Lost to Science

One of the most common criticisms that comes from the scientific community is that these high profile and expensive auctions, way above the budgets that museums can afford, result in a loss to science when specimens pass into private collections. I don’t want to downplay that this is a real problem, I know of at least two examples of important material that would likely cause a re-evaluation of entire groups of organisms but which are resolutely in the hands of private collectors who won’t allow them to be accessed. However, other museums, particularly art collections, embrace and work with private collectors. The museums get to display important or interesting objects and the collectors receive credit and validation for the collections they have built up. Furthermore, the buying, selling and trading of artworks means that there’s an excellent paper trail in the form of auction and exhibition catalogues which means that the movement of works can be traced much more readily than natural history specimens which don’t have this tradition of a published, publicly accessible paper trail.

Private to Public

When it comes to natural history I think we’re too quick to demonise private collectors with the “loss to science” rhetoric. Many of today’s largest museums were founded as private collections that were donated to the nation including the Natural History Museum London, the Natural History Museum Tring and the British Museum. Of course the Tate galleries still bear the name of the man whose funds and collections seeded what is now considered one of the most important art collections in the world. Recently two George Stubbs paintings, the first Western depictions of Australian animals was ‘saved for the nation‘  by the National Maritime Museum (NMM). The works were finally secured by a significant donation from a shipping magnate and patron of the NMM. It would be interesting to consider if the paintings would have been saved in the same way if it were the Natural History Museum trying to secure the funds instead.  Natural history museums don’t receive anywhere near the same level or have such a long history of patronage supporting them as other kinds of museums. Often it’s assumed that buyers of multimillion pound specimens erect them in their mansions and display them as ‘trophy’ objects. That’s not to say that this doesn’t occur but I think it’s fair to assume that these buyers may have a keen interest and love of natural history. Perhaps talking to private collectors instead of instantly labelling them as a problem would improve the patronage and support of natural history museums and increase the awareness of ethical collecting and trading.

Grant Museum plastic dinosaur specimens

If relationships were improved there’s also the danger that scientific research on specimens could be used to increase the price tag of specimens as commercial assets. Say for example, if research on the recently sold Diplodocus skeleton revealed that it was the largest, rarest or the only example of a new species this increases the rarity and desirability of the object and pushes the price even further away from the reaches of public institutions. Conversely, research may devalue a specimen, yet another reason why private collectors may be wary of caliper bearing scientists examining their collections. It’s already ubiquitous across museums to never give a valuation on objects brought in for opinions or identifications to avoid certifying or authenticating material for sale. I’d recommend looking across the museum sector to seek guidance on how other museums deal with the issues of research affecting commodity prices.

Amateur vs. Professional

Lastly, working with private and amateur collectors can very realistically improve our knowledge about the natural world. Anecdotally, I’d say that there’s a deep mistrust of museums by amateur collectors (either those buying their collections or those collecting fossils and unfortunately extant animals from the wild). There’s the perception that once an object goes into a museum collection it’s essentially lost to the public, only accessible to card carrying scientists. With museums bursting at the seams with objects, only a tiny proportion of collections on display and visits to collections requiring managing it’s easy to see where this perception comes from. Again, looking to other museums provides guidance. The excellent, excellent Portable Antiquities Scheme is a solution to this exact problem in archaeology. There are thousands of amateur archaeologists, metal dectectorists and collectors and the portable antiquities scheme is an easy way to encourage the wider archaeological community to register finds. They are given full credit for the discoveries, there’s a prestige associated with contributing to the scheme and their finds and data are almost instantly available to the wider sector. Quite why a similar scheme for fossil finds doesn’t exist is increasingly perplexing especially as the legislation and policing of the movement of fossil material, as the aforementioned Tarbosaurus auction highlighted,  is nowhere near as robust as it is with artworks and archaeological material.

With museums brokering discussions with private collectors and auction houses we could better support patronage for museums, save important specimens for the public and improve our understanding of  palaeontology and biology.

Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology

Celebrating the mundane

This article is reposted from the UCL Museums blog.

By Mark Carnall, Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL

Earlier this month I was lucky(?) enough to have a spot on the excellent Museum Mile Museums Showoff special as part of the Bloomsbury Festival. For those of you who don’t know, Museums Showoff is a series of informal open-mic events where museum professionals have nine minutes to show off amazing discoveries, their research or just to vent steam to an audience of museum workers and museum goers. My nine minutes were about the 99% of objects that form museum collections but you won’t see on display. They fill drawers, cupboards, rooms and whole warehouses. But why do we have all this stuff? Who is it for? In my skit on Tuesday I only had nine minutes but I thought I’d take the time to expand on the 99% and the problem of too much stuff (particularly in natural history museums) and what we can do with it.

Tip of the Iceberg

Museums often display only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to collections. Here at the Grant Museum we have about 7% of the collection on display and it tends to be the Hollywood Animals that make the cut. At larger museums it can be less than 0.1% of the collection that makes up the public facing galleries. In my relatively short career as a museum professional I’ve been very fortunate to see behind the scenes in more museums than most and boy, there is a lot of stuff. Even though I love natural history and am very passionate about museums and the future of the museum sector sometimes I do wonder why do we have all this stuff?

In natural history, the obvious and often made, argument is that our collections can tell us about global challenges that affect us all including climate change, organisms that cause or spread human diseases, extinction, agriculture and aquaculture and from geology the exploitation of fossil fuels. Natural history collections are the only record of life on Earth and if we are to make any models or predictions we need to dip into the data enshrined in objects.

However, there are large portions of natural history collections which could never contribute to those agendas. All the ‘Raggy Doll‘ specimens without data for example. All those specimens that require four text books of explanation. Most fossil specimens can be used to reconstruct the past with only limited impact on what’s happening in the present. There are rooms and rooms full of bad taxidermy and taxidermy dioramas that for reasons of taste, health and safety and changing scientific ideas never see the light of day. Even something as simple as an animal not having a common name (to put on a label) can keep a specimen off display There are large chunks of the animal world which simply aren’t being actively studied (for now). Lastly there are all the models, casts and those dreaded boxes.

Image of a specimen of the crab Hippa testudinaria

Spare a thought for specimens like this. Dusty, pest attacked, wrongly named crabs. SAD SMILEY FACE.

So how do we make the most of the 99% now especially if they aren’t saving the world? Well, in short, it shouldn’t matter how important our specimens are to science. Every specimen has a story to tell.

Museums of Inspiration? Continue reading

NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM BINGO!

This article is reposted from the UCL Museums blog.

By Mark Carnall, Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL

My colleague Jack Ashby alluded to the Natural History Bingo Card in a recent blog post so I thought I’d take the time to present it to the wide world! Natural history museums are funny places. Despite the millions of species of animals and the enormous variation within species between broods, sexes, life stage, populations and seasonal variations you’d expect that you could visit every natural history museum in the World (finances allowing) and never see the same thing twice. You might think that, but the truth is many natural history museums have the same stuff on display whether you’re at the Grant Museum, the Natural History Museum London or in Paris, New York, Prague or Plymouth.

In fact, some specimens are so common, you can go around a natural history museum with this handy NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM BINGO* and nine times out of ten you’ll have seen most of these specimens before you get to the gift shop. So what gives?

Natural History Bingo Card
Click to embiggernate & cut out and Keep! Natural History Bingo modified from the version in Carnall, M.A (2011): Completely Rethinking the Organisation of Natural History Museums: A Taxonomically Arranged National Collection. NatSCA News:21

I originally published the above figure in a paper looking at why natural history museums are all the same and what, if anything, could be for natural history museums to make the best use of their vast collections. You can tell from this Microsoft Paint produced chart that tongue was firmly in cheek but why does the Bingo hold true (go ahead and try it next time you are museuming)? It’s partly because, unlike other kinds of museums, natural history museums by and large have the same remit and are collecting and presenting the same thing (the natural world). But with so many different species and shapes of organisms why are the same specimens used as the public face of biology (specifically zoology) here? Continue reading

The best natural history specimen in the world (did not get thrown on a fire)

This article is reposted from the UCL Museums blog.

Last week I saw something that had never occurred to me might be possible to see. Through the years I have learned a lot about this object – I knew where it was, I knew where it came from and I certainly know its place in the pantheon of the history of natural history. We even have a cast of it in the Grant Museum.

If you had asked me what the best natural history object in the UK was, most days I would tell you it was this one. I had just assumed that seeing it wasn’t something that ever happened, even for people who run university zoology museums.

The Grant Museum team an a sperm whale jaw at the OUMNH (they're closed for roof repairs)Last Wednesday the staff of the Grant Museum went on an expedition to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH), which is closed for roof repairs until 2014. On a visit to the zoology section a cupboard was opened before us, it was filled with skulls, dried fish and a couple of boxes. As the history of this cupboard was explained – it was Tradescant’s Museum – the oldest in the country – it suddenly dawned on me what was in those boxes. And that we were going to see it.

We were going to see the only soft tissue of a dodo anywhere in the world. Continue reading