Natural Science and the National Curriculum

Last week the UK Government released the new National Curriculum for England, which includes the following section about evolution for Year Six (10-11 year-olds):

Evolution and inheritance

Pupils should be taught to:

  • recognise that living things have changed over time and that fossils provide information about living things that inhabited the Earth millions of years ago
  • recognise that living things produce offspring of the same kind, but normally offspring vary and are not identical to their parents
  • identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution

Notes and guidance (non-statutory)

Building on what they learned about fossils in the topic on rocks in year 3, pupils should find out more about how living things on earth have changed over time. They should be introduced to the idea that characteristics are passed from parents to their offspring, for instance by considering different breeds of dogs, and what happens when, for example, labradors are crossed with poodles. They should also appreciate that variation in offspring over time can make animals more or less able to survive in particular environments, for example, by exploring how giraffes’ necks got longer, or the development of insulating fur on the arctic fox. Pupils might find out about the work of palaeontologists such as Mary Anning and about how Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace developed their ideas on evolution.

Note: at this stage, pupils are not expected to understand how genes and chromosomes work.

Pupils might work scientifically by: observing and raising questions about local animals and how they are adapted to their environment; comparing how some living things are adapted to survive in extreme conditions, for example, cactuses, penguins and camels. They might analyse the advantages and disadvantages of specific adaptations, such as being on 2 feet rather than 4, having a long or a short beak, having gills or lungs, tendrils on climbing plants, brightly coloured and scented flowers.

This provides a fantastic opportunity for natural science collections to support the new curriculum. If you are based in a museum, now would be a great time to start making contact with your Learning / Education departments to discuss how your collections might feed into their support of school groups; if you are in a smaller organisation, or have greater autonomy regarding your collection, you may want to start thinking about what you could do to support schools with your collections. For many of you this advice  will be as useful as an egg-sucking seminar for Grandmothers, but hopefully it will be useful for some.

How to Find and Research Biological Specimens in UK Museums

By Mark Carnall – 27 March 2013 – Reblogged with author’s permission, originally posted on the UCL Museums & Collections Blog

We interrupt this normal service to bring a special PSA. This post is intended as a how-to for the global community of researchers who are looking for biological specimens in the UK to study.

Recently I went to the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) annual conference and with cuts to heritage and museums many of the talks were about how we make the most of natural history collections in the UK. Biological research is seen as one of the most important drivers and reasons for keeping and using natural history collections, however, in my opinion we do a relatively poor job at matching researchers to specimens and a certain portion of the research community can be forgiven for struggling to find material for research despite the wealth of resources we put out there supposedly designed to help them.

So if you work in a natural history museum, supervise Phd students or teach on a biological/geological course please pass a link to this article on and see if we can’t create more research opportunities that I suspect we currently miss.

1) FIND A NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
There are hundreds of them in this country but anecdotally, a lot of the researchers that we see here just think of museums that they know about. Hopefully that includes the Natural History Museum and the National Museum of Wales and the National Museum of Scotland but rarely does it include smaller museums dotted around the country which hold approximately half of the nation’s collections. Unfortunately, and this is where we’re to blame a bit there isn’t a comprehensive list of them all in an easy to find place (this is something that NatSCA will be working on…).Even good old Wikipedia isn’t much help (spot the Grant Museum here ) which probably says volumes about Museums engaging with the web. The Museums Association publishes a Museums and Galleries Yearbook but it would be remiss of me to ask that every researcher buy a copy and then plough through it trying to identify all the natural history collections. At the moment, my recommendation would be to contact the NatSCA mailing list . NatSCA is is the UK’s organisation for representing Natural Science Collections and associated museum staff, as such it represents a large number of natural history collections in the UK and the chances are high that the people on the list will be able to help you find specimens within the collection they look after or will be able to point you in the right direction, however….

2) BE SPECIFIC ABOUT WHAT YOU WANT
Most museum professionals are a friendly lot and making specimens accessible to researchers is part of what we’re here for. However, we won’t do your research for you and we’re not here to do your homework for you. The difference between “I’m interested in Primates” and “I want to see disarticulated postcranial skeletons of female wild caught green monkeys with a known collection date” may be the difference between receiving a swift reply either way or no reply at all.

3) GIVE PLENTY OF NOTICE. THE MORE THE BETTER!
You may think that museum staff spend the whole day idling about, occasionally dusting the skeletons, but the reality is that there’s always stuff going on from appointments with other researchers, school groups, teaching responsibilities, conference presentations, sometimes the skeletons do need to be dusted and the odd flood/fire/act of God takes curators and collections managers away from getting back to you about your research visit tomorrow because you’re visiting your Auntie in Glasgow and you’d like to pop in.

4) LOOK ONLINE 
Okay so I’ve mentioned already that museums are pretty bad at putting their content online but believe it or not the sector has spent millions of pounds and person hours digitising collections for you! Yes you! We just forgot to tell you about it. If you’ve got a museum in mind it’s always worth checking to see if they have an online database for specimens you may wish to use. Here’s our database and here’s the online database for the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons . There. Already you can access the collections from 50% of the zoological collections in London from the comfort of your armchair you lucky person. There are also a host of other online databases and networks that might help you to find specimens:

Cornucopia   is an online database of information about more than 6,000 collections in the UK’s museums, galleries, archives and libraries that allows you to search collections by a number of different criteria. The data in it isn’t comprehensive but does allow some clever searching.

Culture Grid is a UK wide aggregator of Museum online database content. Currently around 100 UK institutions have their content syndicated to it but the list is always growing. It’s still very much a work in progress but it’s worth a punt.

Europeana contains the same data as Culture Grid but casts the net wider and represents a number of institutions from across Europe. Again the site is still a work in progress but it’s getting there.

Herbaria seem to be ahead of the game here, the excellent resource Index Herbariorum , is a guide to the 3,400 herbaria across the globe representing an estimated 350 million herbaria specimens. Herbaria United brings together information about herbaria in the UK and Ireland, hosts gazetteers and conveniently lists the online databases of individual herbaria.

The Global Biodiversity Information Facility is an excellent site that represents many of the larger natural history museums in the world. The user interface could be a little bit easier to navigate but once you find your way around you can search for instances or specimens, or occurrence records. Those green monkeys I mentioned earlier? We can see there’s 135 of them in the largest museum collections in the World. Again, you won’t find the Grant Museum and other smaller museums on here yet but it’s a starting point.

Search by collector on FENSCORE the rather odd sounding Federation For Natural Sciences Collections Research is now a very out of date online resource for finding the collections related to a geographical region, a particular person (e.g. collector) or a particular taxon. Again it’s not the kind of easy to use resource you’d expect in the 21st Century but if it’s a collection related to a person you are after this is still probably your best shot of finding it.

Between these resources, you have more information at your fingertips than Darwin ever had. There are many more out there created by individual institutions, subject specialist networks or research networks interested in specific taxonomic groups. If you know of any that would be good to put up here, let me know and I’d be happy to add them here.

5) BE PREPARED TO TRAVEL
It may be convenient and easier on your travel expenses to spend more time at a larger museum rather than traveling around but as I mentioned before there are vast amounts of objects in smaller collections and your sample set will be all the better for avoiding institutional collection and preparation biases. The National museums may hold large collections but I’m willing to wager that University museums have a better selection of osteological specimens for some vertebrate groups and many local authority museums will have a better selection of taxidermy specimens if its skin, fur and feathers you’re after. There are also a whole range of historic houses, charities and zoological parks and gardens that have significant holdings but you may not have thought to look in these places. Furthermore, I’d always recommend checking at your local museum as the eccentric individuals who founded many of them traveled the world collecting specimens you wouldn’t expect to find in the museum round the corner from you. It’s worth bearing in mind that most museums hold a high percentage of their collection in storage so just because there isn’t a natural history display in the galleries doesn’t mean there isn’t a warehouse full of specimens behind the scenes.

6) A NOTE ON DESTRUCTIVE SAMPLING
Some research may demand destructive sampling of specimens. Normally this isn’t something that natural history museums are fundamentally against and most have policies for undertaking it but your science has to be good and you have to demonstrate how your research will get out to the wider research community. When brokering a destructive sampling request you’ll probably have images of curators slowly shaking their head and padlocking their drawers  in your mind. In our minds we have images of specimens with massive chunks taken out of them and no published works disseminating the results. Destructive sampling is always a risk, especially if your methodology is relatively untested, so you have to demonstrate why you need to take samples, how, where and when you’re going to publish them and why your work has significant impact. In addition, museums will ask you about non destructive sampling techniques as well so come prepared to demonstrate how your laser/scanner/bain-marie won’t irreversibly damage a specimen. On another note, blu-tack, plasticine and silly putty are not appropriate putties to be smearing all over specimens to hold them in place so you should expect to have it confiscated upon entry.

These six tips are just the starting point but hopefully it will help researchers to find the biological and geological specimens for use in research. The use of collections by the research community be it scientific or artistic is core to justifying the existing of many collections and at the heart of many museum’s founding doctrines. In short, it’s what we’re here for.

UPDATE 27/03/2013. A colleague from The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-On-Trent has alerted me to  Natural Sciences Collections West Midlands website which is a neat summary of 11 natural science collections and museum services in the West Midlands. Check it out.

UPDATE 2 27/03/2013. Added information about the excellent Index Herbariorum which I must confess I hadn’t heard of before.

UPDATE 3 27/03/2013. Been alerted to The Linking Museum Collections by the Welsh Museum Federation  by a colleague at National Museum Wales. This project looks set to link up natural science collections across Wales and make them more accessible to the public and researchers. One to watch.

UPDATE 4 27/03/2013. Reminded about Cornucopia (which I’d completely forgotten) and added information about Herbaria United.