#NatSCAConservation Twitter Conference

Written by Lucie Mascord, NatSCA committee conservation representative.

During the week of the 18th January 2021 NatSCA will be hosting their first ever Twitter conference all on the subject of conservation.

Following on from the success of our inaugural conservation conference “Caring for Natural Science Collections” held at Oxford University Museum of Natural History back in October 2018, the NatSCA conservation working group had hopes of another conference this year. However, it was not to be, so we are changing the format and coming to you in 2021!

The attendees of the “Caring for Natural Science Collections” one-day conference at Oxford University Museum of Natural History in 2018. ©Bethany Palumbo @bethany_bug

Given how strange this year has been we are keeping it simple. Just follow us on the week of 18th January (programme with exact dates and times to follow) on the hashtag #NatSCAConservation and we will bring the unique world of natural science conservation to you for free! Join us for this great opportunity to explore conservation work relating to the range of natural materials including bone, taxidermy, fluid preserved collections, geology, botany and entomology.

If you have a natural science conservation project to share, whatever the size, shape or specimen, we would love to hear from you. The subject of each submission can be as diverse as the field of natural history itself, from storage projects, preventative work, treatments, new innovations, or to how recent world health events are shaping the way we work with collections. Check out the event page to find instructions on submitting an abstract, the deadline is the 30th November.

My particular highlight of our conservation conference in 2018 was seeing the number of emerging professionals we had in attendance, and speaking. This included Kathryn Royce giving an excellent talk on her research into geological collections with Dr Christian Baars at the National Museum Cardiff; and three very differing technical projects from Samuel Suarez Ferreira, Beth Hamilton and Anastasia van Gaver during their placements at the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology. It was heartening to see such enthusiasm and skilled work displayed through these talks. My other highlight, in a day of valuable talks, was to see Natalie Jones speak about the needle-felting technique that has been expertly adapted for fur in-fills on taxidermy. The before and after pictures always succeed in delighting the audience.

Natalie Jones from the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology speaking about the needle-felting process at the NatSCA Caring for Natural Science Collections one-day conference in 2018 ©Lucie Mascord

To find out more about our 2021 Twitter conference, keep an eye on the event page (https://www.natsca.org/conservation-2021) where more information will be posted soon. Please contact conservation@natsca.org with any questions.

Diving into a Coral Reef with Cambridge Communities

Written by Sara Steele, Museum Education Assistant, Museum of Zoology and Roz Wade, Learning Officer, Museum of Zoology.

This article was first published as a blog for University of Cambridge Museums, 1st June 2020.

Our audiences are full of creativity, something we see in bucketfuls at our events and workshops. We wanted to go further, and showcase audience creations and collaborations in our programming and displays.

As a Museum celebrating the wonders of the natural world, we have an innate desire to protect it. We have committed to embedding sustainability into our public programme : tackling the materials we use and considering the impacts of activity outputs. Not all craft day creations end up on the fridge, let alone as an item cherished for life. Could we bear the thought of our logo sitting atop a landfill?

With this focus on collaboration and sustainability in mind, and with the help of the artistic mind of volunteer Fanny Bara Moreau, we designed a summer activity with longevity at its core.

Every summer, the University of Cambridge Museums box up their wares and head out into the weather with themed activities to communities across the city with Cambridge City Council’s Big Weekend and Children and Young People’s Participation Service (ChYpPs). Summer 2019 had a tropical oceans theme at the Museum of Zoology, with the goal of inspiring conversations around the conservation of our coral reefs. We wanted to use this as an opportunity to bring audiences together through shared making and showcase their creations in our programmes and displays.

We took inspiration from our ‘Patchwork World Map’ project, created from individually-made sections sewn into a large tactile map of the world populated by animals.

We also piloted a collaborative family making activity at our Zoology Live festival in June 2019.

We wanted to emulate the collaborative aspect of these projects, as well as create another resource for future programming and activities.

Not forgetting our overall goal of using sustainable materials, we had our work cut out for us.

What came out of several conversations over (essential) coffee was a 5-metre long scroll of empty reef, soon to be populated with corals. From our point of view we liked how transportable it was, neatly rolling up, and that the only materials were paper, paper straws, and water-based paint. Huzzah!

Alongside handling boxes, participants could explore real coral specimens and had the opportunity to create (reusable) collages from shells. Families across Cambridge were invited to add to the reef using pools of very watery paint, blown into organic branching patterns with a paper straw. There were several ‘races’ to the top of the paper over the course of the summer.

We were so happy with what our Cambridge communities created that we began to embed it within further activities, including as a backdrop to an underwater drama created by our Young Zoologists Club and to recycled makes created by visitors to our ‘Winter Wildlife: A Christmas Coral’ (excuse the pun) family day.

Just as we did for our patchwork map, we found a space in the gallery to show-case the work of visitors. We settled on a long table-case on our mezzanine level. It was the perfect shape for our scroll of a reef, and was a space that most visitors would see. Unfortunately, it is not a fully accessible space, and for future projects we are considering how to make its content available to audiences unable to use the stairs.

The knitted and crocheted animals that you can see here were created by our local WI attendees to Creature Crafternoons, with our early years audiences in mind, and a desire from the team for more diverse ocean dwelling creatures in toy form.

Best of all, we not only generated meaningful conversations and activities for our visitors, but also new resources for future programmes, and a wonderful, colourful, collaborative display for all to see.

Of course, to be used in our learning programmes, the resources had to come out of the display case. However, our collaborative coral reef has inspired further projects displaying work created by our visitors. In March 2020, we ran a workshop in partnership with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and led by artist Hilary Cox Condron to create a vision of Cambridge where we can live in harmony with nature. The collaborative artwork created during this ‘World of Tomorrow’ workshop was made from recycled materials, and included wonderful creative solutions for sustainable transport, homes for wildlife and food production. This was put on display in our ‘Communities Case’ on the mezzanine with the aim of inspiring further conversations about wildlife conservation between our visitors.

We entered 2020 with a view to either using the materials we already have, or ordering only recyclable and sustainable materials. Not only does this do us good, but it also allows visitors to see the potential of craft materials that are not harmful to the planet.

While our non-recyclable materials stock is shrinking, our bank of bespoke and inspired resources is growing. The reef continues to give in the form of new online resources. Families can get stuck into making their own at home or gain help with home schooling during lockdown:

https://museumofzoologyblog.com/2020/05/04/dive-into-a-coral-reef/

https://museumofzoologyblog.com/2020/05/11/our-changing-reef-habitats/

By creating a space within the gallery amid the zoological specimens for community collaborations, we hope to provide a sense of ownership of space for our audiences. Our programmes aim to celebrate the animal kingdom and nurture a desire to protect it. We are proud of the passion our visitors have for the natural world, and through these projects hope to encourage more conversations about wildlife conservation.

We want to make the most of the creations by our wildlife-loving audiences, and during the lockdown our community space has moved online. Here you can add to the ‘World of Tomorrow’ with your creative recycled solutions to live in harmony with nature.

Have you created something animal-themed during lockdown? Or spotted some wildlife from your window? Why not add it to your Community Gallery of lockdown wildlife sightings.

We hope to be able to include more photos of sightings and makes as time goes on so do get in touch via our social media platforms or umzc@zoo.cam.ac.uk to submit.

Telling the Truth About Who Really Collected the “Hero Collections”.

Written by Jack Ashby, Assistant Director of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

One way that museums can decolonise their collections is to celebrate the true diversity of all the people that were ultimately responsible for making them. We often say things like, “This specimen was collected by Darwin”, or whichever famous name put a collection together, when in reality we know that often they weren’t actually the ones who found and caught the animal.

Museums can be rightly proud of their “hero collections” and the famous discoveries represented by them. Acknowledging that they did not work alone does nothing to diminish their accomplishments. We just need to make clear that other people made enormous contributions to their successes, and celebrate them too.

Undeniably, natural history museums have overwhelmingly celebrated dead white men. A major strand of decolonisation work is to show that a greater diversity of people are, in fact, represented in the history of our collections. But in reality, their contributions are rarely documented.

The Malay Teenagers Who Collected Wallace’s Birds

Lately, I’ve been looking at the collection of birds here at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, that Alfred Russel Wallace brought back from his eight-year voyage to the Malay Archipelago. Any museum with Wallace material considers it among their treasures. He co-discovered evolution by natural selection, added mountains of invaluable specimens to museums worldwide, and founded entire scientific disciplines based on his interpretations of what he saw. And he gives a lot of credit to the people of colour who collected much of his material.

Although Wallace certainly does not name every collecting assistant, a Sarawak teenager named Ali – who joined the voyage when he was probably just 15 – was perhaps his most trusted expedition-member and closest companion. And a 16-year-old named Baderoon from Celebes also provided instrumental contributions to his collections (Van Wyhe & Drawhorn, 2015). Wallace respected them, their insights, wishes and their Islamic faith, and wrote openly about their part in his accomplishments.

Portrait of Ali in Singapore in 1862, aged around 22, from Alfred Russel Wallace, My Life (1905)

In Cambridge, we have what appears to be Wallace’s “personal” specimen of Wallace’s standardwing bird-of-paradise Semioptera wallacii, a species which Wallace is famous for “discovering” on this voyage, at around the time the theory of natural selection came to him on his malarial sick-bed. However, in his published travelogue, The Malay Archipelago, Wallace himself wrote:

Just as I got home I overtook Ali returning from shooting with some birds hanging from his belt. He seemed much pleased, and said, ‘Look here, sir, what a curious bird,’ holding out what at first completely puzzled me. I saw a bird with a mass of splendid green feathers on its breast, elongated into two glittering tufts; but, what I could not understand was a pair of long white feathers, which stuck straight out from each shoulder. Ali assured me that the bird stuck them out this way itself, when fluttering its wings, and that they had remained so without his touching them. I now saw that I had got a great prize, no less than a completely new form of the Bird of Paradise, differing most remarkably from every other known bird”. (Wallace, 1869)

It’s clear that not only did Ali collect the first specimen of the species (which we can be confident is one of the ones we have in Cambridge) and realised that it was unusual, but also provided details of its natural history. Nonetheless, the world gave Wallace the credit. According to Wallace’s journals and published accounts, it was commonplace for Ali to make such contributions (Van Wyhe & Drawhorn, 2015).

The Wallace’s standardwing bird-of-paradise at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge – most likely the specimen that Ali first collected for Wallace, described in The Malay Archipelego. It is one of the syntypes (the specimens used to formally describe the species) [UMZC 27/Para/20/a/1] © University of Cambridge

As an aside, when the Museum reopened in 2018, we surprised Sir David Attenborough by asking him to install one of our standard-wing specimens in a display about Wallace, at which point he did an impromptu impersonation of the feather-flutter Ali described to Wallace.

 

Ali was with Wallace for almost the entire voyage, and collected many if not most of the 8,050 birds Wallace sent back to Europe (and prepared the skins of many more he didn’t shoot himself). Ali is therefore represented in the tens of museums worldwide with “Wallace” specimens.

Heroes and Villains and Nuance

Despite Wallace’s respect for Ali and many of the other Malay collectors he references, at times Wallace’s writing exemplifies the deep-set colonial view of naturalists and explorers of the time.

The king bird-of-paradise at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge – most likely the specimen that Baderoon collected for Wallace, described in The Malay Archipelego. [UMZC 27/Para/2/a/10] © University of Cambridge

Another of the specimens from Wallace’s voyage that we have in Cambridge is a king bird-of-paradise Cicinnurus regius from the Aru Islands between New Guinea and Australia, which is in all probability the one he describes in the passage below. He proudly credits Baderoon for having collected it (Baderoon was from Celebes, not Aru), but goes on to imply that the Indigenous people who were acting as his guides simply did not count.

“I had obtained a specimen of the King Bird of Paradise (Paradisea regia) … The emotions excited in the minds of a naturalist, who has long desired to see the actual thing which he has hitherto known only by description, drawing, or badly-preserved external covering — especially when that thing is of surpassing rarity and beauty, require the poetic faculty fully to express them. The remote island in which I found myself situated, in an almost unvisited sea, far from the tracks of merchant fleets and navies; the wild luxuriant tropical forest, which stretched far away on every side; the rude uncultured savages who gathered round me, — all had their influence in determining the emotions with which I gazed upon this ‘thing of beauty.’ I thought of the long ages of the past, during which the successive generations of this little creature had run their course — year by year being born, and living and dying amid these dark and gloomy woods, with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness; to all appearance such a wanton waste of beauty. Such ideas excite a feeling of melancholy. It seems sad, that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy.” (Wallace, 1869)

beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy”. Wallace is suggesting that the people of the Aru Islands could not recognise their aesthetic beauty, nor had the “intelligent eye[s] to gaze upon their loveliness”. In the emotional, evocative sweep of a pen, Wallace dismissed the experiences, understanding and knowledge of the Indigenous people living alongside the birds, in a way which many Wallace fans may find disquieting.

In decolonisation work it can be tempting to either build up people as heroes who valued the contributions of a diversity of people, or knock down them down as racist villains. However, from the pair of quotes above, we can see that it’s probably more nuanced than that. At times, individuals wrote things that suggest they saw their local collaborators as equals, while at other times their words are deeply problematic.

It’s unfortunate, because not only is most specimen documentation inadequate for telling the truths that would allow museums to celebrate a more diverse group of people who contributed to the history of their collections, but the accounts we do have access to aren’t necessarily trustworthy.

But we do have to try, otherwise museums aren’t telling the stories truthfully. Looking for the Alis and Baderoons in our collections might help more people realise that – as well as all the dead white men – people like them played vital roles in the science and the history on display. And that museums are about them too. To fail to do that is a gross underestimation of museums’ relevance.

References

Van Wyhe, J. & Drawhorn, G. M., 2015. ‘I am Ali Wallace’: The Malay Assistant of Alfred Russel Wallace. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 88, Part 1(308), pp. 3-31.

Wallace, A. R., 1869. The Malay Archipelago. London: Macmillan and Co..

With thanks to Mike Brooke, George Beccaloni and Andrew Berry for their advice on matching Cambridge’s specimens to Wallace’s notes. And to the Natural History Museum, London, for making scans of Wallace’s field-notes available online.

NatSCA Digital Digest – October

Compiled by Lily Nadine Wilkes. NatSCA Volunteer.

Welcome to the October edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.What can I read?

There are some wonderful posts on our blog. Patricia Francis, the natural history curator of Gallery Oldham, wrote Natural Connections an investigation of the person, place and specimens of a painting that reveals a hidden Oldham story. There is also Andrew Kitchener’s post on CryoArks, the UK’s first zoological biobank.

As we are in Black History Month, there is a lovely collection of research from the Natural History Museum into how the museums history and collections are connected to the transatlantic slave trade in Slavery and the Natural World.

What can I see?

The National Museum of Scotland has a fabulous small exhibition on Scotland’s Precious Seas, exploring Scotland’s diverse sea life and many threats facing marine life.

Chester Zoo have shared this fantastic animal video for World Animal Day.

Not visiting anywhere currently? Take a look at the interesting online collections of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

What can I do?

The Geological Curators Group have their Symposium of Palaeontological Preparation and Conservation 2020 event on 11th – 17th October.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History are holding an online lecture ‘How do many-eyed animals see the world?’ with Dr Lauren Sumner-Rooney, a research fellow.

As part of the iDigBio webinar series ‘Adapting to COVID-19: Resources for Natural History Collections in a New Virtual World‘, Virtual Project Management, Tips and Tools, will take place on the 27th October 2020.

On social media you can get involved in #ReptileAwarenessDay on 21st October, showcase your spookiest collection on #Halloween (31st October) and on November 8th there is #STEMDay.

Save The Date!

Pest Odyssey 2021 – the Next Generation Detect, Respond, Recover – best practice IPM in 2021.

20th – 22nd September 2021

Submissions are invited for the third Pest Odyssey Conference. This will be a fully virtual conference and will enable participants to focus on changes and new developments in IPM over the last ten years.

They invite contributions looking at science, sustainability and climate change in relation to IPM. Additionally, papers examining how to carry out IPM well and what a successful IPM programme looks like over 10+ years. Methods of advocacy and successful ways to share the IPM message both in your organisation and the wider world will be welcomed.

Abstracts should be a maximum of 500 words and should be submitted to pestodyssey@gmail.com by 12 a.m. (midnight) GMT on 8th January 2021.

Successful authors will be notified by 8th March 2021. Completed papers will be required by 30th June 2021 for peer review for inclusion in the conference publication. Poster abstracts will be invited, but the call for these will follow later.

Jobs?

National Museums Scotland are looking for an Assistant Preventive Conservator. Closing date 16th October.

North Pennines AONB Partnership are looking for a Geology Projects Trainee. Closing date 11th October.

Before You Go…

If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Similarly, if you have something to say about a current topic, or perhaps you want to tell us what you’ve been working on, we welcome new blog articles so please drop Jen an email if you have anything you would like to submit.

CryoArks – Discover The UK’s First Zoological Biobank

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

Many of us have probably been approached by eager PhD students and other researchers who want to snip a bit off those specimens or drill a few holes in others. As curators we start to feel somewhat uncomfortable about seeing our precious collections sliced and diced, and yet we are also keen to discover more about the genetic content of our specimens for their own sake. This is partly because collectively we can contribute to studies that benefit wild populations of species, including the conservation biology of many endangered species and the possibility of rewilding extirpated species. You may also have a chest freezer bursting with grip-seal bags or plastic tubes filled with tissue samples collected from specimens you have acquired, but you’ve no idea what to do with them, but you know they will be useful one day. Or maybe you have a freezer full of specimens you want to get rid of. CryoArks is a new initiative that just might help you to solve all these problems.

Sorting through lemur muscle samples at National Museums Scotland © National Museums Scotland

CryoArks is a BBSRC-funded project led by Professor Mike Bruford at Cardiff University, which has established the UK’s first comprehensive zoological biobank for research and conservation. CryoArks is a consortium of museums, zoos, academic institutions and biobanks, which is working together to establish common standards and working practices to store tissue and DNA samples and make them available on a common web portal, so that researchers and conservation biologists will be able to find out what is available for their research. This will help cut down on the sampling of our permanent collections by giving researchers something else to sink their scalpels into. CryoArks has two main sample storage hubs – at the Natural History Museum in London and at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh – that currently house more than 65,000 samples, but we have room for almost a quarter of a million. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland is also a joint CryoArks and European Association of Zoos and Aquaria biobank storage hub, bringing the zoo and non-zoo biobank communities together.

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