NatSCA Digital Digest – May

Compiled by Glenn Roadley, Curator (Natural Science), The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

Welcome to the May edition of NatSCA Digital Digest!

A note from the Blog editor:

As you know, Digital Digest is our monthly blog series featuring the latest on what’s new in the natural history sector. We normally feature the latest on where to go, what to see and do in the natural history sector including jobs, exhibitions, conferences and training opportunities. With the onset of the lockdown, we can’t go anywhere physically, but perhaps now more than ever, there is still heaps of stuff out there to keep you entertained.

It’s month two of lockdown, but the sector has continued to produce an incredible stream of digital engagement activities for visitors and colleagues alike, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Here’s a selection of resources and activities from across the museum web:

Where Can I ‘Visit’?

A number of museums have been conducting virtual tours of their collections and recording interviews with staff members to maintain a link to the public while closed. Birmingham Museums Trust have posted a look behind the scenes with their Natural Sciences Curator, Lukas Large. The Natural History Museum have created a hub full of tours, resources and activities to inspire and engage during lockdown.

What Can I do?

The Field Studies Council has created a list of resources and ideas for staying in touch with nature while in lockdown. With most of us confined to houses and gardens, why not get more acquainted with the natural history you can find there? I’m thinking of building a moth trap…

And in a move to advocate what NOT to do, Plantlife are promoting #NoMowMay – a citizen science project to encourage people to leave their mowers in the shed and join an national count of the resulting wildflowers.


What can I Read?

You really don’t need anything more than Rebecca Machin’s #AnimalAcrostics to get you through the day, but if for some reason that isn’t enough for you, we have two fab conservation stories on our NatSCA blog. Written by Lu Allington-Jones, Senior Conservator & Chelsea McKibbin, Conservator, at the Natural History Museum, London, our latest blog explains the process of conserving a celebrity specimen – the 1,341 year-old slice of Giant Sequoia that stands on the second-floor balcony of the Hintze Hall. A blog by our very own Paolo Viscardi, ‘Resurrection 101’, gives a step-by-step guide to rehydrating a desiccated frog specimen – the before and after photos are incredible and reveal the technique to be actual witchcraft, probably.

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.

Stay safe and keep well.

The Power of People and Collections in the Climate Emergency

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, The Manchester Museum and Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth (formerly Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery).

Museums are most powerful when they connect real objects and research with real people. Natural science objects elicit deep emotional responses to the climate emergency; they help people to care and when done right, empower action.

This message is central to the NatSCA conference this year:

Changing the World: Environmental Breakdown, Decolonisation and Natural Science Collections

We’d love to hear your experience in a talk at the conference, the deadline for submissions is the 7th February.

Natural science collections are unique records of past biodiversity and climate across Britain, and the world, and are essential for climate change research taking place in museums every day. They allow access to historical information about millions of different species, providing an incredible amount of detail. They show how plants and animals have responded to past climate change, they show long-term population trends, and they show what we have lost.

These are all stories essential to bring clear factual science to an emotionally-charged debate. Research on these collections has directly shaped conservation work and climate change mitigation. In short, natural science collections are a powerful way to help save the world and give people hope for a better future.

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Decolonising Natural Sciences Collections

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

Decolonising museums is in the headlines a lot at the moment and so it should be. I’ve chatted to a few people about this recently and it isn’t very clear what it means, how it relates to natural science collections and how we can start to decolonise our collections, so I thought I’d share my own thoughts.

Much of the discussion in the museum sector has been around ethnography collections with some great work that goes some way to redress our colonial past (including from my own institution Manchester Museum who have returned sacred aboriginal objects). Some ethnography objects are made from bark, fur or ivory, but these materials don’t often form part of the decolonisation debate.

The reality is that many natural history collections, particularly in the western world have a colonial origin. Many objects were traded on slave ships and were an attempt to map and tame the British Empire. Miranda Lowe and Subhadra Das have done some brilliant work to highlight this and the Grant Museum’s new exhibition on their Colonial Histories is a great first step in bringing this to the public.

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Diminished Scales – The Plight of The Pangolin and The Role of Museums

Written by Dan Gordon, Keeper of Biology, The Great North Museum: Hancock.

To explain grace requires a curious hand’ wrote Marianne Moore, in her 1938 poem, The Pangolin. Moore first learned about pangolins at college in biology class and remained fascinated by them for the rest of her life. Curiosity was what first drew me to pangolins, too. Not just about their curious, clawed hands – when I first encountered a stuffed pangolin at the Great North Museum, its whole appearance was like nothing I’d ever seen. A small quadruped, clad in precisely overlapping rows of jagged scales, like steel plating welded onto a badger. A huge tail at one end, a tapering snout at the other. It was an animal that suggested a host of comparisons – a pinecone, an artichoke, a dinosaur. What on earth was it? I decided to investigate.

I soon learned it was a Ground Pangolin (Smutsia temnickii), one of eight species of pangolin that make up the family Manidae. Pangolins are the only scaled mammals and are found in tropical Africa and Asia. Most species live nocturnal, solitary lives. They’re notable for all sorts of reasons. The Ground Pangolin can walk on its back legs, like a tiny T-rex in a suit of armour. The Black-bellied Pangolin has a tail so long it has more bones than any other mammal.

Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica) at SVW Rescue Centre, Vietnam. When threatened pangolins curl into a defensive ball. This animal was found wedged beneath a seat on a bus travelling from Laos to Hanoi and rescued by SVW staff (© Dan Gordon)

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Meet The NatSCA Committee – Amanda Callaghan

Written by Amanda Callaghan, Curator/Director of the Cole Museum of Zoology at the University of Reading.

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee?

I only recently joined the Committee but will be taking over the organisation of training courses from Clare Brown in the New Year. NatSCA offers really interesting and relevant courses for people working in this sector and I would welcome any ideas of courses you would like to see, or repeats of courses you missed. I attended a couple of these recently, including by far the smelliest day I have ever spent, at the skeleton preparation course at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth.

Job title and Institution

Curator/Director of the Cole Museum of Zoology at the University of Reading/Professor of Invertebrate Zoology.

Twitter username

@ACallaZoo

Tell us about your day job?

Working as a University academic means that you have lots of hats. My hats include teaching undergraduate zoology, supervising PhD and undergraduate student research and no end of random teaching leadership roles. These roles are all very interesting but by far the best part of my working week is spent in the Cole Museum where I have been the curator for the past 15 years.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – July

Compiled by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.

Welcome to the July edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.

Where Should I Go?

Dippy is in Newcastle over the summer, so if you haven’t seen this iconic cast, pop on over!

A nice exhibition is on at the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, Evolution as Inspiration. A mixture of artworks and natural history specimens look at how animals have evolved visual cues.

What Should I Read?

There’s a new book coming out on Britain’s lost ice age giants. The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s lost mammals is out on 11th July. Written by the co-creator of Twilight Beasts, this book explores the history of some of our amazing large mammals that once roamed Britain. Rewilding, ancient DNA, cave fossils and more – it’s a fabulous book (I’ve had a sneak peak!). And well worth one for the reading list!

Six North Atlantic Right Whales have been found dead in the last 3 months. With just 400 individuals left in the world, this species is highly threatened. In museums we are in a unique position to help highlight species at risk, so if you have any North Atlantic Right Whale specimens on display, lets update our labels! Read about it here.

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Museums Unleashed #NatSCA2015

Next Thursday NatSCA will be holding our annual conference in Bristol. This meeting tends to be the highlight of the year for many natural history collections staff – a chance to catch up with colleagues, make new contacts and help shape the direction of our sector.

NatSCA conference attendee group photo from 2012. Image by Rachel Jennings, 2012

NatSCA conference attendee group photo from 2012. Image by Rachel Jennings, 2012

This year the conference is called Museums Unleashed, and the theme is sharing collections using a variety of media – from the traditional television, radio and print to newer digital and social media. This topic has a much broader relevance to the museum sector than the usual NatSCA theme and so there will be a broad diversity of speakers from broadcasting, journalism and a variety of different museum disciplines – check out the full programme and list of abstracts.

Museums Unleashed #NatSCA2015

This broader focus of the meeting will allow the NatSCA membership to learn lessons in engaging audiences from different perspectives and really make the most of our collections in order to advocate for the ongoing use and support.

Of course, this broad speaker base will also allow non-natural-science-specialist to benefit more from the meeting, providing an opportunity for the increasing number of generalist museum staff to break the ice with specialists who can help support them in their role – be it collections focussed or more outwards-facing.

If you haven’t booked a space there is still time, as bookings close on 19th May – although spaces are running out! Just head to the NatSCA website and book online.

If you want to attend the conference meal you’d better be quick though – orders need to be with the restaurant by Wednesday.

We hope to see you there, but if you can’t makes it, be sure to follow the hashtag #NatSCA2015 to keep updated!