Let’s Not Forget the Old Ways

Museums Unleashed is the conference to get to in 2015. The theme, as the title suggests, is unleashing your collections: getting them out ‘there’ using social media, blogs, TV, and newspapers. With an excellent programme of speakers, the conference will discuss inspiring new ways of sharing our collections, both to familiar audiences and new ones.

The conference will be an excellent opportunity to hear case studies on what other museums are up to and how different methods are being used. This is where wonderful, new, and exciting ideas are thought up, leading to the birth of outrageously different projects (this often happens in the pub).

As Viscardi (2012) writes, advocacy is essential for survival of the sector as a whole. We all do it, and more than we think. Probably eight or nine times a week. We talk to our colleagues and friends about our collections, or a cool specimen that we are working on. We get on the radio and talk about projects. This is great advocacy. Exciting discoveries or research in our store rooms are often accompanied by media reports highlighting the awesome museum collections.

Capricorn Beetle (Cerambyx cerdo)

Capricorn Beetle (Cerambyx cerdo) found at Plymouth University in 2007. Specimen is the first sighting of this species since 1947, and was donated to the museum. A short article was written for the local newspaper (http://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/Giant-beetle-time-Plymouth-city-native/story-23139707-detail/story.html)

As museum professionals, we should embrace new communication media without forgetting the old ways. One of the most effective means of letting staff at other museums know about your work or your collections is by writing an article for the Journal of Natural Science Collections. The Journal is fully peer-reviewed, and is written by those working with natural science collections for those working with natural science collections. This is a great way of sharing your expertise, your knowledge, and your passion for your collections with your colleagues.

All of the published articles are also made freely available online. The first two Volumes of the Journal are already available, with interesting and useful articles about conservation, collections reviews, education and the history of different collections. Some articles will be useful to your everyday work as a reference, others may spark ideas for future collaborative projects. We are now seeking contributions for Volume 3. If you have something you’d like to share, get in touch and send in an article!

The deadline for the next Volume is 15th July 2015. Please contact the Editor, Jan Freedman, for further information (editor@natsca.org). Guidelines for authors are available here, and are currently being updated.


Jan Freedman
Curator of Natural History, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

Collections at Risk

The biggest problems facing collections today are almost certainly posed by reductions in funding. The financial support for museums of all sizes has been decreasing every year, with jobs being lost and stored collections often bearing the brunt of cuts, since they are usually out of sight and therefore out of mind for many decision makers.

Hidden treasurers? Specimens in storage can be overlooked by decision makers in favour of public-facing elements of museum business.

Hidden treasurers? Specimens in storage can be overlooked by decision makers in favour of public-facing elements of museum business.

NatSCA has been to trying to keep track of threats to collections and offer our support in an effort to make the vital role of collections, and the people with the skills to care for them, more clearly recognised by management. Much of this work in the UK has been alongside our colleagues in the Geological Curators Group.

The first issue of our new online publication NatSCA Notes & Comments provides a case study of decline from the Midlands, written by Geoffrey Hall. Although the picture painted is bleak, there have been some small wins, as Ludlow have since acknowledged the importance of maintaining a geologist to manage their globally important geology collection.

We have also been looking at the wider societal role of collections and have been working to raise their profile at a variety of levels, including internationally, alongside the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. Our message about the importance of collections is being heard by a wider and more influential audience, something that is reflected in this week’s Nature, which features an article about the importance and decline of collections.

If you know of any collections that are at risk from staff loss or disposal, please let us know by editing our Natural History Near You map or emailing us at advocacy@natsca.org

State of the Union! Natural History Museums 2014

Author Mark Carnall, Curator, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL
#NatureData Coordinating Committee
All views are the opinion of the author. August 2014.

‘After visiting the recent natural history museum community conference in July: SPNCH 2014, Cardiff, Mark Carnall reflects on what the sector internationally is thinking and doing – in particular what’s happening digitally and what people’s thoughts are on a UK natural science database’.

Primate skeletons in the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL ©UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology and Matt Clayton

Primate skeletons in the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL ©UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology and Matt Clayton

At the end of June was a rather special event; the coming together of three subject specialist networks (SSN), the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) and the Geological Curators’ Group (GCG) hosted by Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales. Between them, these three networks represent a sizeable chunk of curators, conservators, directors and educators who work in and with natural history museums and collections. Each SSN has yearly meetings but a syzygy rarely happens.

The full conference was a six day affair packed with field trips, stores tours, talks, workshops, demos, poster sessions and discussions attended by over 250 delegates from almost as many natural history institutions. This provided a great opportunity to catch up and meet friends, facilitated the catharsis in sharing frustrations unique to natural history museums and offered a rare chance to establish a sense of ‘the state of the union’ in natural history museums across Europe, North America and elsewhere.


The broad theme of the conference was historic collections and future resources and many of the presentations were about off-label uses of collections, advocacy and digitisation. Inspiringly, the conference was kicked off with a series of keynotes which carried the resounding message of “get over it” when it comes to the communities’ existential crisis in demonstrating value and worth with a rousing series of presentations from Professor Paul Smith and Dr Chris Norris setting the tone for the rest of the conference.

Off-label use of collections, a term borrowed from accidental discoveries of secondary beneficial side effects in the pharmaceutical industry, came up time and time again. Cynically, as the curator of a small museum it’s nice to finally be joined by colleagues from some bigger museums who, without having to face the “use it or lose it” challenge to keep a museum in existence, have cottoned on to the notion that perhaps collections have uses beyond the 10% of material that has a function in alpha taxonomy and (often low impact) taxonomic research. Colleagues presented example after example of natural history collections being used for research into environmental change. One question that wasn’t satisfactorily answered was about how this use of collections can be procedurally built into research. Many of the examples were incidental discoveries (hence off-label) rather than arising from researchers deliberately thinking of uses of collections in the first instance. However, advocates for the importance of natural history collections now have a new suite of examples to convince decision and policy makers about unique insights into the natural world which can only be gleaned from scrutinising collections.

When it came to advocacy, unfortunately the community fell into the trap of talking about scientific research use of collections almost to the exclusion of all other audiences. I’ve written before about how natural history museums need to celebrate and contribute more to being a part of the cultural sector, especially for museums which don’t hold scientifically important collections and specimens. Myopia aside, the community seems to have come on to some degree, telling each other how important natural history collections are, which came out in a panel discussion on advocacy. There are still a lot of stereotypes about what museums are and what they do that need to be pulled down, but there’s a danger in evangelising which can be quite divisive. Another general theme that came out across the series of talk days is that we need to get more sophisticated and generally get better at demonstrating what we do well. The finding of the NatSCA and Arts Council England study into the popularity of different kinds of museum galleries was presented, demonstrating that natural history collections are the most popular, but put some audiences off if they don’t appear to be well maintained or invested in. Natural History Near You was also presented, finally making headway into ascertaining exactly where all the natural history collections are, a fundamental piece of information that has eluded several generations of natural history collections workers. Interestingly, one of the contrasts between the UK delegates and those from the rest of Europe and North America was that with a handful of exceptions, the majority of the social media generated around the conference came from UK colleagues. It seems that social media is yet to take off as a promotional, professional networking and advocacy tool for museum professionals elsewhere.

Lastly, there was a cornucopia of presentations on digitising collections. It’s uncontroversial to say that museums in general are far from being digital – let alone post digital – and that natural history museums and collections as a group are lagging behind the rest of the museum sector. It seems that colleagues in North America and from the rest of Europe are making huge advances in all aspects of digitisation from technical advances, standards in digitisation, data capturing pipelines and networks, and databases linking specimen information. Embarrassingly, UK museums are somewhat left in the dust, contributing little to the 20 or so European and International data repositories and the data that does exist is incomplete, hard to export, manipulate or in many cases even locate – let alone scrutinise. This is in part what the #naturedata project hopes to solve, with “one portal to rule them all” in the UK at least. The need for this is even more pressing thanks to worryingly vague requirements for databases required for compliance with the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing. Three conference sessions on the Nagoya Protocol valiantly tried to deconstruct the bureaucratic layers represented by this legislation but it looks like the practicalities of compliance will be causing headaches for generations of museum professionals yet.

Overall, the conference was an excellent set of days. Networking and socialising with enthusiastic, passionate and brilliant colleagues really is the best way to recharge the batteries and reinvigorate the soul. Throughout the presentations the niggling thought I kept returning to was that all the innovative, experimental and inspiring ways we use to get the most of our collections are still hamstrung by our fundamental issue of getting a handle on what we have in our collections. The curse and gift of natural history collections is their vast size, but it’s no longer good enough to use the size of our collections as an excuse for not getting to grips with every single specimen we have and making them available to the people for whom we keep them in trust.


Uses of Natural History Collections – NatSCA2014 Meeting


Day three of SPNHC2014 kicked off with the NatSCA conference! Clare Brown introduced the session with a brief account of the importance of NatSCA. Many non-specialist museums do not have access to staff with an understanding of science, and so NatSCA can provide support to these institutions as well as demonstrate the importance of advocating collections and the many different uses that can be made of them.

The NatSCA conference continued with a series of (strictly!) five minute presentations.

Henry McGhie, of the Manchester Museum, discussed how natural history collections are under-appreciated and underused, and how an informal partnership of museums in the North West has formed in order to aid advocacy.

Rob Huxley, Natural History Museum, London, showed that museums could be used much more by a range people, such as molecular biochemists, vets, geneticists or medical practitioners. We need to think of strategies for reaching out to many more people that could make use of the collections.

David Schnidel from the NMNH Smithsonian Institution suggested we focus on what others might want from the collections, and the new uses that could be discovered for data. Scientific collections could hold answers for research in a range of fields such as the food shortage crisis, disease research and climate change. In addition to scientific research, collections could be used for inspiration for artists, fashion designers, or even architects. With millions of objects across the UK, the opportunities for expanding the usage of our collections could be endless!

Glenn Roadley, Natural Science Curatorial Trainee


Advocacy for Collections – SPNHC2014 Day Three


Today we have a write-up by Rachel Jennings of the Horniman Museum, London:

The need to advocate for natural history collections, so that those making decisions about the future of museums can understand their importance, has been a recurring theme over the last few years – and SPNHC 2014 was no exception. The Thursday morning session, chaired by NatSCA, focused on this very topic. Ben Garrod, in his keynote speech, stated that we need to inspire our visitors so that they become our advocates. Luanne Meehitiya of Birmingham Museums argued that advocacy must start with basic concepts, such as ‘What is natural history?’, because, while it is obvious to us, our visitors and colleagues may have a very different idea.

While the afternoon sessions on collections were not overtly advocacy-themed, I still found the thread running through, with many examples of the importance of natural history collections. Bethany Abrahamson of the University of New Mexico (UNM) showed, by looking at publication records, that natural history collections are supporting a much wider range of research now than ever before. J. Tomasz Giermakowski, also of UNM, demonstrated that historic collections data can be used to target hotspots for current conservation efforts. Tiffany Adrain of the University of Iowa showed that historical research can reveal the importance and improve the future research potential of forgotten specimens.

While advocacy is not a new topic, this year I left the conference feeling that there was a new optimism, as colleagues from all over the world came together to share their vision for the future of natural history collections.

Photo by Judith C. Price