Cold Case Curation

Museums have many curious objects behind closed doors. Recently, volunteers discovered some ‘cold ones’ at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust.

Behind Closed Doors

If museums are icebergs, then museum exhibits are just the tip; and the remaining 90% or so of specimens are tucked away safely behind closed doors. Many people, lucky enough to have visited these museum storage areas (‘behind-the-scenes’), will be familiar with almost endless rows of racks and shelves packed with all sorts of different objects, ranging from Chinese vases to taxidermy monitor lizards. But few non-curators would be familiar with the idea of freezers full of dead animals!

We have two large freezers, at our off-site storage facility, packed full of animals; we needed to know exactly how many animals were in there and where they were from, hence this project- Cold Case Curation. The specimens also have excellent provenance; labels with location details including specific grid references and dates. Therefore this Cold Case Curation project was as much a biological survey (albeit indoors) as a detailed museum inventory.

Cold Case Curation in action; the team of five volunteers “surveying” the “fauna” of our freezers

Cold Case Curation in action; the team of five volunteers surveying the ‘Fauna of our Freezers’.

Volunteer-Power

Enter our team of volunteers. They were specially recruited for a day for this Cold Case Curation task; to survey the frozen fauna, matching specimens against existing inventory records. This was a joint initiative with our Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre (hosted at the Museum), to capture biological records. Most of our volunteers are long-term with the Museum and the Centre, and are current university students.

As our team of five volunteers eagerly crowded around the two huge freezers, they were fascinated with the idea of freezing animals to preserve them before they are stuffed and prepared as taxidermy specimens (but don’t worry, they all died naturally!).

In teams, the volunteers enthusiastically worked their way through documenting the freezer contents. 241 individual specimens later, we had documented 11 species of mammal and 48 species of bird. Interesting discoveries included a bittern, a little grebe chick, 10 waxwings and a white-tailed tropic bird (with stomach contents). Volunteers delighted in handling iconic British species including 54 red squirrels and 24 barn owls.

Volunteer, Jessica Mitchell proudly wielding a polecat from the freezer “faunal assemblage"

Volunteer, Jessica Mitchell proudly wielding a polecat from the freezer faunal assemblage.

Their experiences are best summarised in their own words;

“After helping out at Tullie House with their cold case curation, recording everything they had in the freezers, we found some amazing specimens from polecats to owls, your typical garden birds to brown hares, but I have to say my favourite by far was the river otter. This otter was fantastic and it was brilliant to see it so upclose as it is a creature I have only seen from afar in the wild. This event was extremely educational and rewarding to myself as I’m studying zoology here in Carlisle”.  Volunteer, Laura Carter.

Volunteer, Laura Carter with River Otter discovery from freezer

Volunteer, Laura Carter with a River Otter discovery from the freezer.

Another volunteer, Donna Salter was also drawn to the otter:

“It’s a bit obvious to go for the big, furry, cute mammal, but my favourite has to be the otter. I was somewhat of an otter obsessed child: other girls wrote fan letters to Mark Owen or Ronan Keating while I wrote to Philip Wayre, founder of the Otter Trust (he sent back a signed visitors guide – I still have it). So for me, getting to hold and see the details of an otter can’t really be beaten!”

Cold Case Reflections; Learning from the Model

The Museum has greatly benefited from this exercise with our detailed inventories and biological records which will go into our database and ultimately end up on the Global Biodiversity Network Gateway for public access (and we also have the data we need to make more informed decisions over which specimens we decide to formally accession). However, this project proved to be a particularly successful public engagement event. It was a combination of the fact that volunteers were seeing and handling a variety of animals and that they were ‘discovering specimens’, whilst working together as a team, which is vastly more enjoyable than lone working. The event was enhanced with use of Twitter  (#coldcasecuration), which captured some of the magical moments of discovery.

This exercise illustrates how a relatively routine (inventory) collections management exercise can be turned into an exciting public engagement project, capturing critical data for the museum and inspiring a future generation of potential young scientists and curators.

By Simon Jackson, Curator, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust

NatSCA Digital Digest

 

NatSCA 2

Your weekly round-up of news and events happening in the world of natural sciences

Conferences and Workshops

As PalaeoSam mentioned in the last Digital Digest, the Symposium of Vertebrate Palaeontolotgy and Comparative Anatomy is on next week. It is my personal palaeo highlight of the year and so am sad that I will miss it this year. (Though not too sad given I am missing it to be in Italy for the Grand Prix.) If you are attending and would like to do a super write up of the weeks’ events, please do let us know.  I look forward to experiencing SVPCA through the eyes of a blogger.

Jaguar

Those of you who are fans of F1 will know why this car is relevant to natural history (image in public domain)

News

Not really on the subject of natural history, but a topic that will touch the heart of any museum professional or visitor. ISIS have taken even more away from the us, the global nation, via the destruction of an Ancient temple in Palmyra. These open air museums are original sites of cultural heritage and are irreplaceable once gone. Not at the top of the list of the most tragic event of the last couple of weeks by any means, but a sad day for museums nevertheless.

News from the Blogosphere

The #MuseumInstaSwap phenomenon has launched as staff from some of the top museums in London (including the NHM and the Horniman) swap museums and take to social media to chat about it. An article in Time Out nicely summarises what is going on but a lot of the museums involved have their own exciting blogs on it worth looking up. Hence this is in the News from the Blogosphere section, see?

Highlights from the Papers

More and more, scientists are relying on Citizen science, as a means of collecting data. The mode of research is especially important in fields such as marine biology where the incorporation of sightings made by anglers, for example, can add significantly increase the size of datasets. An article in Nature called Rise of the Citizen Scientist explores the good the bad and the ugly of this practice as a research tool.

 

As ever, if you would like to write a blog for NatSCA on anything natural sciences related, give us an online shout blog@natsca.org.