Uses of Natural History Collections – NatSCA2014 Meeting

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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

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Data-less Natural Science Specimens are Useless to Science. Aren’t they?

Here we have Clare Brown, of the Leeds Museum, telling us about some devilishly exciting research:

Tasmanian Devil specimens in UK museums, with no data whatsoever, have been used in cutting edge research on devil facial tumour disease as part of the effort to save these incredible animals.
Data – when and where a specimen was collected – is vital to the usefulness of natural science collections. It is crucial for so many aspects of research that these collections are commonly used for: climate change work; biodiversity research; distribution mapping etc.
Specimens without data are usually much more problematic. At Leeds we have thousands of objects that don’t have any record of where they came from or when they were collected. The information has either been lost or never noted down in the first place. Even our scrappiest, most moth-eaten bits of taxidermy are elevated above the rest of the collection if they have associated data.
I was therefore delighted when Jeremy Austin at the University of Adelaide asked whether we had any Tasmanian Devil Sarcophilus harrisii material collected in the last 200 years. Crucially, he didn’t need an exact date or location – just a two century timespan. We’d been collecting since 1821.
Leeds, a large, rich, Victorian industrial city, spent most of the 19th century collecting scientific material from around the world. We had a ‘purveyor of Australian wildlife’ and acquired, amongst other things, two Devil mounts and a skeleton. The specimens were duly sampled and sent to Australia.

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The study, also using specimens from Oxford, looked at genetic diversity in a group of molecules in cell membrane proteins called the ‘major histocompatibility complex’. Low diversity in this complex has been linked to the emergence and spread of devil facial tumour disease. The team needed samples of historical and ancient Devil DNA to see how diverse the populations were before European settlement and after. The article, published in Biology Letters, can be read here.

This is a great example of how natural science specimens, whatever their ‘data status’, can contribute to scientific research at the forefront of species conservation.