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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We Are All Experts…

I recently attended a conference where one of the speakers happily declared ‘We are all experts’. I have heard this said a few times, but feel it misunderstands what an expert is, devalues expertise and misses out the joy and benefits of learning new things.

Maybe I would say this wouldn’t I? After all, I am employed as an expert in my field as Curator of Earth Sciences at Manchester Museum and am a NatSCA committee member. But there are good reasons why experts are important and are vital to museums being relevant to society and changing people’s lives for the better.

Installing Manchester Museum’s Nature’s Library gallery showcasing how the collection is used. © The University of Manchester, Manchester Museum.

Everyone brings their opinions, feelings, and ideas about collections, and experts are no exception but crucially experts also bring the knowledge, ideas and understanding of those who have gone before, many of which have been rigorously scientifically tested and challenged.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – February

What’s New?

If you haven’t heard about the exciting discovery of a “spider-like” ancient creature from 100 million years ago, now is the time to check it out! Named Chimerarachne yingi, this little beauty has eight legs and a tail, and is exquisitely preserved. I only wish H. R. Giger had been around to see it. You can read more about the discovery here.

Chimerarachne (Image in public domain)

It’s day three of Operation Move Sue the T. rex over at the Field Museum. To follow this story, follow #SueOnTheMove.

What Shall I Attend?

The big item on everyone’s calendar is of course the NatSCA Conference 2018 – this year hosted in Leeds. Keep the dates 26th and 27th April free. I’m hoping people bring their live-tweeting A-game this year because I’m not able to go, so I need to live vicariously through you wonderful people. You can find more information on our website. Paper and poster submissions are now closed but you can still contribute; continue reading to the next section for more information.

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Can the natural science collection community really do anything about climate change?

MAconf2013I attended November’s Museums Association conference in Liverpool to talk, for NatSCA, on how having a natural science curator in your midst will help your museum to be greener. The session I was involved in, ‘Dead Zoos’, looked at addressing environmental issues from the natural science collection viewpoint.

Both Darren Mann and Henry McGhie spoke eloquently and sensibly about our unique position as natural scientists. We can engage all walks of life with nature and, as a consequence, we can also instil a sense of protectiveness. This, of course, includes caring about our changing climate.

I’ve heard him speak about this before but Henry’s admiration of the RSPB’s ‘giving nature a home’ campaign is always thought-provoking. The RSPB have set out to give people a framework for helping nature directly, and the public have responded.

Several of the questions from the floor asked for practical help in using their natural science collections (with or without a specialist curator) to open up discussions on green issues in their museums. Engaging people – on a wide scale – with nature is easy, a hedgehog really does speak for itself. Natural science specimens need little curatorial input to be engaging and so interpretation can easily be turned to thinking about protecting the environment. Case studies abound from Darren’s entomology collection as well as examples like the Yorkshire Museum’s Tansy Beetle reintroduction in the museum’s garden.

Last but not least it was great to attend a natural science session devoid of whinging. We talked about the positive future, not the negative past. Attendance wasn’t phenomenal, 45ish, but it wasn’t terrible. I would like to see future MA conference sessions that don’t necessarily concentrate on natural science but instead include it as an integral part of a wider topic. That would be progress.

Clare Brown