Neither a borrower nor a lender be?

An exceptionally fragile Blaschka glass model of a radiolarian in Dublin.

An exceptionally fragile Blaschka glass model of a radiolarian in Dublin – would you lend it?

In museums, collections are key. They are the resource that we rely on to drive our exhibitions, research, outreach, educational activities and even our marketing. We use this resource sustainably, ensuring it will be available for future generations. Our policies and standards protect them, keeping them safe by providing an appropriate environment and managing access – and while this is not always easy, at least we have control.

And then there are loans.

Loans are an area fraught with worry for the museum professional, since they take our objects from an environment that we understand and place them in a new environment that we don’t know and don’t control. There are processes and systems in place to manage this – the UKRG provide useful report templates for facilities, cases and security, so we can find out all the important details about where our object is going and how safe it will be when it gets there. There’s a lot of paperwork involved and when trying to organise insurance valuations and the various rights to take and use images it can get complicated. Of course this quagmire of agreements applies to the borrower too.

Then there is that tricky bit which involves the object moving to its temporary home. You can’t just send a delicate object from one safe, secure and cosy case to another by chucking it in the back of a van – it would rather defeat the point. That’s where art handlers and couriers come in. People trained in handling delicate objects and getting them from A to B without rendering them into a pile of dust. Of course, to do this safely the objects need to be properly packed for transport, so they are inspected, supported and carefully cushioned, to minimise the risk of damage.

fedex

Not chucked in the back of a truck. Carefully packaged, cushioned and secured in the back of an air-ride, art-handling truck.

This isn’t such a problem when taking some plastic dinosaurs around the corner (my last job at the Grant Museum was couriering a loan for the Making Nature exhibition at the Wellcome), but it was at the forefront of my mind when I was asked to courier two Blaschka glass models back from the USA during my first month in my new job as Zoology Curator at the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History (affectionately known by locals as the Dead Zoo). We have the largest collection of Blaschkas in Europe and before I started we had lent two of them to the cracking (pun intended) Corning Museum of Glass, which is in Upstate New York.

dinosaurs

Dinosaurs from the Grant Museum of Zoology on loan to the Wellcome for ‘Making Nature’.

The Blaschkas are popular in the art world so they are quite valuable, they’re old and thin glass so they’re very fragile and because they were hand-crafted using techniques that died with Rudolf Blaschka in 1939 they are irreplaceable. So no pressure.

dsc06064-edited

In the process of supporting the base of a Blaschka anemone.

I’ve had to move Blaschkas before and it’s always a bit of a nerve-wracking experience, but I was fortunate that Corning has some of the best glass conservators in the world on hand to help pack the objects. In fact, the whole trip was carefully planned by Masterpiece International and the excellent registration teams in Corning and Dublin. The people I worked with were all very experienced and diligent professionals who dealt with everything, including driving the FedEx truck, art storage, preflight clearance, in fact everything to standing on the airport tarmac overseeing the loading onto and off the plane. All I had to worry about was the objects themselves. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know that they safely made the journey home in one piece.

crate

The specimens crated up, strapped down and covered with sensors to tell what kid of forces it was exposed to in the hold of the plane.

On my return I had a more fiddly loan to deal with myself. The Museum has a lot of type material that needs to be accessible for scientific purposes and I had a loan request from a researcher in Italy. Now research loans aren’t like exhibition loans, since the real value of the material lies is in its scientific importance, which is only unlocked if the specimen can be used for research. The loan conditions for this sort of specimen tend to be along the lines of “send it back when you’re finished”, “cite the specimen properly when you publish” and “don’t cut it up without asking us first”.

research_loan

Not as pretty as a Blaschka, but much more important to science.

Transporting these sorts of specimens is a rather different process to managing a loan for exhibition, since it is illegal to take specimens stored in alcohol or formalin on a plane. However, the classification of specimens as Dangerous Goods when handled by a registered carrier like FedEx or DHL changed in 2011 and as long as certain packing requirements are met specimens in fluid can be sent using a carrier.

At least in theory.

In practice it took several weeks of being passed between different departments and badgering a variety of people before I finally managed to get the package sent. The only reason I didn’t give up was the glimmer of hope from the advice I received from Miranda Lowe at the NHM (who happens to also be a valued member of the NatSCA committee) who told me the secret of the IATA Special Provision A180 to Ship Preserved Specimens and assured me it was possible. I have since managed three overseas research loans now that the systems in place. Thanks Miranda!

Managing loans is a lot of work, but it’s an important part of making collections accessible, so it is worth the effort!

Project Airless

Project Airless’ is a three year venture that began in August 2015 at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London, with the objective of treating and preventing pyrite decay in the Museum’s historic earth sciences collections.

Pyrite Decay

Pyrite, or ‘fool’s gold’ (iron sulphide), is a common mineral of varying crystal structure (though cubic is common) that can often be found in or around fossils. It can occur in a compact, crystallized and stable form – or as a porous, microcrystalline and unstable form.

Pyrite oxidation, or ‘decay’, can occur when the mineral reacts with atmospheric oxygen in relative humidities (RH) above 60%. The resulting by-products of this oxidation depend on the mineral composition of the fossil and matrix, but often comprise sulphuric acid and hydrated ferrous sulphates, which can be very harmful to specimens, labels, and storage media. Once pyrite has begun to oxidise, mineral hydrates will form at as low as 30% RH. Signs that pyrite oxidation is occurring include expansion cracks, white or yellowish acicular crystal formations, and a sulphurous odour.

Distressing scenes for fossil enthusiasts: a drawer of fossils with pyrite decay

Distressing scenes for fossil enthusiasts

Method

Three conservation technicians have been surveying the collections and recording where pyrite decay is occurring amongst the NHM’s 7 million fossils and 500,000 mineralogical specimens.

Hunting high and low for signs of pyrite oxidation; conservators check drawers for suffering specimens

Hunting high and low for signs of pyrite oxidation

Affected specimens are temporarily removed from the collection, photographed, and a condition report created for the specimen on the Museum’s collections database. Following this, any remedial treatments are undertaken as necessary (ammonia gas treatment, for example). The fossil is then placed in an acid-free tray within a Plastazote inlay for protection. To prevent further oxidation, the specimens are heat-sealed in a NeoEscal barrier film bag with oxygen scavenging sachets, forming an anoxic microenvironment. Once sealed, the technicians complete a process report and return the fossil to the collections. This work is being undertaken in advance of the development of a new Earth and Planetary Science building, which will have a more efficiently controlled environment.

Specimens re-housed in an anoxic microenvironment, sealed in a bag

Specimens re-housed in an anoxic microenvironment

Treatments

Once a specimen has been assessed for pyrite decay, there are some remedial treatments the conservation technicians can undertake, depending on the severity. The first of these is the removal of any white/yellowish crystals by dry brushing, followed by consolidating any cracks in both the fossil and the matrix with Paraloid B72 in Acetone.

If a figured or type specimen is exhibiting signs of severe pyrite oxidation, a cast can be made in order to preserve morphological detail before it deteriorates further. However, moulding and casting carry risks for fragile specimens.

Ammonia gas treatment is a method that successfully neutralizes sulphuric acid produced by pyrite oxidation, and involves exposing specimens to the vapour emitted by a mixture of ammonium hydroxide and PEG 400 (polyethylene glycol) within an enclosed polyethylene or glass container. The vapours from the ammonium hydroxide react with the decay products, turning the affected areas a brick-red colour.

Team Airless to the rescue!

Team Airless to the rescue!

The Future

According to current estimates, 14,000 specimens at the Museum are in urgent need of this protective measure. As the project progresses, the team hopes that they will be able to share knowledge and expertise with other museums and institutions that may be facing the same problems as the NHM. Images generated for each specimen during the project should vastly improve the Museum’s collection database – and may even limit the need to open the bags. While ensuring that these valuable specimens remain intact, and of use for years to come, the project is also increasing digital access and reducing unnecessary handling by using a web based application to associate images with each specimen’s unique barcode.

Kieran Miles, Matthew Porter, and Amy Trafford

NHM, London

NatSCA Digital Digest

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

Jobs

Curator, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL. It’s here! The job I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for. Just make sure you get your applications in by 3rd August 2015!

Interpretation Producer, Kew Gardens. Closing date: 5th July 2015.

Conservation and Documentation Manager, Bristol Museums, Archives and Galleries. Closing date: 19th July 2015.

See the job page of the NatSCA website for more exciting opportunities!

News

The deadline for submissions to the next issue of the Journal of Natural Science Collections is 15th July 2015. Get writing! Guidelines for authors are available online, and please send your submission and any queries to Jan Freedman (editor@natsca.org).

Around the Web

Donna Young of Liverpool Museums has been busy digitising Brendel plant models.

A look inside the collections of National Museums Scotland.

North America’s herbarium collections are under threat due to funding cuts. The article is also a nice piece of collections advocacy for herbaria.

New research from the American Museum of Natural History shows that the teeth of Smilodon fatalis grew rapdily, but took years to mature.

The rise and fall of the barbary lion. Could it help to save other species from beyond the grave?

 

Request for Poster Submissions for Bone Collections Conference

Bone Collections: Using, conserving and understanding osteology in museums.

Tuesday, 8th September 2015
University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

NatSCA invites you to submit abstracts for short, informal poster presentations to be held at the NatSCA Bone Collections day on the 8th September at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

The day will include both a workshop on in-depth case studies of bone cleaning, re-articulation, conservation and restoration as well as presentations on bone identification and preparation, covering a wide variety of museum osteology topics.

Spaces are still available for both workshop and talks. The full programme and booking are available here.

Working with, understanding, using, maintaining and conserving bone collections is a large and complex topic. If you have experience and would like to submit a poster, please follow the guidelines below.

We hope that this poster session will facilitate skills-sharing and friendly discussion among participants, as well as providing an opportunity to exchange tips and tricks. Poster presentations are an ideal format for student projects, case studies, innovative ideas, and tried and tested techniques, as well as research related to this topic.

Abstracts must be submitted by 14th August, 2015. All submissions will be acknowledged within a few days. The posters will be on view throughout the day, with an organised time period for authors to discuss posters with conference attendees. Please ensure posters are no larger than A2 (420 x 594mm).

All abstracts will be printed and made available to attendees, and all posters will be made available on the NatSCA blog in pdf format.

Abstract submission:

  • List all authors: surname first, followed by first and middle names or initials. Separate authors’ names with semicolons
  • List authors’ institutions and addresses
  • Include the title in boldface
  • Abstract

Please send your abstracts and any queries to:

Natalie Jones

nj273@cam.ac.uk
T 07786 023709

or

Vicky Purewal

E vjpurewal@gmail.com
T 07917533411

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival and collections advocacy: 10 years on since the birth of the greatest rock festival in history

When I say I’m going to a fossil festival, the reaction of friends who aren’t natural history geeks is often somewhat quizzical. It’s not exactly Glastonbury, is it? But I would argue that those of us who care passionately about museum collections, and return to Lyme Regis every year, are just as rock ‘n’ roll as the line-up at Glastonbury.

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival is one of the most successful examples of collections advocacy that I have seen, and it meets a wide variety of audiences over four days, working with Primary and Secondary schools and the general public. The fossil festival this year celebrated its 10th anniversary, and I wanted to share some examples of the good practice I’ve seen.

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival in full swing (Image: Anthony Roach)

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival in full swing (Image: Anthony Roach)

Museums are just history, right?

Luanne Meehitiya from Birmingham Museums reminded us, in her collections advocacy summary at the 2014 NatSCA conference, that the public may perceive museums as places of history, not as custodians of scientifically and culturally important collections. The surge in social media and targeted events means visitors are increasingly aware of the scientific research that takes place in museums. The Natural History Museum (NHM) and other regional museums presenting at Lyme Regis can engage audiences who don’t visit them regularly, or who see museums as simply about preserving history.

Prof. Paul Smith from Oxford University Museums also emphasised that natural science and historical collections can and should contribute to 21st century debates within society. The fossil festival doesn’t just celebrate palaeontology, and the Life Sciences team have a strong presence at Lyme, actively engaging the public with research that contributes to debates around climate change, invasive species, and the loss of biodiversity.

Myself and colleagues from the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity spent time talking about a new citizen science project called ‘Orchid Observers’, which inspires visitors to look for 29 of the 56 species of orchids in the UK. By encouraging the public to record their sightings, we hope to build a dataset to see how orchids are adapting to climate change, and how this is affecting flowering times. Using original herbarium sheets, we explained how the problems of over-collecting and environmental degradation have contributed to the decline of orchids.

Members of the AMC team

Members of the Life Sciences team from the AMC from left to right Mike, Jade and Chloe on the stand (Image: Anthony Roach)

What do people in museums actually do?

The fossil festival is great at highlighting the amazing work of curators, researchers and scientists, and promotes careers in the museum sector. An excellent example this year was Luanne and Isla Gladstone’s ‘Be A Curator’ activity, where visitors chose a specimen and then had to label it with the age, locality, date, and scientific name. Not only do young people get to meet real curators, they gain an understanding of their work too!

Luanne Meehitiya exploring curation with a young visitor to the festival

Luanne Meehitiya exploring curation with a young visitor to the festival (Image: Anthony Roach)

How can we learn more about museum specimens?

Alex Ball from the Imaging and Analysis Centre at NHM probably has the coolest job I know. He spends his days using chemical, CT, and other scanning technologies to explore natural history specimens. Alex is a continual presence at the festival, and this year he was using a structured light 3D scanner to scan museum specimens for visitors. It scans the object with several cameras and constructs a 3D model that can be examined from different angles.

CT-scanned museum objects were also displayed on screens for visitors to investigate. This technology has enabled conservators to better conserve the beautiful Blaschka glass models, because they can understand how they were made. Researchers can also learn a wealth of information – from the morphology of mummified cats to the structure of meteorites – in a way that is non-invasive and keeps the specimen intact.

Alex Ball and his team from the Imaging Lab with the structured light 3D scanner

Alex Ball and his team from the Imaging Lab with the structured light 3D scanner (Image: Anthony Roach)

These are just some of the examples from a fossil festival that places museum collections, curators, and scientists at the forefront of the visitors’ experience. The festival clearly exposes the past, present, and future use of collections and current scientific research. It also continues to remind us of the amazing scientific discoveries of people like Mary Anning and William Smith, to inspire future generations of scientists, geologists, naturalists, and artists. Long may it continue!

 

Anthony Roach
Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, NHM

Tweeting up a Storm

With the theme of last week’s 2015 NatSCA Conference being sharing collections through social media, there was much discussion about Twitter and the many natural science-related hashtags that abound. So we thought we should compile a list, to make it easier for people wanting to get involved to know what’s out there!

For those new to Twitter, a few pointers:

  • It doesn’t matter how you write hashtags (some capitalisation/all lower case), but capitalising the first letter of each word can make them easier to read, and removes the risk of embarrassing unintended meanings (remember #susanalbumparty?).
  • If you’re starting a new hashtag, search for it first on Twitter to see if it already exists and if so, how it’s used. Also don’t make it too long. It will eat up your 140 characters, and other people will be less likely to use it.
  • When tweeting about an event, find out if there is an official hashtag. If you’re the organiser, communicate what it is! There were so many variations used for International Museum Day this year that it was confusing. This also dilutes the pool of tweets that people will see if they’re following one of several hashtags for the same event, and makes it more difficult to compile them in Storify.

Weekly Hashtags

There are many hashtags based on days of the week:

Monday

#BotanicMonday

#MaggotMonday

#MewseumMonday

#MineralMonday

#MolluscMonday

Tuesday

#TaxidermyTuesday

#TaxonomyTuesday

#TrilobiteTuesday

Wednesday

#WaspWednesday

#WeevilWednesday

#WombatWednesday

#WormWednesday

#WrasseWednesday

Thursday

#TherapodThursday

#ThinSectionThursday

Friday

#FluidFriday

#FlyFriday

#FossilFriday

#FungusFriday

Saturday

#SauropodSaturday

#ScienceSaturday

#SeaBirderSaturday

#SpiderSaturday

Sunday

#ScienceSunday

A Toxodon skull from @NHM_London for #FossilFriday

A Toxodon skull from @NHM_London for #FossilFriday

Others

There are lots of other natural science and museum-related hashtags out there, for use any time!

#CreaturesFBTS – Creatures from behind the scenes. Share images of amazing specimens from your stored collections.

#NatSciFashion – Natural science fashion. A new one to come out of this year’s NatSCA conference! Share images of your fabulous natural science-related wardrobe/bags/accessories!

#SciArt and #BioArt – Share your scientific artworks.

#MuseumDocumentation – Explain what documentation work you’re doing, and why it’s important, in only 140 characters (120 once you’ve added the hashtag). Try it, it’s quite a challenge!

#MuseumSelfie – Share selfies in your museum or with your specimens! There is also a Museum Selfie Day. The next one is on 20th Jan 2016.

#MuseumShelfie – What’s on your museum shelves?

And there are many, many more! Museum Week, organised by @CultureThemes, is also a really good event to get involved with on Twitter. It features seven different themed hashtags over seven days, and is now an international affair. A great way to reach new audiences and share your collections! It ran in March 2015, and will be back for 2016. Culture Themes also organise special museum-related hashtags throughout the year, so keep an eye on their site for upcoming days.

Thanks to everyone on Twitter who offered suggestions! What have I missed? What are your favourites?

Rachel Jennings, NatSCA Blog Editor