Decolonising Natural Sciences Collections

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, The Manchester Museum.

Decolonising museums is in the headlines a lot at the moment and so it should be. I’ve chatted to a few people about this recently and it isn’t very clear what it means, how it relates to natural science collections and how we can start to decolonise our collections, so I thought I’d share my own thoughts.

Much of the discussion in the museum sector has been around ethnography collections with some great work that goes some way to redress our colonial past (including from my own institution Manchester Museum who have returned sacred aboriginal objects). Some ethnography objects are made from bark, fur or ivory, but these materials don’t often form part of the decolonisation debate.

The reality is that many natural history collections, particularly in the western world have a colonial origin. Many objects were traded on slave ships and were an attempt to map and tame the British Empire. Miranda Lowe and Subhadra Das have done some brilliant work to highlight this and the Grant Museum’s new exhibition on their Colonial Histories is a great first step in bringing this to the public.

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Our Top Ten Blogs of 2019

Written by Jennifer Gallichan, Curator of Molluscs & Vertebrates at National Museum Cardiff.

2019 was an interesting year for me as I took on the role of NatSCA blog editor. It has been a great year and I have very much enjoyed reading all of the articles from our amazing contributors. To celebrate this, I wanted to bring together a list of our top ten most viewed blogs from 2019 in case you missed any of them.

Top scorers this year include a surprising number of botanical articles, with four of the ten written by our plant loving colleagues.

Strawberry fruits made from dressmaking beads coated in molten wax and attached to waxed wire stems. © Annette Townsend

Some of my personal favourites, although not top scorers, are actually two articles which we were kindly allowed to re-blog: Annette Townsend’s beautiful and mesmerising work in how to make a wild strawberry sculpture from honey bee wax, and John Wilson’s fantastic article about the orang-utan specimens sent to World Museum, Liverpool by Alfred Russell Wallace.

But, here are the top ten most read NatSCA blogs by your good selves…

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NatSCA Digital Digest – September

Compiled by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.

Welcome to the September edition of NatSCA Digital Digest!

Where Should I Go?

A new exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, First Animals explores the evolution of the earliest animal life more than 500 million years ago. Highlights include 55 exceptionally-preserved fossils from the Chengjiang biota, on loan from Yunnan University and displayed outside of China for the very first time, and virtual reconstructions of the early Cambrian sea floor, made possible through close collaboration between researchers at the two universities. The exhibition is open until 24th February 2020.

How can we highlight the biggest issues threatening our planet today? It’s difficult with permanent displays, but not impossible. Bristol Museum & Art Gallery have addressed biodiversity loss and extinction in a unique way without new display cases. The natural science curators have covered endangered animals on display with a black veil. Standing out from the other animals, this has a huge visual impact on visitors. This innovative way of showing our impact on the planet was covered by The Guardian last month.

A chimpanzee on permanent display, covered with the black veil. © Bristol Culture

I recently visited As I Live and Breathe at the Horniman Museum, a very impactful exhibit about plastics. At the front of the natural history gallery, taxidermy animals were displayed as if they were dead, with thousands of pieces of black plastic erupting from their mouths, and a hedgehog dead in a fast food container. The message is clear: plastic pollution is killing our wildlife.

A powerful display at the Horniman museum. A dead fox with plastic erupting from it’s mouth. (Image by Jan Freedman)

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery recently were awarded a certificate of excellence by the Curry Fund. This amazing acknowledgment was for the engaging exhibition, Pliosaur! about the life of the almost complete Pliosaur specimen found at Westbury, Wiltshire. The exhibition, which received funding from The Curry Fund, took the visitor into the past to explore the world that this giant reptile lived in.

What Should I Read?

With many of us holding Pleistocene collections, a new book written by Dr Ross Barnett, The Missing Lynx, can help us understand them more. It looks at the lost mammals of Britain. Mammoths, sabre tooth cats, beavers, and more fill this prehistoric safari. It is full of life histories of the animals and their extinction, the history of their finds, and if they could be reintroduced into Britain. It’s a fascinating, and fun read, and highly recommended! Our very own Jack Ashby has just written a great review of it for our blog.

The Missing Lynx, the new book about Britain’s lost beasts. (Image Jan Freedman)

Where Should I Work?

The Royal Horticultural Society is looking for a horticultural taxonomist to join their horticultural taxonomy team at Wisley, working with one of the largest plant collections in the UK.

Job title: Horticultural taxonomist. Full time. £26,498 per annum. For more information, click here.

Kew Gardens is looking for a botanical horticulturalist to work with their tropical nurseries.

Job title: Botanical Horticulturist – decorative nursery. 1 year, fixed term. £18,590 per annum. For more information, click here.

Before You Go…

If you have visited an exhibition/museum, have something to say about a current topic, or perhaps you want to tell us what you’ve been working on, please drop Jen an email at blog@natsca.org. Thanks!

The Dead and the Living: Natural History’s Two Key Pillars in New Art Exhibition

Written by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and curator of ‘Evolution as Inspiration’

Over the past year, I’ve been working with one of the world’s leading naturalists, Jonathan Kingdon, to produce an exhibition of his artworks, entitled Evolution as Inspiration. Translating his science through his art, Kingdon has sought to explore and explain the how’s of why’s of animal appearances.

Beaks as Flags (detail), 2010. Jonathan Kingdon

Although it is an art exhibition of ceramics, sculpture, paintings and drawings, in several senses a natural history museum like ours is the perfect place for this show. Evolution as Inspiration is arranged in two parts. One focusses on the drawings Kingdon made whilst dissecting animal carcasses as he sought to document and understand the adaptations beneath the skin; the other explores his scientific analysis of the evolution of animal signalling and colouration, resulting from decades of observing the behaviours of wild animals.

These two elements of Kingdon’s work reflect two central pillars of natural history: what we can learn from dead specimens is very different to what we can understand by watching live animals in the field. These dual strands of zoological research are also embodied by the history of our collections, and by the people who work and study here in the Museum, in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology in which we are embedded, and in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) with whom we worked with to co-curate this exhibition.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – July

Compiled by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.

Welcome to the July edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.

Where Should I Go?

Dippy is in Newcastle over the summer, so if you haven’t seen this iconic cast, pop on over!

A nice exhibition is on at the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, Evolution as Inspiration. A mixture of artworks and natural history specimens look at how animals have evolved visual cues.

What Should I Read?

There’s a new book coming out on Britain’s lost ice age giants. The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s lost mammals is out on 11th July. Written by the co-creator of Twilight Beasts, this book explores the history of some of our amazing large mammals that once roamed Britain. Rewilding, ancient DNA, cave fossils and more – it’s a fabulous book (I’ve had a sneak peak!). And well worth one for the reading list!

Six North Atlantic Right Whales have been found dead in the last 3 months. With just 400 individuals left in the world, this species is highly threatened. In museums we are in a unique position to help highlight species at risk, so if you have any North Atlantic Right Whale specimens on display, lets update our labels! Read about it here.

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Global Biodiversity Collections: Becoming Part of the Open Data Community

Written by Isla Gladstone, Senior Curator Natural Sciences, Bristol Museums

On 13th March I travelled to Sofia in Bulgaria, my mind buzzing with questions about biodiversity data…

I had been awarded one of 30 funded places on the first training school of Mobilise, an EU initiative to mobilise data, experts and policies in scientific collections. More specifically, Mobilise is an EU COST Action: a bottom-up network funded over four years to boost research, innovation and careers by COST, an intergovernmental framework for European Cooperation in Science and Technology.

Digitisation and data management challenges in small collections promised new skills in the key basics of data quality and cleaning. It also offered a chance to meet colleagues from around the world, and connect to a bigger picture.

At a time of unprecedented human-caused climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation, it feels more urgent than ever to connect museum collections to real-world change. Natural sciences collections offer precious opportunities here. Alongside huge potential to engage communities and inspire debate, specimens are unique sources of the scientific evidence urgently needed to unlock sustainable development solutions:

“There is more information about biodiversity in [the world’s] natural sciences collections than all other sources of information combined.” iDigBio

Collections’ biodiversity data: the what, when, where, who collected attached to many biological and palaeontological specimens © Bristol Museums

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#MuseumWeek on Twitter – what’s the point?

The last few days have seen Twitter alive with activity centred on museums, with the 2015 #MuseumWeek hashtag providing an opportunity to celebrate culture using images, videos and a maximum of 140 characters.

MuseumWeek

This Twitterstorm in a teacup may seem a bit pointless to some, but it’s difficult to fully appreciate the value of social media until you really use it and experience the benefits first hand.

That’s why this year’s NatSCA conference ‘Museums Unleashed’ is partly about getting everyone up to speed with what’s out there, how it works, and what people are using it for – to make sure that our members aren’t left behind as the museum sector increasingly embraces the digital age.

natscabristol2015

Social media provides an incredibly powerful medium for communicating with other subject specialists, and it also provides a mechanism for developing genuine dialogue with audiences. Hashtags like #MuseumMonday and #FossilFriday allow objects from behind the scenes to be shared around the world quickly and easily, bringing otherwise hidden collections into the public consciousness.

The playful and informal nature of these online interactions may be a significant departure from the authoritative and reserved image projected by some museums, perhaps causing a little discomfort for some, but that informal interaction is the very thing that makes social media such a fantastic mechanism for developing dialogue and bouncing ideas between peers.

Finally, it never pays to underestimate the power of the public as advocates for your collections. A museum with a facilitative approach to social media in its gallery spaces can benefit from the buzz created by people wanting to create and curate their own digital content, inspiring others to visit and generating a deeper interest in the museum’s activities – with minimal input required from staff.

I strongly suggest that you take a look at the various interesting subthemes within #MuseumWeek to see if you can contribute. Today is #familyMW, Saturday is #favMW (for your favourites) and Sunday is #poseMW (maybe put that selfie stick to good use?), so you still have time to get your phone out and get involved!