Highlights of Day Two – SPNHC2014


The conference had a packed schedule. From the very beginning there were times when I had to choose between two talks I really wanted to see and would have to sit in on one physically while stalking twitter comments from the other. During Tuesday’s Conference committee meeting, someone raised the idea of live streaming the talks via Adobe Connect or similar for future events. The Emergent Professionals group had already done that in the previous session with some success. The main concern seemed to be that paying delegates would be put out by non-attending people getting more of the perks of those attending. I can’t speak for everybody but, as a paying delegate, I would have appreciated the ability to attend more than one talk at once.

Sometimes I picked the wrong talk. I won’t highlight which ones but I would like to give some feedback for those talking at these events in the future. All of these are based on actual events but nobody was alone in making these mistakes. Also I would like to go on record as saying that I am not a great public orator and am saying this purely from an audience perspective. Getting up there and doing it in the first place is awesome.

Advice for Future Speakers

  • If the speaker before you was really good, don’t let that intimidate you. Your material is different in content, therefore it has new and exciting value.
  • The sun is going to explode in a few billion years. If you embarrass yourself it’s not the end of the world.
  • You’re there to engage people but don’t falter if your presentation is right before the tea break and your audience seem more engaged by that.
  • A constant monotone for 20-30 minutes is a killer even if the subject matter is chocolate dinosaur sex (the three most exciting research areas for the average person according to a survey).
  • Don’t be thrown by sleeping audience members. There’s a lot of double-ended candle burning at these things and it’s really hot + airless in those rooms.
  • Make sure the audience can see your lips. We had audibly-impaired delegates who miss out if they can’t lip-read. Check for mouth-level obstacles, such as laptops and microphone stands.


Gregory J. Watkins-Colwell’s talk on time lapse photography was very interesting. Time lapse is a great way to demonstrate a lot of information in a much-reduced time frame. He showed us students skeletonising a grey wolf over an eight hour period. He was able to point out in under two minutes all the mistakes the students had made in that time: leaving gloves off; talking to each other for at least three hours; and so on. He then discussed logistical problems while filming dermestid beetles – they really don’t like the light. The applications of time lapse extend well beyond the classroom and, as it occurred to me later in the week, could be used as a means of educating decision makers about collections care. Example: at one particular museum, who shall remain nameless unless they ask not to be, the geology stores have a heat and humidity problem. There is no air conditioning and the curators have told the relevant people, whose reply has been along the lines of: “they’re rocks, they’ll be fine”. Of course that’s not the case but how to convey that to them? Time lapse photography could be key – train your camera on one of the specimens and take a snapshot once daily. Hopefully a decision would be made sooner but, at 20 frames / second, you could replay 3.3 years worth of consequences per minute.

Nicola Crompton and Bethany Palumbo from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History have just finished the monumental task of cleaning their whales. This was made possible by PRISM grant funding. It’s little wonder they were looking a little worse for wear: these five cetaceans are at least 154 years old! A century and a half of UV light exposure and fluctuating temperature had taken their toll and the whales were leaking natural oils (careful what you stand under, folks). As they removed the corrosive dust, dirt, and secretions they documented the entire process here.

Anna Monfils from Central Michigan University presented the findings of her research into the use of natural history collections for undergraduate training and its effect on their overall education. I won’t say too much about this just yet as these results are as yet unpublished but let’s just say it’s looking really good.

Annette Townsend shared with us her experiences of making teaching specimen replicas of some of the Neolithic tools from Salisbury. Pictured in this post is her mace head in its various incarnations. She started by 3D scanning the original but the printed copy (above) didn’t feel right, so she used this as the basis for making a mould and then recreated it using Jesmonite (below). Comparing it to the original it’s very impressive.

Nigel Monaghan gave us the low-down on the Irish fossil hunting frenzy that resulted in scanning numerous caves across the Republic for their biodiversity. He was very engaging and exactly what we needed at such a late stage in the day. If you ever get a chance to visit his Megaloceros specimens, they’re truly impressive.

Pub Quiz

“Work hard and play hard” seems to be the motto of the museum sector and they did not disappoint at the pub quiz: we planned a lynching in case of no food; we groped whale teeth; conducted some fairly serious team espionage and generally had way more fun than one perhaps should. Thanks to all the organisers and participants – it was great!


Celebrating the mundane

This article is reposted from the UCL Museums blog.

By Mark Carnall, Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL

Earlier this month I was lucky(?) enough to have a spot on the excellent Museum Mile Museums Showoff special as part of the Bloomsbury Festival. For those of you who don’t know, Museums Showoff is a series of informal open-mic events where museum professionals have nine minutes to show off amazing discoveries, their research or just to vent steam to an audience of museum workers and museum goers. My nine minutes were about the 99% of objects that form museum collections but you won’t see on display. They fill drawers, cupboards, rooms and whole warehouses. But why do we have all this stuff? Who is it for? In my skit on Tuesday I only had nine minutes but I thought I’d take the time to expand on the 99% and the problem of too much stuff (particularly in natural history museums) and what we can do with it.

Tip of the Iceberg

Museums often display only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to collections. Here at the Grant Museum we have about 7% of the collection on display and it tends to be the Hollywood Animals that make the cut. At larger museums it can be less than 0.1% of the collection that makes up the public facing galleries. In my relatively short career as a museum professional I’ve been very fortunate to see behind the scenes in more museums than most and boy, there is a lot of stuff. Even though I love natural history and am very passionate about museums and the future of the museum sector sometimes I do wonder why do we have all this stuff?

In natural history, the obvious and often made, argument is that our collections can tell us about global challenges that affect us all including climate change, organisms that cause or spread human diseases, extinction, agriculture and aquaculture and from geology the exploitation of fossil fuels. Natural history collections are the only record of life on Earth and if we are to make any models or predictions we need to dip into the data enshrined in objects.

However, there are large portions of natural history collections which could never contribute to those agendas. All the ‘Raggy Doll‘ specimens without data for example. All those specimens that require four text books of explanation. Most fossil specimens can be used to reconstruct the past with only limited impact on what’s happening in the present. There are rooms and rooms full of bad taxidermy and taxidermy dioramas that for reasons of taste, health and safety and changing scientific ideas never see the light of day. Even something as simple as an animal not having a common name (to put on a label) can keep a specimen off display There are large chunks of the animal world which simply aren’t being actively studied (for now). Lastly there are all the models, casts and those dreaded boxes.

Image of a specimen of the crab Hippa testudinaria

Spare a thought for specimens like this. Dusty, pest attacked, wrongly named crabs. SAD SMILEY FACE.

So how do we make the most of the 99% now especially if they aren’t saving the world? Well, in short, it shouldn’t matter how important our specimens are to science. Every specimen has a story to tell.

Museums of Inspiration? Continue reading

Natural Science and the National Curriculum

Last week the UK Government released the new National Curriculum for England, which includes the following section about evolution for Year Six (10-11 year-olds):

Evolution and inheritance

Pupils should be taught to:

  • recognise that living things have changed over time and that fossils provide information about living things that inhabited the Earth millions of years ago
  • recognise that living things produce offspring of the same kind, but normally offspring vary and are not identical to their parents
  • identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution

Notes and guidance (non-statutory)

Building on what they learned about fossils in the topic on rocks in year 3, pupils should find out more about how living things on earth have changed over time. They should be introduced to the idea that characteristics are passed from parents to their offspring, for instance by considering different breeds of dogs, and what happens when, for example, labradors are crossed with poodles. They should also appreciate that variation in offspring over time can make animals more or less able to survive in particular environments, for example, by exploring how giraffes’ necks got longer, or the development of insulating fur on the arctic fox. Pupils might find out about the work of palaeontologists such as Mary Anning and about how Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace developed their ideas on evolution.

Note: at this stage, pupils are not expected to understand how genes and chromosomes work.

Pupils might work scientifically by: observing and raising questions about local animals and how they are adapted to their environment; comparing how some living things are adapted to survive in extreme conditions, for example, cactuses, penguins and camels. They might analyse the advantages and disadvantages of specific adaptations, such as being on 2 feet rather than 4, having a long or a short beak, having gills or lungs, tendrils on climbing plants, brightly coloured and scented flowers.

This provides a fantastic opportunity for natural science collections to support the new curriculum. If you are based in a museum, now would be a great time to start making contact with your Learning / Education departments to discuss how your collections might feed into their support of school groups; if you are in a smaller organisation, or have greater autonomy regarding your collection, you may want to start thinking about what you could do to support schools with your collections. For many of you this advice  will be as useful as an egg-sucking seminar for Grandmothers, but hopefully it will be useful for some.