When Museums Get it Wrong – Did We Accidentally Accession Someone’s Holiday Booze?

I have a strong suspicion that an object that is now in our collection at the Grant Museum was in fact a souvenir bottle of plum brandy. How could such a thing happen?

The mystery specimen in its original fluid before conservation. Is it in fact a bottle of plum brandy that a researcher bought as a souvenir? (C) UCL Grant Museum of Zoology.

My former colleagues Mark Carnall and Emma-Louise Nicholls first brought this “specimen” to my attention in 2011, when they found it in our wet specimen store: an unmarked bottle of clear brown liquid containing a near-spherical object with a cork stopper in its narrow neck. Mark wrote a blog at the time working through the process of elimination of all the spherical objects that might belong in a zoological collection such as ours. While others had assumed it was a testis, Mark and Emma decided that it was in fact a plum – not zoological at all. Aside from its identity, the other question was: how did a 25mm sphere get in a bottle with a 10mm neck?

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Taxidermy Koala – The Language of Natural History

This article has been re-posted from the Grant Museum of Zoology blog, with permission of the author Jack Ashby.

With generic terms like mankind and Homo sapiens (“wise man”), people of all genders are well aware that it is the masculine that has dominated the vocabulary of humanity. Not so in the animal kingdom.

Across UCL Culture we are celebrating the centenary of some women first getting the vote in the UK in a number of different ways. In the run up to International Women’s Day, here on the blog our Specimens of the Week will be exploring themes like women in natural history, female specimens, and – in this case – the language of natural history. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…

Koalas are one of many Australian mammals that are named after a characteristic that only females have. Their scientific name Phascolarctos means “pouched bear”. LDUCZ-Z65. (C) UCL Grant Museum of Zoology

***The Taxidermy Koala***

I find it interesting to think about animals that are named after features that only one sex has. How would you feel if your species was defined by a characteristic that you yourself didn’t possess?* My own passion is the mammals of Australia. Unlike many other groups (for example there are entire groups of insects that can only be identified by studying male genitalia), for those animals which are named for sex-specific features, Australian mammals are almost** universally named after things that only appear in females.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – December

Save the Date!

The NatSCA conference and AGM will be at Leeds City Museum on Thursday 26th and Friday 27th April 2018!

The conference theme is: The museum ecosystem: exploring how different subject specialisms can work more closely together.

This conference aims to lead us outside our comfort zone and explore how working closely with different disciplines and departments can not only strengthen our own areas of expertise, but museums as a whole. The museum ecosystem is vast and not limited to just museums as it includes universities, local organisations, funding bodies, artists, communities and many other stakeholders.

We are inviting you to propose presentations and posters that focus on sharing ideas, tips and mechanisms that will help inform the work of other attendees. Proposals are welcome from colleagues across all disciplines (not just natural history!)

To submit your abstract, please download and complete a submission form and send your completed form to conference@natsca.org.

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The formerly googly-eyed owl

The long-eared owl: BEFORE. LDUCZ-Y1604

In a move unprecedented in Specimen of the Week history, I have chosen to blogify the same specimen as I selected in my last Specimen of the Week. The reason is that in many ways it is not the same specimen as it was six weeks ago: it has undergone a profound transformation. We used to call this specimen “the googly-eyed owl”, due to its comedy wonky eyes, but it is googly-eyed no longer. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…

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NatSCA Digital Digest – July

What Should I Read?

If you like a good nose, the second part of TetZoo’s Elephant Seal article has just been published, which you can read here. And here is a thoughtfully placed link to the first part in case you missed it and wanted to catch up.

For a fun bit of ‘history of natural history’, this article is all about the secret that the Natural History Museum’s blue whale has been hiding since the 1930s, unknown to anyone until it’s recent clean prior to the big unveiling next week. Those naughty conservators… chuckle.

Whilst some of this article raised my quizzical-shark-scientist’s-eyebrow, such as the scale bar for instance, researchers believe they have uncovered a big clue as to why the Megalodon went extinct. Definitely worth a read if, like everyone, you like sharks. Although this article came out in January, it is receiving media attention at the moment so I thought I’d treat you to it.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – May

nddLogo2017-05-04

What a month we’ve had! The Conference at Cambridge on the 20th to 21st April was a roaring success. Over 100 museum delegates gathered together beneath the mantle of a Finback whale skeleton, to swap notes and revive old connections. Many heated exchanges were had over issues ranging from fungi to frocked wolves. No museum-based conference is complete without a tour of the stores – big thanks once again to the Zoology Museum for having us. We got a sneak-preview of the new gallery space too and, while I can’t post pictures of that, I can tell you that you have to go and see it when they open. Highlights for me included an elephant from Sri Lanka with links to Stanley Kubrik, and a Diorama of a beach with added surprises for future conservators. Continue reading

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Paolo Viscardi

Name: Paolo Viscardi

Job Title & Institution: Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL

Twitter username: @PaoloViscardi

Paolo Viscardi, in the Grant Museum's amazing Micrarium

Paolo Viscardi, in the Grant Museum’s amazing Micrarium

What is your role on the NatSCA committee?

I’m the Chair of NatSCA and my role is to oversee the strategic activities of NatSCA, making sure that we are able to respond to the changes in the wider sector. This involves discussion with other organisations, developing funding bids and working with the rest of the NatSCA committee to provide a sounding-board for ideas, suggestions for ways of approaching problems and decision-making when needed.

Natural science collections are very popular with museum visitors. Why do you think this is?

Natural history collections are accessible for a broad range of audiences. Most people have some connection with other living organisms, either through their pets, the wild animals and plants in their gardens or through what they get to see in the countryside or on wildlife documentaries; I think that the popularity of natural history collections is partly an extension of this.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now?

At the moment there are a variety of challenges facing natural science collections. The obvious one is funding cuts, particularly to local authority museums. However, there are also issues arising from reductionist approaches to biology that have dominated for the last few decades, shifting scientific focus (and funding) away from whole organisms and ecology towards genetics and bioinformatics.

While these fields are important and exciting, their rise has led to a decline in specimen based research and recording, with natural history becoming marginalised. This is a real concern, since future research will presumably shift focus in order to link genetic and population modelling work with whole organisms in order to provide a context for the observations made. The damage done by the neglect in training of naturalists, the running down of collections and the reduction in active collecting over the past few decades will become a severe limitation to this endeavour.

What do you love most about natural science collections?

I love skulls. They’re beautiful examples of the compromise between inheritance and function, which I find fascinating.

Gibbon

Gibbon skull from the Horniman Museum & Gardens

What would your career be in an alternate universe without museums?

There are plenty of things I could do, but I’m not sure I’d want to do any of them enough to really consider them a career!

What is your favourite museum, and why? (It can be anywhere in the world, and doesn’t have to be natural science-related!)

The Galerie d’anatomie comparée et de Paléontologie in Paris. The ground floor display is basically my idea of the perfect place!

The Galerie d’anatomie comparée et de Paléontologie, Paris

The Galerie d’anatomie comparée et de Paléontologie, Paris