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…
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.
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
Name: Paolo Viscardi
Job Title & Institution: Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL
Twitter username: @PaoloViscardi
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.
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!
Curator of Natural Sciences, Tullie House Currently seeking to become a designated collection, the natural sciences collections are looking for a curator who will get involved in ‘engagement activities, acquisitions, collections care projects, research, exhibitions and collection displays’. Deadline 10th August.
Curator, Grant Museum of Zoology Time is running out to apply for a job that has not been vacant for over ten years. If you think you could be the new Curator of this fantastic natural history collection, you have until 3rd August.
See the job page of the NatSCA website for more exciting opportunities!
The University Museums Group (UMG) are joining forces with the University Museums in Scotland (UMiS) to bring you Science and Society, their 2015 conference. It will take place on the 23rd and 24th September at Durham University. Bookings are now open so help yourselves to places.
Around the Web
A great blog came out recently by Jake of Jake’s Bones in which he says, I quote, “I’ve had a lot of T-rex action this week” in Learning about Tyrannosaurus. Now that’s a good week. Full of great images, Jake’s blog asks some interesting questions. He writes with the enthusiasm we all have but often don’t show, which makes the blog a great escape from the day.
Worth a look this week is an image on the National Geographic website (not that there’s ever really a day that it isn’t worth looking at). I don’t want to say much about it as it would risk spoilers, so I’ll let the image doing the impressing for itself. N.B. Make sure you read the caption, it may change what you think you’re looking at…
Something else definitely worth a gander is the tumblr page of Paleocreations. Past the impressive life-size Ichthyostega model at the top are eight images you can scroll through to show how Paleocreations produced the beautiful official artwork of Sophie, the most complete Stegosaurus skeleton ever found, for the Natural History Museum London.
Curator, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL I can tell you from three years of first-hand experience (pseudo-first-hand; as curatorial assistant) that this is the job all curators should be applying for. The Grant Museum of Zoology is an amazing place to work and in this role I know you will have the opportunity to spread your curatorial wings and make a real difference in the natural history sector. The kind of job where you don’t mind getting up in the morning. Closing date for applications is 3rd August. Good luck!
If only for the superb job title, anyone with experience of learning programmes for families and children with ASC (Autistic Spectrum Condition) should definitely take a look at the current vacancy for the Dawnosaurs Programme Co-ordinator at the Natural History Museum. This looks like an amazing opportunity for the right person. The closing date for applications is the 22nd July.
See the job page of the NatSCA website for more exciting opportunities.
The next Museums Association exhibition and conference is due to take place on 5th and 6th November, in Birmingham. There is still time to register as an early bird who gets the cheaper worm rates. Early bird registration ends on the 7th August, click here for more.
Around the Web
Sun bear, fox, hippo or pangolin. What tickles your natural history bones the most? Choose your favourite to be the new museum mascot for Derby Museum and Art Gallery! If you are on Twitter, you can whip up some support for the sun bear, errr, I mean, your favourite using: @DMNature and @derbymuseums. The winning specimen will be announced on the 7th August. I’ve already chosen mine, can you guess what it is…?
The Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs have been working up a storm of support lately, with ongoing events at the park complemented by a very dynamic talk at the Grant Museum by the master of science comedy- Prof Joe Cain, from UCL. These incredible statues are a vivid reminder of the evolution our concept of dinosaur appearances has gone through. They are also an important part of our British cultural heritage, that helped shape the palaeontological world in the mid 1800s. Find out more about these iconic statues that are in desperate need of conservation on the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs website.
In November 2015, the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL launched one of the most ambitious conservation projects undertaken at the museum, and our first ever public fundraising campaign, generously supported by NatSCA’s Bill Pettit Memorial Award.
Bone Idols: Protecting our iconic skeletons aims to secure the long-term future of 39 of our rarest and most significant skeletons, some of which have been on display in the museum for 180 years. This includes what can be considered the rarest skeleton in the world: our extinct quagga – an unusual half-striped zebra.
Preserving the uncollectable
It is the only mounted quagga skeleton in the UK, and no more than seven quagga skeletons survive globally. In April the quagga returned to the museum, having been treated by natural history conservator Nigel Larkin. The work involved completely dismantling and chemically cleaning the irreplaceable skeleton, and then remounting it on a modified skeleton-friendly frame in a more anatomically correct position.
This major treatment has also been given to the Museum’s largest skeleton – that of a (hornless) one-horned rhino. This has been on open display since 1911, in a room once lit by oil lamps. The particulate pollutants that were removed as part of the project had significantly discoloured the bone. The rhino now stands in a more rhino-like pose, with its legs on the ground and its limbs meeting their sockets – all steps that will safeguard the impressive skeleton for hopefully centuries to come. More about the rhino’s treatment can be read on the museum’s blog.
Curing the quagga
A condition assessment of the museum’s most famous object had uncovered a wealth of problems. The sternum was oozing a black, sticky fat deposit; the femur was far from the pelvis, which is both unsightly and left the skeleton unstable; the neck vertebrae were on upside-down (a feature I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t spotted, despite being a mammal nerd who has worked with this skeleton for ten years); the spine was held unnaturally straight by a horizontal rod; and much of the iron frame was rusting.
These ills, and many others, have been remedied. Although the specimen is the only one of the Bone Idols that has not been on open display, nor had it been regularly handled, the bone had still accrued a shocking amount of dirt and grime. This has been cleaned off using an alcohol ethoxylate (Synperonic A7) in distilled water.
A more detailed account of the quagga’s work appears on the Grant Museum’s blog.
Conservation in the public eye
Another aim of the Bone Idols project was to bring as much of the conservation work as possible to the gallery, allowing the public to engage in this critical work, which normally takes place behind the scenes.
Nigel Larkin is working on 13 of the 39 skeletons (those that require complex metal work), while the remaining 26 are being treated by UCL Museums Conservators. Days were set aside to prepare the large specimens for transport. We scheduled the work so that nearly all of it took place during opening hours (except that which involved dangerous equipment), at the heart of the museum. Staff and Nigel were on hand to explain what was happening.
For the in-house specimens, we have been advertising when this work is going on in the gallery, and even giving visitors a chance to take part in cleaning the skeletons themselves.
I’ll be talking more about the public aspect of the Bone Idols project at NatSCA’s Bone Collections event in September.
We are very grateful to the support of NatSCA and the Arts Council England’s Museum Development Fund for this project, as well as the thousands of pounds of public donations we have received. The work is ongoing, and will cost in excess of £30,000 to complete. If you would like to support the campaign you can make a donation on our online giving page, use this postal donation form (.docx, 63kB), or visit us in person in the museum.
Collectively each small gift will make this project possible, preserving these irreplaceable skeletons for the long-term future.
Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL