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

NatSCA Digital Digest

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

Jobs

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!

News

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.

NatSCA Digital Digest

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

Jobs

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.

News

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.

 

State of the Union! Natural History Museums 2014

Author Mark Carnall, Curator, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL
#NatureData Coordinating Committee
All views are the opinion of the author. August 2014.

‘After visiting the recent natural history museum community conference in July: SPNCH 2014, Cardiff, Mark Carnall reflects on what the sector internationally is thinking and doing – in particular what’s happening digitally and what people’s thoughts are on a UK natural science database’.

Primate skeletons in the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL ©UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology and Matt Clayton

Primate skeletons in the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL ©UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology and Matt Clayton

At the end of June was a rather special event; the coming together of three subject specialist networks (SSN), the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) and the Geological Curators’ Group (GCG) hosted by Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales. Between them, these three networks represent a sizeable chunk of curators, conservators, directors and educators who work in and with natural history museums and collections. Each SSN has yearly meetings but a syzygy rarely happens.

The full conference was a six day affair packed with field trips, stores tours, talks, workshops, demos, poster sessions and discussions attended by over 250 delegates from almost as many natural history institutions. This provided a great opportunity to catch up and meet friends, facilitated the catharsis in sharing frustrations unique to natural history museums and offered a rare chance to establish a sense of ‘the state of the union’ in natural history museums across Europe, North America and elsewhere.

 

The broad theme of the conference was historic collections and future resources and many of the presentations were about off-label uses of collections, advocacy and digitisation. Inspiringly, the conference was kicked off with a series of keynotes which carried the resounding message of “get over it” when it comes to the communities’ existential crisis in demonstrating value and worth with a rousing series of presentations from Professor Paul Smith and Dr Chris Norris setting the tone for the rest of the conference.

Off-label use of collections, a term borrowed from accidental discoveries of secondary beneficial side effects in the pharmaceutical industry, came up time and time again. Cynically, as the curator of a small museum it’s nice to finally be joined by colleagues from some bigger museums who, without having to face the “use it or lose it” challenge to keep a museum in existence, have cottoned on to the notion that perhaps collections have uses beyond the 10% of material that has a function in alpha taxonomy and (often low impact) taxonomic research. Colleagues presented example after example of natural history collections being used for research into environmental change. One question that wasn’t satisfactorily answered was about how this use of collections can be procedurally built into research. Many of the examples were incidental discoveries (hence off-label) rather than arising from researchers deliberately thinking of uses of collections in the first instance. However, advocates for the importance of natural history collections now have a new suite of examples to convince decision and policy makers about unique insights into the natural world which can only be gleaned from scrutinising collections.

When it came to advocacy, unfortunately the community fell into the trap of talking about scientific research use of collections almost to the exclusion of all other audiences. I’ve written before about how natural history museums need to celebrate and contribute more to being a part of the cultural sector, especially for museums which don’t hold scientifically important collections and specimens. Myopia aside, the community seems to have come on to some degree, telling each other how important natural history collections are, which came out in a panel discussion on advocacy. There are still a lot of stereotypes about what museums are and what they do that need to be pulled down, but there’s a danger in evangelising which can be quite divisive. Another general theme that came out across the series of talk days is that we need to get more sophisticated and generally get better at demonstrating what we do well. The finding of the NatSCA and Arts Council England study into the popularity of different kinds of museum galleries was presented, demonstrating that natural history collections are the most popular, but put some audiences off if they don’t appear to be well maintained or invested in. Natural History Near You was also presented, finally making headway into ascertaining exactly where all the natural history collections are, a fundamental piece of information that has eluded several generations of natural history collections workers. Interestingly, one of the contrasts between the UK delegates and those from the rest of Europe and North America was that with a handful of exceptions, the majority of the social media generated around the conference came from UK colleagues. It seems that social media is yet to take off as a promotional, professional networking and advocacy tool for museum professionals elsewhere.

Lastly, there was a cornucopia of presentations on digitising collections. It’s uncontroversial to say that museums in general are far from being digital – let alone post digital – and that natural history museums and collections as a group are lagging behind the rest of the museum sector. It seems that colleagues in North America and from the rest of Europe are making huge advances in all aspects of digitisation from technical advances, standards in digitisation, data capturing pipelines and networks, and databases linking specimen information. Embarrassingly, UK museums are somewhat left in the dust, contributing little to the 20 or so European and International data repositories and the data that does exist is incomplete, hard to export, manipulate or in many cases even locate – let alone scrutinise. This is in part what the #naturedata project hopes to solve, with “one portal to rule them all” in the UK at least. The need for this is even more pressing thanks to worryingly vague requirements for databases required for compliance with the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing. Three conference sessions on the Nagoya Protocol valiantly tried to deconstruct the bureaucratic layers represented by this legislation but it looks like the practicalities of compliance will be causing headaches for generations of museum professionals yet.

Overall, the conference was an excellent set of days. Networking and socialising with enthusiastic, passionate and brilliant colleagues really is the best way to recharge the batteries and reinvigorate the soul. Throughout the presentations the niggling thought I kept returning to was that all the innovative, experimental and inspiring ways we use to get the most of our collections are still hamstrung by our fundamental issue of getting a handle on what we have in our collections. The curse and gift of natural history collections is their vast size, but it’s no longer good enough to use the size of our collections as an excuse for not getting to grips with every single specimen we have and making them available to the people for whom we keep them in trust.

 

Bill Pettit Memorial Project – Conservation of historic Taxidermy

Ann Ainsworth (Colchester and Ipswich Museums)

Hannah Clarke (Freelance Conservator)

Ipswich Museum has an important historic collection which dates back to its opening in 1847. A recognised strength of the natural history collection is the historically important Victorian and Edwardian taxidermy of animals from across the globe.

The taxidermy collection is stored in an old building which used to be an old coach depot and later a garage. The space had become very dusty and dirty and a significant mould problem had developed.

one

We followed a very simple methodology of light dusting with soft brushes using a vacuum containing a HEPA filter. This was followed by swabbing with an alcohol/water solution to remove the mould and kill the spores. Where possible specimens were covered or wrapped in polythene to act as a protective cover to protect from dust, provide an external surface for mould to grow on, and to prevent pest damage which is also a potential problem within the stores.

two

The variety of conservation problems, meant that many different treatment processes needed to be used by Hannah. Some of the processes included dry cleaning, wet cleaning, re-adhering, colour matching, re-inserting feathers, removing old varnish with solvents, mitring, sealing with brown gum tape, and applying and buffing wax. New panels of glass and sections of beading had to be sourced and cut to size.

The top panel of the pike case had warped and bowed, as the glass side panels had been broken previously. There were no structural supports on the front inside edges of the case either, meaning that the top of the case was unsupported from the front. The existing beadings on the rear inside edges were not secure, and the metal tacks used to hold the mitred sections of wood in place were very loose. New beading was sourced to match as close to the original as possible and was then colour matched and held in place using new tacks.

Cygnet before conservation

Cygnet before conservation

Cygnet after conservation

Cygnet after conservation

The Bill Pettit Memorial funding went towards payment for the freelance Conservator in terms of time and travel expenses and the purchase of replacement glass and beading for the cases where broken or damaged.

It was agreed that conserved cases would not be returned to store until the planned repair work had been successfully completed. As many of the conserved cases as possible were put on public display in the museum galleries. This has enabled part of the collection not normally seen by visitors to be on display. It has also helped to present a strong message of the Museum Services’ wish to improve the condition of specimens and its storage facilities and helped to raise the profile of the project.

Spicer platypus case after conservation

Spicer platypus case after conservation