NatSCA Digital Digest – April

Colobus monkey © E-L Nicholls

What Should I Read?

I came across a very entertaining blog by Lily Nadine Wilks which looks at the frustrations of museum documentation in Mysteries of the Past. She has been working on the Charles Lyell digitisation project at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Having noticed lately that there are more harlequin ladybirds in my house than there are Lego sets*, I was interested to come across A decade of invasion – a story of Harlequin Ladybird in the UK. I can’t believe THAT many ladybirds exist in the UK having only arrived in 2004. They are clearly a prolific species, if only I could teach them to write research papers.

What Should I Do?

The long awaited 2017 reopening of the Cambridge Museum of Zoology has been put back slightly, and they are still trying to raise funds to get their iconic whale skeleton conserved and remounted. So you may not be able to visit (yet) but what you can do if you’d like is to help fund the whale through the delightfully named Help us #RaisetheWhale fundraising project. Plus you can reap a whaley reward to boot. You can also get the inside scoop on progress if you’re coming to the NatSCA conference later this month!

It is currently Hippo Week at Leeds City Museum. Having popped by yesterday I can say with authority it’s a great museum if you haven’t visited yet, with the ex-rug tiger taxidermy a particular highlight! Until the 9th April, you can also see the entries to the Armley Hippo & Friends drawing and story competition.

What’s Can  I Apply For?

The senior management teams of all natural history collections appear to have got together and declared a moratorium on vacancies at the moment. Don’t despair though, something will come along.

In the mean time, there are two positions at the Horniman Museum if you prefer your collections alive to dead, and quite a few at Kew if your preferred subjects are both alive and botany-shaped, details here.

Before You Go…

If you have seen an exhibition, visited a museum, or want to tell us about your work, do get in touch as we are always looking for material from external authors. Email us with your ideas at blog@natsca.org.

* Several hundred

Meet the NatSCA Committee – Rachel Jennings

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Editor

Name: Rachel Jennings

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee? I am the Editor, responsible for managing our published content: Journal of Natural Science Collections, and NatSCA Notes & Comments.

Job title and institution: Documentation Assistant, Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Twitter username: @rachisaurus

Tell us about your day job: I work across the collections at the Horniman, but at the moment I am mostly focused on cataloguing and photographing objects selected for a major redisplay of our anthropology collection. I get to work with a fascinating variety of objects from all over the world. I’m really excited to see the new World Gallery when it opens next year.

Natural science collections are very popular with visitors. Why do you think this is? I think people love being able to experience aspects of nature that they’re unlikely to see in the wild. Museum collections can give them up-close encounters with the rare, the exotic, and the long-extinct. And, of course, there’s the cute factor!

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now? Museums in general are facing very uncertain times at the moment, with the funding landscape shifting constantly under our feet. Natural science collections are at risk due to loss of staff and expertise, and if the collections are lost, that would represent a huge loss to science. NatSCA is working to champion natural science collections, and advocate for the people who care for them. We collect information on collections at risk, and lobby for resources to maintain those collections.

What would be your career in an alternate universe without museums? The only other things I’ve ever wanted to do were to work with animals, or be a writer. So, I think that if I didn’t have museums, you’d probably find me in a zoo or out in the field on a conservation project. Or holed up in a cabin somewhere, still struggling on my first novel!

What is your favourite museum, and why? I have an enduring soft spot for Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, as it is where I got my first introduction to museum work. They have amazing collections and staff, and I will always be grateful for the experience.

Written by Rachel Jennings, Documentation and Collections Assistant, at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

The Robot Zoo: A Must-See Exhibition

This bat robot is nearly 20 x life-size. The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

This bat robot is nearly 20 x life-size. The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The reaching-for-the-moon aim of any natural history exhibition is to get the perfect combination of knock-your-socks-off-fun and wow-I-didn’t-know-that-informative, for both children and adults, because (obviously) that attracts the biggest crowd.

Appealing to everyone is pretty much an unobtainable goal. A wise man, who I call Dad, once relayed the phrase to me ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time’*. However some, albeit rare, exhibitions, through some manner of dark magic combined with an alignment of moons from all over the universe manage to come together in such a way that the exhibition is branded as ‘outstanding’ and ‘captivating’ by journalists and listed as ‘fun for all the family’ on websites and What to do with the kids this half-term guides. These exhibitions are termed blockbusters and are the envy of their less popular exhibition counterparts.

The Robot Zoo, you will probably have guessed by that prologue, is one such exhibition. I had nothing to do with its inception nor its creation, it’s a touring exhibition that has nested temporarily at the Horniman Museum until October. However, as Deputy Keeper of Natural History at said Museum, I feel a level of temporary ownership and pride in its success. Thus I shall sing and dance about it from now until October when it leaves us for another galaxy gallery far, far away.

Full sized white rhinoceros at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Full-sized white rhinoceros at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The exhibition, as it stands in our exhibition space, comprises eight huge animatronic animals, ranging from a full-scale white rhino (second largest land mammal in the world no less) to a gigantic house fly that is 200 x life-size (it’s really not as creepy as that sounds). Each of the models are colourful, moving (kinetically, not emotionally necessarily), and for the most part, interactive. You can lift the head of a white rhino using a crane, which goes some way to demonstrating the immense power of these beautiful animals in real life. You can also change the colours of the chameleon to make it feel either angry or sexy. Presumably, as it’s Valentine’s Day today, it will mostly be feeling sexy, though given the number of people visiting for half-term I suspect this week is going to be a rollercoaster of emotions.

The robots are built out of familiar human objects like microphones and light bulbs, which recreate the internal anatomy of the animals in a way that highlights their special features and biological adaptations. For example, the electrical sensors in the bill of the platypus are represented by large flashing lights (see below), and the mouth parts and digestive system of the house fly have been replaced by a vacuum cleaner that lights up to visually demonstrate how they suck up their self-liquefied lunch**.

Platypus model at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Platypus model at The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Dotted around the exhibition are 11 interactive stations that allow you to see, swim and stick to a wall, like the animals featured in the exhibition. You can camouflage against a background like a chameleon (or not if you pick up the wrong outfit), or if you’re feeling more techy, you can echolocate like a bat. You just measure the distance to the prey, you don’t have to eat the bugs.

The colourful information panels, annotated images, interactive games, and impressively sized, moving and flashing animals (not in an inappropriate way) are what make this exhibition the gold star combination of knock-your-socks-off-fun and wow-I-didn’t-know-that-informative. It has something for every attention span, from those who got distracted from this blog before reaching the end of the first paragraph, to the type who reads every exhibition panel and takes notes to boot. (That’s me). I thoroughly advise paying The Robot Zoo a visit, and even better, you don’t need children as an excuse.

*Originally said by John Lydgate

**A fly will dribble saliva onto its meal which begins the digestion process externally. It will then suck up the liquefied goop. Yum.

Written by Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens