NatSCA Digital Digest – March

Compiled by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.

It’s that time again when we look at some great events and conferences, writing, and jobs, chosen just for you!

What Should I Read?

Dodo’s in Leeds. Not alive, obviously, but still extremely fascinating. A lovely post by Clare Brown at Leeds Museums and Galleries. Harry Higginson: Distributing dodos in the 1860s.

Plants. Pressed. Old. Difficult to look after. Here’s a nice post by Imogen Crarey: Five lessons for life from working on the Horniman’s Historical Herbarium.

How do you print a dinosaur to make it look lifelike and realistic? Let Alex Peaker tell you: Printing a dinosaur.

Want to discover some incredible women in science? Of course you do! Scroll through excellent, engaging and accessible blog posts all about female archaeologists and palaeontologists on the TrowelBlazers website.

What Should I Do?

Perhaps the biggest event of the year, the annual NatSCA conference, is now taking bookings!

Dead Interesting: Secrets of Collections Success
Wednesday 1st – Friday 3rd May 2019
National Museum of Ireland, Dublin – Collins Barracks site
The #NatSCA2019 conference aims to unlock the secrets of collections success by sharing how our members and colleagues in the wider sector have used collections to benefit their organisations, communities and the wider world.
We will host three themed sessions, with a focus on:
Collections: Reveal your collections care, research and access secrets.
Engagement: What are your engagement success stories and how did you make them happen?
Museums and Tech: How has technology helped you unlock, understand and unleash your collections?

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Five Lessons for Life from Working on the Horniman’s Historical Herbarium

Written by Imogen Crarer during a student placement at the Horniman Museum and Gardens early last year. Imogen recently graduated from King’s College, London with an MA in Modern History with Distinction and is currently training as a curator at the Museum of Cornish Life.

You may think that I have taken slight leave of my senses or perhaps am being a pinch too ambitious in claiming that the Horniman’s historical botany collection is the source of 5 significant life lessons. However, “Yes! To science and history but also yes to life!” is my cheerful reply. Instead of dancing away merrily in a fit of musical theatre style exuberance, I shall explain how my student placement with the Natural History department researching the Herbarium gave me such insight.

Life Lesson Number 1: Often, the Simple or Basic Tasks are the Most Important.

Everything starts somewhere. My time at the Horniman highlighted that research processes and the museum journey of cataloguing, conserving and interpreting specimens for scholarly and public benefit has to begin with the basic “’ello ‘ello, what have we here?”. In my case, what we had were unbound volumes of Flora Britannica- physical specimens attached to annotated sheets collected mostly within the 1840s.

Having never previously been catalogued, the data from the handwritten labels on these specimens needed entering into the Horniman’s Collections Management System, Mimsy XG. Recording information on the database, such as scientific name, locality, and date collected, allows Horniman staff, volunteers and future researchers to know what is in the herbarium and explore its significance without having to disturb the specimens. While handy for convenience, it also helps us to conserve the specimens as repeated handling can damage these fragile, and beautiful, preserved plants. However it soon became apparent that the basic task of deciphering the handwriting and researching historical localities and common names was time-consuming, frustrating but also very rewarding. Transcribing the data from the specimens onto the database, I felt was my most useful contribution to the Horniman, and therefore my biggest achievement. It reminded me that taking the time to give yourself a solid foundation helps in anything that you do!

The collections management database used by the Horniman Museum; Mimsy XG. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Life Lesson Number 2: Little Things can Tell us a Great Deal.

The 175+ year old botanical specimens preserved in the herbaria have both historical and scientific significance. The specimens vary in size from approximately 2 cm to 30 cm in length, and the detail of delicate moss spores, flower buds, and leaf structures for example is wonderful. The specimen sheets tell us about the plants themselves. They also reveal a snapshot of the English countryside in the 1840s, particularly around Thame, Oxfordshire. Knowing the historical what, when and where allows us to make comparisons with current ecological data. This helps us to understand if and how plant species have spread or declined. This is particularly important for meadow flowers (represented strongly in the volumes I was working on) given that 97% of British meadows have been lost since 1945[1]. I feel that the Horniman’s historical botany collection and the present drive to conserve Britain’s green spaces and limit climate change, habitat destruction and pollution are much more linked than we might think.

One of a number of unbound herbaria held in the collections. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – January

Compiled by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

What Should I Read?

Prolific author Darren Naish (of TetZoo) has pulled together a collection of exciting tetrapod-based scientific discoveries of 2018 in his latest article The Most Amazing TetZoo Themed Discoveries of 2018.

The government of New Zealand is under pressure to act on the trade of moa bones. This article is good food for thought re private sales of fossils; Moa for sale: trade in extinct birds’ bones threatens New Zealand’s history.

Of interest to many more of us than just curators, the top three most popular 2018 blogs posted on the Geological Curators’ Group website are:

1) Pyrite Oxidation: Where Are We Now? an excellent and informative article on the menace of pyrite decay

2) Up Inside Historic Dinosaurs about the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, and

3) Contradictions, Conundrums and Lies which looks at the issues we face in museums!

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A Year of Coraling and Coralling

International Year of the Reef

The Aquarium at the Horniman Museum and Gardens dates back, in one form or another, to the early 1900s. In more recent times the Aquarium has been home to Project Coral; where pioneering research is being undertaken in coral spawning. The project team, led by Aquarium Curator Jamie Craggs, is successfully developing in-vitro fertilisation techniques for captive corals and they have instigated the first successful spawning of captive coral in the world. Their research will further scientific understanding of the impact of climate change on coral reproduction and has potential to serve as a method of restoring damaged coral reefs.

Coral spawning taking place at the Horniman Museum Aquarium, as part of ongoing research by Project Coral under lead scientist Jamie Craggs. © Horniman Museum and Gardens and Jamie Craggs

Being the home of such an important coral conservation project made it an obvious thing to do to get involved with International Year of the Reef. 2018 marks the third IYOR (International Year of the Reef), and to celebrate it, the Horniman Museum is hosting a year of special events, exhibitions, online content and family activities to highlight both Project Coral, and the ongoing plight of coral reefs around the world. As Project Coordinator of the IYOR programme at the Horniman, my role was to help set up and run six projects devised by a team of collaborators. The project was extremely multidisciplinary; utilising the natural history collections, the live aquarium exhibits, art installations, dance performances, and collaborating with external researchers from around the world.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – July

What Should I Read?

On the palaeo-blog by ever prolific palaeoartist Mark Witton, a new piece called Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles at 25: a palaeontological retrospective looks back on the Age of Reptiles comic series, that first appeared in 1993. It is full of palaeoartistry insights, entertaining musings, and images from both Witton and the comic series.

The Geological Curators’ Group blog is a hive of activity with new content now coming out fortnightly. The latest article, published a couple of days ago, is a review of the very popular and highly successful pyrite workshop that took place at the Natural History Museum, London. With really useful content, the article by Deborah Hutchinson, Curator of Geology at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, is called Pyrite Oxidation: Where Are We Now?

Some fantastic new dinosaur skeletons, with thought-provoking growth rings within the bones…., are currently being unearthed in Argentina. Read about this Triassic site in the following article from the BBC; Fossil of ‘first giant’ dinosaur discovered in Argentina.

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Waving Goodbye to the Walrus: Reflections on Leaving (and Starting)

To paraphrase that great Disney wildlife documentary, The Lion King: change is good, but it’s not easy.

Leaving any job after a long time is always strange, and I’ve been lucky enough to have spent (almost!) seven years at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. In that time I’ve worked on several large projects, learned more than I thought I ever would about anthropology collections, and made some wonderful friends. But sadly, I have now had to move on. Happily, I’ve been able to move on to the wonderful Powell-Cotton Museum, where I will be spending the next year curating the natural history collections.

This has meant quite a large change: I’ve moved to a different part of the country, and started a new job that is very different to what I’ve been doing for the last few years. I’ll admit to feeling some imposter syndrome – I have been working almost exclusively with anthropology objects for a long time now (not my subject specialism: I studied zoology), and worried that I might have forgotten some of my natural history knowledge! Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to have been the case, and in fact working with anthropology collections has taught me a surprising amount about working with natural history collections… from identifying worked animal materials (such as ivory and bone) to documentation standards and procedures (I was a Documentation Assistant at the Horniman), I have gained skills and knowledge that will be invaluable in my new role.

Sad to say goodbye to the Horniman Walrus. (C) Horniman Museum and Gardens

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The Addition of Enthusiasts

In a blog series hosted by the Horniman Museum, each month I (the Deputy Keeper of Natural History at said Museum) select a specimen from our collections, do a little research, hopefully find out some riveting and hitherto unknown piece of historical information about it that can be added to our database, and write a blog in a format accessible for the general public. It is one of my pride and joys in my job as it covers so many different aspects of museum life- public engagement, outreach, research, museum documentation, collections management, etc. This month I managed to go a step further and incorporate not just exhibition content into the article (British Wildlife Photographer Awards temporary exhibition), but also a new avenue of research and interest; a 6000 strong army of hawfinch enthusiasts who take to Twitter to record sightings of this shy but glorious little bird. I asked the followers of @HawfinchesUK if they would like to publish an image they had taken and was subsequently presented not just with photographs, but with fascinating insider information of the birding world that I may not have found by my own research.

What a wonderful collaboration of scientists and enthusiasts, and an exceptional reward for the utilisation of social media. Please enjoy:

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