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.

 

Review of a Training Course on Pesticides and the Latest Legislation

The following is a review made by Roberto Portela Miguez, Mammal Group Curator at the NHM London:

About a week ago I attended a course and talk at the Natural History Museum of London, entitled “Control of Pesticide Regulations 1986 (as amended 1997) EU Biocides Regulations 528/2012”.

I know that, even if your two passions in life are pesticides and obscure legal documents, it is highly unlikely that you would rush to sign up for it.

After attending the event I can assure you that I still do not wish to look into both topics more than I need to. I do however strongly recommend all collections management staff to attend any future opportunity to listen to Bob Child’s talk or training event on this topic.

Robert Child was formerly Head of Conservation at the National Museum of Wales, and is now a Conservation Consultant, Advisor on Insect Pests to the National Trust and Director of Historyonics.

His company, Historyonics, sells insect pest products and carries out treatments on historic buildings and collections – so he has plenty of first-hand anecdotes to illustrate the various points he makes during his talks.

His experience on these matters is vast, but possibly more important: he is a brilliant communicator that can easily turn what is a dry and dull topic into two hours of effective and entertaining training.

The course Bob runs is required training for anybody using pesticides as part of their work ( this includes volunteers ) and is based on the requirements of the Control of Pesticides Regulations 1986 (as amended), the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1988 (as amended) and the new Biocides Regulation 528/2012. It is further based on the HSE’s publication ‘Recommendations for Training Users of Non-agricultural Pesticides’.

The course lasts for about two hours and covers both theoretical aspects on a Powerpoint and practical demonstrations of:

  • principles of pest control and nature of pesticides
  • legislation
  • storage and transport of pesticides
  • use of pesticides (on site assessments)
  • labels and data sheets
  • safety in preparation, clean up and disposal.
  • emergency procedures
  • record keeping

Once you have gone through the training, you will be qualified to apply pesticides in your collections and, without doubt, be extremely grateful that Bob has done all the reading of the relevant EU legislation on your behalf.

I know most of us do our best to prevent infestations but, just in case, better to be prepared and qualified than …you know.

Keep checking our NatSCA website and blog for news on future workshops and training events and if you want to contact Bob to run the course at your institution, you can email him to bobchild@historyonics.com .

Natural history under the hammer

Reblogged from UCL Museums & Collections Blog

Natural history under the hammer

By Mark Carnall, on 4 December 2013

Recently there have been a spate of high profile auctions of natural history specimens raising many issues about ownership, the value we should or shouldn’t put on natural history and the relationship between professional scientists, museums, amateurs and private collectors. My colleague Jack Ashby wrote about the recent dodo bones that were auctioned. Colleagues Dave Hone and Mark Graham give a balanced view of the recent sale of a Diplodocusskeleton over at the Guardian. The ‘duelling dinosaurs’ fossil was estimated to reach $9 million at auction in New York and last year the controversial proposed sale of an allegedly illicitly smuggled Tarbosaurus skeleton caused much debate.

I thought I’d add my thoughts on the subject here, in particular about the relationship between collectors, museums and ethics.

Lost to Science

One of the most common criticisms that comes from the scientific community is that these high profile and expensive auctions, way above the budgets that museums can afford, result in a loss to science when specimens pass into private collections. I don’t want to downplay that this is a real problem, I know of at least two examples of important material that would likely cause a re-evaluation of entire groups of organisms but which are resolutely in the hands of private collectors who won’t allow them to be accessed. However, other museums, particularly art collections, embrace and work with private collectors. The museums get to display important or interesting objects and the collectors receive credit and validation for the collections they have built up. Furthermore, the buying, selling and trading of artworks means that there’s an excellent paper trail in the form of auction and exhibition catalogues which means that the movement of works can be traced much more readily than natural history specimens which don’t have this tradition of a published, publicly accessible paper trail.

Private to Public

When it comes to natural history I think we’re too quick to demonise private collectors with the “loss to science” rhetoric. Many of today’s largest museums were founded as private collections that were donated to the nation including the Natural History Museum London, the Natural History Museum Tring and the British Museum. Of course the Tate galleries still bear the name of the man whose funds and collections seeded what is now considered one of the most important art collections in the world. Recently two George Stubbs paintings, the first Western depictions of Australian animals was ‘saved for the nation‘  by the National Maritime Museum (NMM). The works were finally secured by a significant donation from a shipping magnate and patron of the NMM. It would be interesting to consider if the paintings would have been saved in the same way if it were the Natural History Museum trying to secure the funds instead.  Natural history museums don’t receive anywhere near the same level or have such a long history of patronage supporting them as other kinds of museums. Often it’s assumed that buyers of multimillion pound specimens erect them in their mansions and display them as ‘trophy’ objects. That’s not to say that this doesn’t occur but I think it’s fair to assume that these buyers may have a keen interest and love of natural history. Perhaps talking to private collectors instead of instantly labelling them as a problem would improve the patronage and support of natural history museums and increase the awareness of ethical collecting and trading.

Grant Museum plastic dinosaur specimens

If relationships were improved there’s also the danger that scientific research on specimens could be used to increase the price tag of specimens as commercial assets. Say for example, if research on the recently sold Diplodocus skeleton revealed that it was the largest, rarest or the only example of a new species this increases the rarity and desirability of the object and pushes the price even further away from the reaches of public institutions. Conversely, research may devalue a specimen, yet another reason why private collectors may be wary of caliper bearing scientists examining their collections. It’s already ubiquitous across museums to never give a valuation on objects brought in for opinions or identifications to avoid certifying or authenticating material for sale. I’d recommend looking across the museum sector to seek guidance on how other museums deal with the issues of research affecting commodity prices.

Amateur vs. Professional

Lastly, working with private and amateur collectors can very realistically improve our knowledge about the natural world. Anecdotally, I’d say that there’s a deep mistrust of museums by amateur collectors (either those buying their collections or those collecting fossils and unfortunately extant animals from the wild). There’s the perception that once an object goes into a museum collection it’s essentially lost to the public, only accessible to card carrying scientists. With museums bursting at the seams with objects, only a tiny proportion of collections on display and visits to collections requiring managing it’s easy to see where this perception comes from. Again, looking to other museums provides guidance. The excellent, excellent Portable Antiquities Scheme is a solution to this exact problem in archaeology. There are thousands of amateur archaeologists, metal dectectorists and collectors and the portable antiquities scheme is an easy way to encourage the wider archaeological community to register finds. They are given full credit for the discoveries, there’s a prestige associated with contributing to the scheme and their finds and data are almost instantly available to the wider sector. Quite why a similar scheme for fossil finds doesn’t exist is increasingly perplexing especially as the legislation and policing of the movement of fossil material, as the aforementioned Tarbosaurus auction highlighted,  is nowhere near as robust as it is with artworks and archaeological material.

With museums brokering discussions with private collectors and auction houses we could better support patronage for museums, save important specimens for the public and improve our understanding of  palaeontology and biology.

Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology

Subject Specialist Networking

NatSCA is the Subject Specialist Network (SSN) for natural science collections in the UK. This means that we provide a mechanism for communicating about advances in theory and practice in the sector, as well as supporting the development of staff – both specialists and those generalists with responsibilities for mixed collections.

In general SSNs are viewed a valuable resource and are seen as intrinsic to Arts Council England’s (ACE) plans for the museum sector – at least that’s what we were told by a representative of ACE at NatSCA’s recent 20th anniversary conference at the Yorkshire Museum.

The conference topic of ‘Policy and Practice’ focused on strategic issues and practical projects that have contributed towards policy and procedure formulation and testing. I won’t go into a blow-by-blow account of the meeting, which ranged from legislation affecting asbestos and radioactive materials in collections, to the practicalities of choosing and implementing a method for collection reviews and the benefits and pitfalls of disposal.

The meeting opened with a call for greater positive advocacy of natural science collections in a talk that can be summarised as “we need to stop bloody moaning and do something positive”. It was a well received sentiment, despite the fact that in some instances it can be hard to be positive.

The buzzing of the grapevine revealed dark deeds in a university (involving a skip and a departmental collection with notable specimens) and mounting clouds over the National Museum of Wales where cuts are looming, with the sciences bracing to take the brunt. Nevertheless, there was a remarkably positive feeling to the meeting as a whole and some healthy discussion arose that continued well into the early hours of the morning.

conference_meal

The NatSCA conference meal in York 2013. A lot of people and a lot of discussion!

One particular topic that saw a robust response was an NHM call for a national strategy for collections. After decades of the NHM focussing on their global placement the audience was
sceptical about the factors driving this change of focus. Rob Huxley from the NHM performed well on the spot and may have begun the slow work of winning over a surprisingly hostile crowd when he acknowledged that national museums often have lessons to learn from their smaller counterparts.

The full proceedings of the meeting will be published later this year in the new peer-reviewed Journal of Natural Science Collections. I would recommend taking a look if you want to find out how to non-destructively sample parchment for protein analysis, simplify your loan procedures or conduct a review of a quarter of a million objects in just one year.

This article is based on a piece originally written for the Museums Association website.

Natural Science Collections and the Law

The Manchester Museum – 8th February

Museum collections have a variety of legal issues surrounding them and natural science collections are no exception. A variety of laws are in place to protect wildlife and these can have an impact on how collections may be used. To find out how the law may affect you join us for our Natural Science Collections and the Law seminar taking place on 8th February 2013 at the Manchester Museum.

eggs

Timetable for the day:

10.00 Arrival/Coffee/Registration
10.30-11.30 ‘CITES and Museums: Perfect partners?‘  Nichola Burnett, UK CITES Scientific Authority (fauna), Joint Nature Conservation Committee
11.30-12.00 Q & A with Nichola
12.00 Lunch
12.45-1.30 ‘Legislation relating to possession of egg collections in museums‘ Douglas Russell, NHM
1.30-1.45 Q&A with Douglas
1.45 Coffee
2.00-3.00 ‘Licensing requirements for UK protected Wildlife‘ Nigel Shelton, Natural England
3.00-3.30 Q & A with Nigel
4.00 Close

The seminar costs £35 for members or £50 for non-members (so why not use the extra £15 to join?), which includes lunch and refreshments. The deadline for booking is 7th January so fill in the form today.

Hope to see you there!