The ‘Social History of Natural History: People and Plants’ Workshop One

March 11th 2022, Powell-Cotton Museum

Written by Alexandra Slucky (Assistant Heritage Consultant & Environmental Archaeologist, Atkins, York Office) and Fiona Roberts (Collaborative ESRC PhD student, Cardiff University & Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales).

Decolonizing collections has been at the forefront of museums for quite some time. Thinking beyond the Western museum structure, many institutions have taken new opportunities to view indigenous knowledge from indigenous perspectives by revisiting old collections of anthropological material intermixed with botanical specimens. Four years in the making, Workshop One is part of a one-year project called People and Plants: reactivating ethnobotanical collections as material archives of indigenous ecological knowledge, beginning in January 2022. It is led by National Museums Scotland, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Powell-Cotton Museum, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Entrance to Powell Cotton Museum, Birchington-on-Sea, England, Photo by Alexandra Slucky

The main aim of the project is to engage with three unique indigenous collections located in UK institutions; Somalian, Amazonian, and Aboriginal Australian. The project examines the value and relevance of ethnobotanical collections, both in the present and the future, aiming to bring academics, researchers, museum professionals, botanists and indigenous knowledge holders together in conversation. To focus on sharing authority, it gives a museum voice to women of colour through a process of reactivation, recovery, and relationships, with the result creating more inclusive conditions for future collections.

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Unravelling the Golden Thread: The Silk and Cocoon Collection at the Manchester Museum

Written by Piotr Korpak, Visitor Team Assistant, Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester.

Last August saw the Manchester Museum entering the final phase of its capital project called hello future when it closed to the public for over a year, until February 2023. Major redevelopments like this tend to be quite stressful for most institutions, but also bring a lot of excitement and many valuable opportunities for individuals. Being closed to the public meant no visitors and so I was able to support work in other departments. Always interested in natural history collections, I welcomed the chance to work with the Curatorial Team in the Entomology Department with true delight.

The Museum’s arthropod collections are amongst the top three in the UK, with over 3 million specimens, out of which about 2.5 million are insects (Logunov and Merriman, 2012). As is the case with many museums, the collections are vast, the staff numbers small, and it can be difficult for curators to catch up with the backlog of past acquisitions and historic materials. No doubt one could find boxes, cabinets, and all other imaginable storage units full of specimens still awaiting their official accessioning, cataloguing, research, and digitisation in any museum.

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Vertebrate Collections of the Institute of Biology, UNAM, Move to the New Building of the National Biodiversity Pavilion in Mexico City.

Written by Fernando A. Cervantes, Professor and Curator of Mammals, Department of Zoology, Instituto de Biología, UNAM.

Mexico is a megadiverse country and has 10% of the world’s species. The Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (IBUNAM) houses the National Biological Collections (NBC), which contain the largest and most important representation of museum specimens of Mexican biodiversity in Mexico. These include 10 zoological collections, a herbarium, and a botanical garden (Zambrano and Reynoso, 2003). Among the highlights are the National Insect Collection (CNIN), with more than 3,000,000 specimens, the National Herbarium (MEXU), with more than 1,500,000 specimens, and the living collections of the Botanical Garden. They all collaborate in the elaboration of the national biological inventory and their specimens provide knowledge on the presence, distribution, and evolution of biological diversity (Cervantes et al. 2016).

   The NBC are located at the IBUNAM facilities in the Ciudad Universitaria campus, south of Mexico City, Mexico, where they have been for approximately 22 years now. However, the rapid growth in the number of specimens in each of the collections over the last few decades has meant that the space in which they are currently housed is no longer sufficient. At the same time, the number of academic personnel associated with the NBC, students, equipment, and materials have grown in parallel and demand the need for more space to allow for the proper functioning of the NBC.

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‘Marvellous Molluscs’ – Increasing Accessibility, Improving Storage & Unlocking Research Potential At The University Of Aberdeen

Written by Hannah Clarke, Assistant Curator (Collections Access), University of Aberdeen.

In April 2021, The University of Aberdeen’s Zoology Museum, with support from NatSCA’s Bill Pettit Memorial Award, undertook a year-long project to rehouse and improve the accessibility of the University’s mollusc collection.

The collection comprises approximately 2550, mostly British specimens, collected from the 1840s to the 1970s. The specimens were gifted to the museum by former students, academic staff, and amateur shell collectors, they also include several specimens from as far afield as the Pacific, Africa, China, Madagascar, America, and Canada.

The molluscs form part of the University’s extensive Zoology Collections, which are recognised as being of National Significance. As such, we are constantly striving to improve access to these collections, and the ‘Marvellous Molluscs’ Project aimed to do just that.

Assistant Curator, Hannah Clarke, identifying storage issues in specimen cupboards.

Having identified the collections both in storage and on display, a project plan was created that would tackle not only the rehousing, but also the documentation of the specimens on the museum database. The majority of specimens were poorly stored several layers deep in drawers, had outdated taxonomy, and lacked any database records or collections data.

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Wikipedia, Museum Volunteers And The New Normal

By John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool.

Like most museums across the country, World Museum suspended its volunteer programmes shortly before the first national lockdown in March 2020. This was meant to be a short-term measure but with curators continuing to work hybridly our volunteers haven’t yet returned. Organisations like Volunteer Scotland have advised volunteers to consider if and how they can work remotely.

While some museums had existing remote volunteering activities (see great examples here and here), which saw increased participation, World Museum’s vertebrate zoology collection didn’t. An additional challenge for us has been that remote access to our collections database is limited to staff with a VDI. With the pandemic still with us for some time to come (Chris Whitty has said it will be 5 years) we have started exploring ways to engage both new and long-serving volunteers with the collection online.

During lockdown, Auckland Museum published a Wikimedia strategy citing the provocative 2018 talk by Adam Moriarty which championed the importance of collection information featuring, not solely on museum’s own webpages, but in places like GBIF and Wikipedia. This reinforced our view that we need to improve the collections’ presence in Wikipedia. Wikipedia articles are created by volunteers and can be edited by anyone with a standard web browser, potentially providing a valuable activity for remote volunteering.

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