The First Steps Of An Epic Move

Written by Clare Valentine, Head of Life Science collections, Natural History Museum, London.

Securing £182m to build a new science and digitisation centre in March 2020 was an incredible moment for the Natural History Museum, and the culmination of many years of hard work across the organisation to make the case for better facilities for the collections and research. The support from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport provides an opportunity to secure the future of the collections by moving them into bespoke, accessible storage, to accelerate digitisation of the collections to expand access for researchers globally and transform the study of natural history through an investment in new analytical facilities, technologies and techniques.

Receiving confirmation of the funding just a matter of days before the UK shutdown for the best part of 2 years didn’t come without its challenges, but it’s been incredible to see the progress that has been made towards our immense plan to build the centre and move tens of millions of specimens there by 2027.

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A Sunfish, a Sheriff and a Register

By Eimear Ashe, Documentation Officer, National Museum of Ireland – Natural History.

NatSCA friends, I’d like to tell you a little about our current Inventory Project in the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) – Natural History. But first, back in 2009-2017, we ran a project that allowed us to catalogue 170,000 specimens in our collections management system (Adlib). We proposed another project to continue these efforts. The start date of the project regrettably coincided with the pandemic as well as the untimely loss of a key colleague (Dr Matthew Parkes). We regrouped and decided to postpone the physical inventory of objects and instead to focus on the work that could be done remotely by the team of inventory assistants.

On this project, I manage a team of three contracted inventory assistants. The cataloguers work on Natural History for two or three days per week, and other NMI projects for the rest of their week. I spend one full day each week doing project-related work, that is, supervision, answering queries, checking work and reporting.

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Thomas Bateman’s Ichthyosaurs

Written by Alistair McLean, Curator of Natural Science,  Sheffield Museums Trust.

2021 was the bicentenary of the birth of the Derbyshire antiquarian, Thomas Bateman (1821-1861). To commemorate the event, Sheffield Museums Trust developed an exhibition focusing on the Bateman collection, much of which is preserved in Sheffield. 

Figure 1. Thomas Bateman & Son

The collections of Thomas and his father William Bateman (1787-1835), are perhaps best known in archaeological circles. The pair were prominent barrow diggers, and spent much of their relatively short lives excavating burial mounds in the Peak District of Derbyshire and surrounding counties. The specimens they acquired were displayed in the family museum at Lomberdale Hall, Middleton-by-Youlgreave in Derbyshire.

The collection consisted of archaeology, world cultures and natural history (predominantly taxidermy, birds’ eggs, insects, mineralogy and palaeontology). A large part of it was initially loaned to and later sold to Sheffield Public Museum (now Weston Park Museum) in 1876 and 1893 respectively.

The importance of the Bateman family’s contribution to the study of natural science has historically been overshadowed by their notoriety as archaeologists. But their efficacy as general collectors plus the relative abundance of surviving contextual information, puts them into the top tier of contributors to Sheffield’s natural science collection.

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Many Hands Make Light Work

Written by Milo Phillips, Assistant Curator of Entomology at Leeds Museums and Galleries.

The past couple of years have seen a significant shift toward digital alternatives throughout the museum sector, from online exhibitions to webinars and remote conferencing, with our collections and their stories reaching a potentially global audience, more so than ever before. While much is being done to boost engagement with collections in new and exciting ways, museums on the whole have yet to harness the power of this shift when it comes to collections management.

The value of our natural science collections lies in their accessibility, in how open they are to this growing audience, from our local schools to researchers around the world and everyone in-between.

As our collections grow and our technology improves, digitization has become an important part of maintaining natural history collections. Using a citizen science approach, and bringing museum audiences on-board, we can turn collection management into a way of improving our collections, while simultaneously facilitating a deeper and more meaningful level of engagement with our objects and their stories.

Zooniverse is a free online platform built to facilitate a crowdsourced approach to large data sets and, while traditionally used by academic research groups, is an ideal solution to tackling tasks with much more efficiency than lone curators or even dedicated teams might be able to achieve. Projects can either be restricted to a specific group of users or opened up to the public for anyone to contribute their time to.

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Animal Afterlives: Photography, Dioramas, and Forgetting that Taxidermy is Dead

Written by Jack Ashby, Assistant Director of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

A key aspect of taxidermy is that it permits the viewer to forget the animal is dead – something that is rather hard to miss when considering skeletons, specimens preserved in fluid, or insects with a pin stuck through them. Allowing ourselves to be tricked into thinking we are looking at a living, breathing – albeit very still – creature is surely one of the reasons that museum visitors so often ask, “Is it real?” when encountering taxidermy on display.

Eventually, it is the stillness that breaks the illusion, along with the obvious realisation that, no, it simply isn’t possible for a live tiger/antelope/walrus to be sat there behind glass in an urban building.

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