The Power of People and Collections in the Climate Emergency

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, The Manchester Museum and Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth (formerly Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery).

Museums are most powerful when they connect real objects and research with real people. Natural science objects elicit deep emotional responses to the climate emergency; they help people to care and when done right, empower action.

This message is central to the NatSCA conference this year:

Changing the World: Environmental Breakdown, Decolonisation and Natural Science Collections

We’d love to hear your experience in a talk at the conference, the deadline for submissions is the 7th February.

Natural science collections are unique records of past biodiversity and climate across Britain, and the world, and are essential for climate change research taking place in museums every day. They allow access to historical information about millions of different species, providing an incredible amount of detail. They show how plants and animals have responded to past climate change, they show long-term population trends, and they show what we have lost.

These are all stories essential to bring clear factual science to an emotionally-charged debate. Research on these collections has directly shaped conservation work and climate change mitigation. In short, natural science collections are a powerful way to help save the world and give people hope for a better future.

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Decolonising Natural Sciences Collections

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, The Manchester Museum.

Decolonising museums is in the headlines a lot at the moment and so it should be. I’ve chatted to a few people about this recently and it isn’t very clear what it means, how it relates to natural science collections and how we can start to decolonise our collections, so I thought I’d share my own thoughts.

Much of the discussion in the museum sector has been around ethnography collections with some great work that goes some way to redress our colonial past (including from my own institution Manchester Museum who have returned sacred aboriginal objects). Some ethnography objects are made from bark, fur or ivory, but these materials don’t often form part of the decolonisation debate.

The reality is that many natural history collections, particularly in the western world have a colonial origin. Many objects were traded on slave ships and were an attempt to map and tame the British Empire. Miranda Lowe and Subhadra Das have done some brilliant work to highlight this and the Grant Museum’s new exhibition on their Colonial Histories is a great first step in bringing this to the public.

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Diminished Scales – The Plight of The Pangolin and The Role of Museums

Written by Dan Gordon, Keeper of Biology, The Great North Museum: Hancock.

To explain grace requires a curious hand’ wrote Marianne Moore, in her 1938 poem, The Pangolin. Moore first learned about pangolins at college in biology class and remained fascinated by them for the rest of her life. Curiosity was what first drew me to pangolins, too. Not just about their curious, clawed hands – when I first encountered a stuffed pangolin at the Great North Museum, its whole appearance was like nothing I’d ever seen. A small quadruped, clad in precisely overlapping rows of jagged scales, like steel plating welded onto a badger. A huge tail at one end, a tapering snout at the other. It was an animal that suggested a host of comparisons – a pinecone, an artichoke, a dinosaur. What on earth was it? I decided to investigate.

I soon learned it was a Ground Pangolin (Smutsia temnickii), one of eight species of pangolin that make up the family Manidae. Pangolins are the only scaled mammals and are found in tropical Africa and Asia. Most species live nocturnal, solitary lives. They’re notable for all sorts of reasons. The Ground Pangolin can walk on its back legs, like a tiny T-rex in a suit of armour. The Black-bellied Pangolin has a tail so long it has more bones than any other mammal.

Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica) at SVW Rescue Centre, Vietnam. When threatened pangolins curl into a defensive ball. This animal was found wedged beneath a seat on a bus travelling from Laos to Hanoi and rescued by SVW staff (© Dan Gordon)

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Our Top Ten Blogs of 2019

Written by Jennifer Gallichan, Curator of Molluscs & Vertebrates at National Museum Cardiff.

2019 was an interesting year for me as I took on the role of NatSCA blog editor. It has been a great year and I have very much enjoyed reading all of the articles from our amazing contributors. To celebrate this, I wanted to bring together a list of our top ten most viewed blogs from 2019 in case you missed any of them.

Top scorers this year include a surprising number of botanical articles, with four of the ten written by our plant loving colleagues.

Strawberry fruits made from dressmaking beads coated in molten wax and attached to waxed wire stems. © Annette Townsend

Some of my personal favourites, although not top scorers, are actually two articles which we were kindly allowed to re-blog: Annette Townsend’s beautiful and mesmerising work in how to make a wild strawberry sculpture from honey bee wax, and John Wilson’s fantastic article about the orang-utan specimens sent to World Museum, Liverpool by Alfred Russell Wallace.

But, here are the top ten most read NatSCA blogs by your good selves…

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The Land of the Oran-utan

Written by John Wilson, Curator (Vertebrate Zoology), World Museum, Liverpool

This article was first published as a blog for National Museums Liverpool, 16 August 2019.

150 years ago Alfred Russel Wallace wrote about “the land of the orang-utan” and sent specimens to Liverpool.

2019 is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago: The land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise. A narrative of travel, with studies of man and nature.

Although best known as the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection alongside Charles Darwin, The Malay Archipelago firmly established Wallace as one of the greatest natural history explorers.

Title page of the first edition of The Malay Archipelago published in 1869, 150 years ago.

The Malay Archipelago is a vivid, first-person account of Wallace’s travels, studies and natural history collecting in Southeast Asia. During 8 years Wallace travelled over 14,000 miles and collected 125,000 specimens. Orangutans feature prominently in the book’s title, and chapter four is largely devoted to Wallace’s adventures with orangutans in Sarawak, Borneo.

Wallace wrote: “… one of my chief objects in coming to stay at Simunjon [a river in Sarawak] was to see the Orang-utan (or great man-like ape of Borneo) in his native haunts, to study his habitats, and obtain good specimens of the different varieties and species of both sexes, and of the adult and young animals. In all these objects I succeeded beyond my expectations, …”

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Making the Most of What You’ve Got

Written by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The Collection

The Horniman Museum is the custodian of a collection of ca. 175,000 fossil specimens, collected by Walter Hellyer Bennett (1892-1971). A mining geologist and palaeontology enthusiast, Bennett collected somewhat indiscriminately, not pausing to favour geography, strata, or taxa, which makes it a collection of great interest to a wide variety of academics, and for other uses such as exhibitions and loans.

This huge collection was bequeathed to the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society in the 1970s, where choice pieces were put out on open display whilst the rest remained stored in Bennett’s original wooden cabinets. It contains some beautiful material, such as this Isotelus gigas trilobite, and Eryon propinguus lobster.

A) Isotelus gigas, and Ordovician trilobite from the Trenton Limestone. B) Eryon propinquus, a Jurassic lobster from the Solnhofen Limestone. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

The collection is approximately 10% vertebrate material, 85% invertebrates, and 5% plants and trace fossils. In case you are interested in particular taxonomic groups (as we are keen on facilitating research enquiries and visits… fyi) the invertebrates are mostly bivalves, brachiopods, cephalopods, corals, and gastropods, with a large variety of other taxonomic groups represented in small numbers as well (please do get in touch if you’re interested in getting more information), and the vertebrates are primarily conodonts, crocodilians, dinosaurs, fish (including sharks), ichthyosaurs, mammals, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, and turtles. Geographically, around 87% of the material was collected within Europe, primarily from the UK (50%) and France (15%). A further 10% is from North America whilst small amounts of material were collected from across Africa, South America, the Middle East, Asia and Australasia. Notable sites include the Solnhofen Limestone and the Burgess Shale.

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Survey of Flowering Plants Stored in Fluid Preservatives Across European Herbaria

Written by Ranee Prakash, Senior Curator (Flowering Plants), Algae, Fungi and Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum, London.

A survey of flowering plant material stored in various fluid preservatives across several European herbaria/institutions was carried out a few years ago. The feedback received from the survey is shared and shows that the majority of the herbaria use 70% IMS (industrial methylated spirit) to store their collections.

Introduction

The seed plant collections (stored in various liquids such as formalin, some have unknown liquids, and some mention poison) form a relatively small yet significant part of the botanical holdings at NHM (Natural History Museum). They include some important material dating back to the mid 1800’s and type collections such as the world’s largest flower Rafflesia arnoldii collected by Robert Brown. However, these wet collections have remained a somewhat underused asset and are in dire need of curatorial attention.

In continuation to this aim, a survey of flowering plants stored in spirit collections across various institutions in Europe was carried out in 2012 so as to assess what preservatives other institutions were using and what would be the best method to store the collections at NHM for posterity. The objective of this survey was to gather information on:

  • How big the spirit collection is
  • How the collection is used
  • Which liquid preservatives the flowering plant collections are stored in

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