Oldfield Thomas: In His Own Words.

Written by Roberto Portela Miguez, Senior Curator in Charge of Mammals, The Natural History Museum.

One could think that natural history curators are a kind of unidimensional creature because of their secretive nature (preference for collections habitat over open exposed museum public galleries) and their passion verging on obsession for the specimens they look after.

However I like to think that much has been done in the 21st century to change this perception and that our consistent and abundant presence in social media and public events sufficiently demonstrates that we are actually well-rounded human beings capable of entertaining a wide range of interests.

For instance, I myself, am known to be partial to a bit of heavy metal, chocolate spread sandwiches (Wild World Magazine, 2013), have a gentle interest in poetry (Waterhouse Times, 2006) and even have indulged my thespian side by making brief appearances on celluloid alongside Javier Bardem (Mondays in the Sun, 2002) …and therefore, aside from my professional interests, I do enjoy exploring other aspects of my personality and sharing the joy with the world.

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Brexit & the Customs Union: The practical impact on museums

With less than one year to go before Britain officially leaves the European Union, it’s high time we got to grips with what Brexit means for those of us working with museum collections. The most talked-about issues have tended to be the impact on visitor numbers, hits to funding and the loss of skilled and knowledgeable staff, as museum professionals reconsider staying in a more divided (and some might even say openly xenophobic) Britain.


Brexit – Public domain image courtesy of freestocks.org, 2016

However, there are also practical issues that need to be considered right now, as the UK government wrangles over the deal for borders and trade relationships that will impact on how museums undertake their day-to-day business. In particular there are significant issues relating to how membership of the Customs Union plays out.

This became a reality for me when I  was assessing the status of research loans to the UK from the National Museum of Ireland, where I am the Curator of Zoology & Entomology. I have to deal with quite a lot of research loans of type specimens to taxonomists and getting material across borders can be quite nerve-wracking thanks to the attitude of the occasional overzealous border official – who can forget the horrific incident last year in which 105 botanical specimens (including six types) were incinerated by Australian border control?

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When Art Recreates the Workings of Natural History it can Stimulate Curiosity and Emotion

Natural history is one of the branches of science whose methods and traditions are most often referenced by contemporary artists. A flock of the installations that we find in leading galleries echo, reflect, borrow from and parody the ways that natural history works.

Sometimes these artists pick apart the way that natural history is “done” in museums – Joseph Cornell’s mini display cases; Ruth Marshall’s knitted animal pelts; Tessa Farmer’s “fairies” made from real insect carcasses; Polly Morgan’s modern take on taxidermy and Damien Hirst’s various preserved specimens all invite us to consider the ways that museums represent nature, and the role of museum specimens.

Elsewhere artists point to natural history as a part of our human society, performed in the wild, beyond the walls of museums and universities. For example, Natural Selection by Andy and Peter Holden (currently at The Towner Gallery in Eastbourne until 20th May) tells the story of the people obsessed by the illegal practice of collecting bird eggs.

Work in the museum and in the wild are two central pillars of natural history. One artist who shadows the practices of both is the American artist Mark Dion. His exhibition, Theatre of the Natural World, is showing now at the Whitechapel Gallery in London until 13th May. As a natural historian who works in museums and undertakes fieldwork, I am always interested in art that encourages me to step back and reflect on how my profession actually operates.

Sometimes what it shows me is funny, sometimes it’s sad, and sometimes it’s disturbing. Such art can be a highly effective means of communicating just how absurd some aspects of natural history are. Much of Dion’s work highlights the subjective, peculiar and inconsistent ways that taxonomy operates: it is an entirely human construct intended to place order on the impossibly disordered living world.

Mark Dion
The Naturalist’s Study, 2018
Installation view of Mark Dion: Theatre of the Natural World at Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2018
Photo: Jeff Spicer/PA Wire

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Curiosity re-discovered at the Vienna Museum of Natural History

There are few museums for me that inspire greater reverence for beauty and the endless variety of nature on display than the London Natural History Museum, the Oxford Museum of Natural History, and Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. These museums all present collections in spectacular, imaginative, and informative ways. However, I was unprepared for the scale, majesty, and awe-inspiring nature of the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, during my visit this summer. For me, it was evocative of an early ‘Wunderkammer’ filled with curiosities. I walked through what seemed like a T.A.R.D.I.S. of never-ending rooms and corridors filled with objects.

The museum was commissioned by Emperor Franz Josef I and opened in 1889. It faces its equally beautiful sister museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where you can admire the works of Rembrandt, Durer, Rubens, and a frieze painted by Gustav Klimt. The marble, statues, and painted ceilings offer the feeling of a palace. As you enter through the elaborate front doors you are greeted by an immense dome that takes your breath away. Disciplines such as Zoology, Geology, Palaeontology, Botany, and Anthropology are inscribed on the dome’s edge. They allude to its amazing collections and the 19th century desire to understand and bring order to the natural world.

The dome hall in the Vienna Naturhistoriches Museum (Image: Anthony Roach)

The dome hall in the Vienna Naturhistoriches Museum (Image: Anthony Roach)

As I ascended the first floor to the Zoology gallery, the rooms or ‘halls’ are connected by long corridors which give you a dizzying view of the connected rooms stretching out in front of you. There are around 39 individual halls. I smiled when I walked into the first gallery called ‘Microcosm’ dedicated to Ernst Haeckel, the German Biologist whose beautiful drawings of radiolarians feature in ‘Kunstformen der Natur’, and inspired my interest in natural history.  The gallery contains models of microscopic radiolarians and water fleas, along with microscopes and a film featuring microscopic life.

The Zoology collections move from protozoans, corals, and molluscs systematically towards vertebrate life and is sympathetically and beautifully displayed, with some of the largest collections of insects and vertebrates I’ve ever seen. There are whole rooms filled with reptiles alone. The bird galleries contain remarkable specimens, and the museum has its very own taxidermy department. The mineral collections are five halls strong, with a Meteorite hall at the end that contains part of the ‘Tissint’ meteorite and an interactive that demonstrates the destruction force of meteorite impacts.

The museum houses over 30 million specimens, with 60 scientific staff working on the collections. Unforgettable specimens on display for me included a complete skeleton of Stellar’s Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), whose discovery in Alaska by Georges Stellar and rapid extinction is a frequently cited example of the consequences of systematic hunting by humans that was little known to science. I also marvelled at the 25,000 year old Venus of Willendorf figurine, whose palaeolithic origin is said to emphasise female fertility and childbearing. The museum’s palaeontology gallery is equally impressive, with an array of dinosaurs, flying reptiles, and a gigantic fossil turtle.

Skeleton of Stellar's Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) (Image: Anthony Roach)

Stellar’s Sea Cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) (Image: Anthony Roach)

When I finally reached the top floor, I saw something remarkable. In one long case were about 25 beautifully coloured glass models of marine organisms. They were Blaschkas, and they have fascinated me ever since I saw some of my first at the Grant Museum of Zoology. The models were displayed as part of an exhibition called the ‘Knowledge of Things’ that celebrated the 650 year history of scientific discovery at the University of Vienna. The then director, Carl Claus, commissioned 146 Blaschka models to be made in 1880, and they still remain part of the university’s Zoology collection.

A myriad of wonderful Blashka glass models of marine invertebrates (Image: Anthony Roach)

A myriad of wonderful Blashka glass models (Image: Anthony Roach)

An example of a Siphonophore shown amongst many other Blashka models (Image: Anthony Roach)

An example of a Siphonophore shown amongst many other Blashka models (Image: Anthony Roach)

They were created by Leopold Blaschka, a glassworker whose skill at producing scientifically accurate models of plants and animals caught the attention of museums and scientific institutes. After the tragic death of his wife, Leopold left for America. Whilst travelling by sea he was fascinated by the marine life he observed. When Leopold eventually returned to Europe, his talents were recognised by Dresden Museum. who commissioned him to produce marine invertebrate models for scientific study. Along with his son Rudolph, he established a saltwater aquarium in Dresden to study their form and assist him in creating accurate representations of these enigmatic sea creatures.

The London Natural History Museum contains around 182 Blaschka models of anemones, nudibranchs, cnidarians, cephalopods, and other stunning marine organisms. The ‘Treasures’ gallery displays some of the best. As Miranda Lowe, Collections Manager responsible for the Blaschka models points out*, ‘‘The range, variety and colour of these invertebrate sea creatures show much more than spirit-preserved specimens, which do not retain vivid colour or form’’. You could argue that these beautiful glass objects are the museum equivalent of the Christmas tree bauble. After all, they are aesthetically, culturally, and symbolically valuable to us in much the same way.

Anthony Roach

Natural History Museum, London


*P. 34 – 37

Leicestershire Fashion in Detail: Using social media to engage new audiences with museum collections

This post is another in our series of presentation write-ups from the 2015 NatSCA Conference, Museums Unleashed!


The Animal Kingdom

The Animal Kingdom


Leicestershire Fashion in Detail was part of a larger project called Click; Connect; Curate; Create. Funded by Arts Council England as part of their Renaissance Strategic Support Fund, we wanted to find out how we could use ‘digital’ (whether that be technology or content creation) to increase engagement with our sites and collections. Fashion in detail was one a number of pilot projects including 3D scanning, augmented reality and wearable tech and digital storytelling.

What did we do?

For the purposes of this project we decided to utilise a number of existing images that we had of items from the costume collection. These images are close-up photographs of objects, ranging from menswear to accessories, womenswear to shoes, dating from the late 18th century to the present day. We commissioned dress historian Clare Bowyer to curate these images into a series of themes, and to write narrative for each image and each theme.

Why publish on social media and not an online collection resource?
We were going to use our collections online website but unfortunately this had to be taken down. We did have a picture library that had just been launched but, as its primary purpose was income generation, we didn’t want to distort its purpose by uploading images that we weren’t looking to sell.

As the aim of the project was to encourage engagement with collections we thought, ‘Instead of expecting audiences to come to us, why not go to them?’, and put our content on the platforms they use.

We settled on Tumblr, after considering a number of other image based platforms (including Pinterest and Flickr), as it works well with images and has a large fashion-based following.

Net overdress, c1910. Image of lace detail

Net overdress, c1910. Image of lace detail

What happened?

Since we began posting in October 2014, we have:

  • posted 191 images
  • received 949 ‘notes’ (these are interactions with the content in the form of likes and reblogs)
  • had 782 users interact with our content
  • gained 134 followers (and counting)

This is an average post engagement rate of 495.3%. In comparison to our picture library, our download rate is 0.98% and our average engagement rate on Pinterest is 1.47%.

Union metrics

Union metrics

Where relevant we would also link back to the collection if it was on our picture library, and as a result our social media referrals increased, not just from our own blogs but from other peoples’ too; 20% of social media referrals to our picture library are from Tumblr.

What did we learn?

1. Tag, tag, tag
Fundamentally with all social media, it’s about being discoverable, and for Tumblr it’s about using the right tags so that users can find your content and then hopefully reblog or like your posts. Knowing the right tags to use is down to a process of trial and error, but descriptive tags work best. Do your own research on what you think are popular tags, then look at what other tags have been used for that post and use them for your own.

Top Tags

Top Tags

2. Social media is about engagement, not broadcasting
The purpose of social media is to engage with audiences, not to just broadcast about what’s going on. It was something that was picked up in our development of a social media strategy. The strongest recommendation from that was to move away from broadcasting to engaging with our audiences; telling people about our collections was a perfect way to do this.

3. Experimentation is key
As with tagging, a lot of what makes good content is trial and error. Try something, see if it works, and if it doesn’t, look at why and try it again. If it does work, look at why it did and see if you can replicate it. We saw that images of our corsets were gaining the most engagement, so we have decided to create a Tumblr about our Symington corset collection.

4. Digital vs Physical
Our biggest learning outcome is that a digital visitor isn’t better or worse than a physical visitor; they are just different types of visitor. We have people from all over the world engaging with our collections who might not have found out about them if it wasn’t for Tumblr. They may never visit us in person, but at least they know we exist, and we have made our collections accessible to them and in a way that allows them to truly engage.

Session Geography - Google analytics

Session Geography – Google analytics

5. Naming your files
I didn’t mention this in my presentation, but the importance of a digital asset management strategy is key. Only some of the images used were labelled according to the garment they were from so I had to spend a month in the ‘Frock Box’ trying to identify the item from the image and updating the metadata accordingly. Whilst I relished my time exploring the collection, renaming all of the images was a pain.

What next?

Leicestershire Fashion in Detail has been such a success to us that we want to explore how we can develop it further. In regards to the overarching project CCCC, we are undertaking an evaluation and visioning exercise to see how we might be able to embed the learning from the project into the strategic delivery of the service.


Lucia Masundire
Project Manager – Click; Connect; Curate; Create
Leicestershire County Council

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival and collections advocacy: 10 years on since the birth of the greatest rock festival in history

When I say I’m going to a fossil festival, the reaction of friends who aren’t natural history geeks is often somewhat quizzical. It’s not exactly Glastonbury, is it? But I would argue that those of us who care passionately about museum collections, and return to Lyme Regis every year, are just as rock ‘n’ roll as the line-up at Glastonbury.

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival is one of the most successful examples of collections advocacy that I have seen, and it meets a wide variety of audiences over four days, working with Primary and Secondary schools and the general public. The fossil festival this year celebrated its 10th anniversary, and I wanted to share some examples of the good practice I’ve seen.

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival in full swing (Image: Anthony Roach)

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival in full swing (Image: Anthony Roach)

Museums are just history, right?

Luanne Meehitiya from Birmingham Museums reminded us, in her collections advocacy summary at the 2014 NatSCA conference, that the public may perceive museums as places of history, not as custodians of scientifically and culturally important collections. The surge in social media and targeted events means visitors are increasingly aware of the scientific research that takes place in museums. The Natural History Museum (NHM) and other regional museums presenting at Lyme Regis can engage audiences who don’t visit them regularly, or who see museums as simply about preserving history.

Prof. Paul Smith from Oxford University Museums also emphasised that natural science and historical collections can and should contribute to 21st century debates within society. The fossil festival doesn’t just celebrate palaeontology, and the Life Sciences team have a strong presence at Lyme, actively engaging the public with research that contributes to debates around climate change, invasive species, and the loss of biodiversity.

Myself and colleagues from the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity spent time talking about a new citizen science project called ‘Orchid Observers’, which inspires visitors to look for 29 of the 56 species of orchids in the UK. By encouraging the public to record their sightings, we hope to build a dataset to see how orchids are adapting to climate change, and how this is affecting flowering times. Using original herbarium sheets, we explained how the problems of over-collecting and environmental degradation have contributed to the decline of orchids.

Members of the AMC team

Members of the Life Sciences team from the AMC from left to right Mike, Jade and Chloe on the stand (Image: Anthony Roach)

What do people in museums actually do?

The fossil festival is great at highlighting the amazing work of curators, researchers and scientists, and promotes careers in the museum sector. An excellent example this year was Luanne and Isla Gladstone’s ‘Be A Curator’ activity, where visitors chose a specimen and then had to label it with the age, locality, date, and scientific name. Not only do young people get to meet real curators, they gain an understanding of their work too!

Luanne Meehitiya exploring curation with a young visitor to the festival

Luanne Meehitiya exploring curation with a young visitor to the festival (Image: Anthony Roach)

How can we learn more about museum specimens?

Alex Ball from the Imaging and Analysis Centre at NHM probably has the coolest job I know. He spends his days using chemical, CT, and other scanning technologies to explore natural history specimens. Alex is a continual presence at the festival, and this year he was using a structured light 3D scanner to scan museum specimens for visitors. It scans the object with several cameras and constructs a 3D model that can be examined from different angles.

CT-scanned museum objects were also displayed on screens for visitors to investigate. This technology has enabled conservators to better conserve the beautiful Blaschka glass models, because they can understand how they were made. Researchers can also learn a wealth of information – from the morphology of mummified cats to the structure of meteorites – in a way that is non-invasive and keeps the specimen intact.

Alex Ball and his team from the Imaging Lab with the structured light 3D scanner

Alex Ball and his team from the Imaging Lab with the structured light 3D scanner (Image: Anthony Roach)

These are just some of the examples from a fossil festival that places museum collections, curators, and scientists at the forefront of the visitors’ experience. The festival clearly exposes the past, present, and future use of collections and current scientific research. It also continues to remind us of the amazing scientific discoveries of people like Mary Anning and William Smith, to inspire future generations of scientists, geologists, naturalists, and artists. Long may it continue!


Anthony Roach
Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, NHM

Tweeting up a Storm

With the theme of last week’s 2015 NatSCA Conference being sharing collections through social media, there was much discussion about Twitter and the many natural science-related hashtags that abound. So we thought we should compile a list, to make it easier for people wanting to get involved to know what’s out there!

For those new to Twitter, a few pointers:

  • It doesn’t matter how you write hashtags (some capitalisation/all lower case), but capitalising the first letter of each word can make them easier to read, and removes the risk of embarrassing unintended meanings (remember #susanalbumparty?).
  • If you’re starting a new hashtag, search for it first on Twitter to see if it already exists and if so, how it’s used. Also don’t make it too long. It will eat up your 140 characters, and other people will be less likely to use it.
  • When tweeting about an event, find out if there is an official hashtag. If you’re the organiser, communicate what it is! There were so many variations used for International Museum Day this year that it was confusing. This also dilutes the pool of tweets that people will see if they’re following one of several hashtags for the same event, and makes it more difficult to compile them in Storify.

Weekly Hashtags

There are many hashtags based on days of the week:
































A Toxodon skull from @NHM_London for #FossilFriday

A Toxodon skull from @NHM_London for #FossilFriday


There are lots of other natural science and museum-related hashtags out there, for use any time!

#CreaturesFBTS – Creatures from behind the scenes. Share images of amazing specimens from your stored collections.

#NatSciFashion – Natural science fashion. A new one to come out of this year’s NatSCA conference! Share images of your fabulous natural science-related wardrobe/bags/accessories!

#SciArt and #BioArt – Share your scientific artworks.

#MuseumDocumentation – Explain what documentation work you’re doing, and why it’s important, in only 140 characters (120 once you’ve added the hashtag). Try it, it’s quite a challenge!

#MuseumSelfie – Share selfies in your museum or with your specimens! There is also a Museum Selfie Day. The next one is on 20th Jan 2016.

#MuseumShelfie – What’s on your museum shelves?

And there are many, many more! Museum Week, organised by @CultureThemes, is also a really good event to get involved with on Twitter. It features seven different themed hashtags over seven days, and is now an international affair. A great way to reach new audiences and share your collections! It ran in March 2015, and will be back for 2016. Culture Themes also organise special museum-related hashtags throughout the year, so keep an eye on their site for upcoming days.

Thanks to everyone on Twitter who offered suggestions! What have I missed? What are your favourites?

Rachel Jennings, NatSCA Blog Editor