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