#MuseumWeek on Twitter – what’s the point?

The last few days have seen Twitter alive with activity centred on museums, with the 2015 #MuseumWeek hashtag providing an opportunity to celebrate culture using images, videos and a maximum of 140 characters.

MuseumWeek

This Twitterstorm in a teacup may seem a bit pointless to some, but it’s difficult to fully appreciate the value of social media until you really use it and experience the benefits first hand.

That’s why this year’s NatSCA conference ‘Museums Unleashed’ is partly about getting everyone up to speed with what’s out there, how it works, and what people are using it for – to make sure that our members aren’t left behind as the museum sector increasingly embraces the digital age.

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Social media provides an incredibly powerful medium for communicating with other subject specialists, and it also provides a mechanism for developing genuine dialogue with audiences. Hashtags like #MuseumMonday and #FossilFriday allow objects from behind the scenes to be shared around the world quickly and easily, bringing otherwise hidden collections into the public consciousness.

The playful and informal nature of these online interactions may be a significant departure from the authoritative and reserved image projected by some museums, perhaps causing a little discomfort for some, but that informal interaction is the very thing that makes social media such a fantastic mechanism for developing dialogue and bouncing ideas between peers.

Finally, it never pays to underestimate the power of the public as advocates for your collections. A museum with a facilitative approach to social media in its gallery spaces can benefit from the buzz created by people wanting to create and curate their own digital content, inspiring others to visit and generating a deeper interest in the museum’s activities – with minimal input required from staff.

I strongly suggest that you take a look at the various interesting subthemes within #MuseumWeek to see if you can contribute. Today is #familyMW, Saturday is #favMW (for your favourites) and Sunday is #poseMW (maybe put that selfie stick to good use?), so you still have time to get your phone out and get involved!

Unidentified, Not Unloved: On New Species and Stewardship

There are hundreds of millions of specimens held in natural history collections in museums worldwide, collected over centuries by thousands of experts and enthusiasts. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that new species are ‘discovered’ in museums on a regular basis. These discoveries generally fall into two categories:

  1. Specimens that have never previously been identified
  2. Specimens that have been re-identified

All museums have unidentified and misidentified material in their collections. It is inevitable, given the enormous number of specimens and species that are involved. These are all potential new species, just waiting to be described.

Since I took on the voluntary role of Facebook Editor for NatSCA last year, I’ve read a lot of news stories while searching for content to share on the page, many of them about new species being found in museum collections. And I’ve been more than a little disappointed at the language chosen by the journalists to describe the specimens. The words ‘forgotten’ and ‘overlooked’ crop up frequently in headlines, and stories often describe specimens as having been ‘ignored’, ‘languishing’ in collections, or left ‘sitting in boxes’. This choice of words adds drama to a story for the papers, but it reflects poorly on the museums involved, and the inherent implications of neglect are both unfair and untrue. Having unidentified or wrongly identified specimens in a collection does not imply a failing on the part of the curatorial staff; nobody can be an expert in everything, and to identify one specimen among thousands as belonging to a previously unknown species requires an enormous amount of specialist knowledge and lots of research (often taking years). The important thing is that the specimens are preserved and cared for, so that experts are able to come in and examine them.

Drawer of various brightly coloured beetles, organised in neat rows with labels

Things Organised Neatly: Stewardship is fundamental to curatorship

Stewardship is the fundamental responsibility of the curators in charge of their collections. An unidentified specimen has not been forgotten. The average ‘shelf life’ of a specimen belonging to a new species, from discovery to publication, is over 20 years, and can be more than 200 years! This is due to the sheer volume of material that is collected in the field and donated to museums every year, and the expertise needed for identification. As the study of biodiversity (and the loss thereof) becomes more important to conservation efforts, more academics are turning to museums for data on population trends over time. The negative language used in these news articles could harm this relationship, and possibly deter specialists from engaging with museums. And with budget cuts increasingly affecting museum resources, curators want to engage with academics, artists, and other users, now more than ever.

The good news is that this problem is not entirely universal: recent news coverage of the discovery of a new species of ichthyosaur in Doncaster Museum was generally very positive about the value of natural history collections, mainly due to the enthusiasm of the researchers, which came across strongly in their quotes.

Rachel Jennings
NatSCA Facebook/Blog Editor

Specimens gone forever

Following on the heels of Paolo’s post last week on Collections at Risk, the International Business Times reports on a collection in Iraq that is actively being destroyed. Among the irreplaceable artefacts lost was the 7th Century Assyrian winged bull – whose twin and now only survivor resides at the British Museum, London. I don’t think we can take any comfort from the fact that it’s not a Natural History collection, or assume that Natural History collections are necessarily safe from these people: they have already condemned and murdered pigeon fanciers and banned the teaching of evolution (no surprises there). For the time being we must conclude that no collection, or indeed curator, is safe – but that has probably been true for other reasons for time immemorial.

Highlights of Day Two – SPNHC2014

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The conference had a packed schedule. From the very beginning there were times when I had to choose between two talks I really wanted to see and would have to sit in on one physically while stalking twitter comments from the other. During Tuesday’s Conference committee meeting, someone raised the idea of live streaming the talks via Adobe Connect or similar for future events. The Emergent Professionals group had already done that in the previous session with some success. The main concern seemed to be that paying delegates would be put out by non-attending people getting more of the perks of those attending. I can’t speak for everybody but, as a paying delegate, I would have appreciated the ability to attend more than one talk at once.

Sometimes I picked the wrong talk. I won’t highlight which ones but I would like to give some feedback for those talking at these events in the future. All of these are based on actual events but nobody was alone in making these mistakes. Also I would like to go on record as saying that I am not a great public orator and am saying this purely from an audience perspective. Getting up there and doing it in the first place is awesome.

Advice for Future Speakers

  • If the speaker before you was really good, don’t let that intimidate you. Your material is different in content, therefore it has new and exciting value.
  • The sun is going to explode in a few billion years. If you embarrass yourself it’s not the end of the world.
  • You’re there to engage people but don’t falter if your presentation is right before the tea break and your audience seem more engaged by that.
  • A constant monotone for 20-30 minutes is a killer even if the subject matter is chocolate dinosaur sex (the three most exciting research areas for the average person according to a survey).
  • Don’t be thrown by sleeping audience members. There’s a lot of double-ended candle burning at these things and it’s really hot + airless in those rooms.
  • Make sure the audience can see your lips. We had audibly-impaired delegates who miss out if they can’t lip-read. Check for mouth-level obstacles, such as laptops and microphone stands.

Highlights

Gregory J. Watkins-Colwell’s talk on time lapse photography was very interesting. Time lapse is a great way to demonstrate a lot of information in a much-reduced time frame. He showed us students skeletonising a grey wolf over an eight hour period. He was able to point out in under two minutes all the mistakes the students had made in that time: leaving gloves off; talking to each other for at least three hours; and so on. He then discussed logistical problems while filming dermestid beetles – they really don’t like the light. The applications of time lapse extend well beyond the classroom and, as it occurred to me later in the week, could be used as a means of educating decision makers about collections care. Example: at one particular museum, who shall remain nameless unless they ask not to be, the geology stores have a heat and humidity problem. There is no air conditioning and the curators have told the relevant people, whose reply has been along the lines of: “they’re rocks, they’ll be fine”. Of course that’s not the case but how to convey that to them? Time lapse photography could be key – train your camera on one of the specimens and take a snapshot once daily. Hopefully a decision would be made sooner but, at 20 frames / second, you could replay 3.3 years worth of consequences per minute.

Nicola Crompton and Bethany Palumbo from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History have just finished the monumental task of cleaning their whales. This was made possible by PRISM grant funding. It’s little wonder they were looking a little worse for wear: these five cetaceans are at least 154 years old! A century and a half of UV light exposure and fluctuating temperature had taken their toll and the whales were leaking natural oils (careful what you stand under, folks). As they removed the corrosive dust, dirt, and secretions they documented the entire process here.

Anna Monfils from Central Michigan University presented the findings of her research into the use of natural history collections for undergraduate training and its effect on their overall education. I won’t say too much about this just yet as these results are as yet unpublished but let’s just say it’s looking really good.

Annette Townsend shared with us her experiences of making teaching specimen replicas of some of the Neolithic tools from Salisbury. Pictured in this post is her mace head in its various incarnations. She started by 3D scanning the original but the printed copy (above) didn’t feel right, so she used this as the basis for making a mould and then recreated it using Jesmonite (below). Comparing it to the original it’s very impressive.

Nigel Monaghan gave us the low-down on the Irish fossil hunting frenzy that resulted in scanning numerous caves across the Republic for their biodiversity. He was very engaging and exactly what we needed at such a late stage in the day. If you ever get a chance to visit his Megaloceros specimens, they’re truly impressive.
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Pub Quiz

“Work hard and play hard” seems to be the motto of the museum sector and they did not disappoint at the pub quiz: we planned a lynching in case of no food; we groped whale teeth; conducted some fairly serious team espionage and generally had way more fun than one perhaps should. Thanks to all the organisers and participants – it was great!

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NatSCA Digital Digest

Welcome to the weekly digest of posts from around the web with relevance to natural science collections. We hope you find this useful and if you have any articles that you feel would be of interest, please contact us at blog@natsca.org

1. Blog: Knowledge Network

Paolo Viscardi, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at Horniman Museum

Synopsis

Looking at Subject Specialist Networks and how this type of inter-museum communication can improve the sector as a whole. An ‘open line of communication’ encourages a quality control that is standard throughout museums, and allows for the incorporation of discussion with non museum based academics. The success of SSNs centres on workshops and conferences though time and money make these logistically difficult. Suggestions are made regarding solving these issues to perpetuate the benefit museums receive via SSNs.

http://www.museumsandheritage.com/advisor/news/item/3215

For your pleasure… A sloth bear skull, Melursus ursinus. Specimen LDUCZ-Z1637. (C) UCL Grant Museum

2. Blog: Museum Training for the World

Edmund Connolly, British Council-UCL Museum Training School Coordinator

Synopsis

The British Council and University College London have joined forces to launch the Museum Training School. Based in a variety of museums and galleries across London, this school will give early career museum professionals the opportunity to meet with staff from across the sector, and aims to arm attendees with the necessary skills to ensure ‘sustainability and growth’ of collections, galleries and museums for the future.

http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2014/03/07/museum-training-for-the-world/

3. Event: How Museums Can Contribute to Wellbeing

One day event in Newcastle Upon Tyne

Synopsis

This event is aimed at a range of museum staff such as curators, managers, and those involved in education and outreach. it will look at how museums can focus on wellbeing and use it as a tool in relationships and collaborations with external organisations. It will also investigate ways of securing funding, building on the foundations of wellbeing as a concept.

http://www.museumsassociation.org/find-an-event/ev1062022?utm_source=ma&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=06032014#.Ux8JZNhKTwA

For further pleasure, the sloth bear skull from an exciting angle. Specimen LDUCZ-Z1637. (C) UCL Grant Museum

4. Event: Museum Week on Twitter

Contacts are @TwitterUK or museumweekuk@twitter.com

Synopsis

The 24th to 30th March is Museum Week on Twitter. The main hashtag #MuseumWeek will be the umbrella tag that will run all week long. Aside from this, there will be a specific theme, and relevant hashtag, each day, centred on topics related to museum and collections. It will be an opportunity to showcase parts of museums and collections that would otherwise not be accessible to the public. It also aims to give museum staff the chance to interact with each other through Twitter, and for both professionals and the general public to engage.

For more information, please contact Twitter on the above email or Twitter handle.

Compiled by Emma-Louise Nicholls, NatSCA Blog Editor

Caring for Entomology Collections

The following post is from Emma-Louise Nicholls of the Grant Museum of Zoology who attended our recent Caring for Entomology Collections Workshop

The scarab beetle shows how pins are used to manipulate the legs whilst the specimen is drying, after which it will maintain its shape.

At the NatSCA course Caring for Entomology Collections held at the NHM in London, I not only got to salivate over the swanky slide cabinets that the Natural History Museum now houses, but I also got to pin a scarab beetle from scratch, peer into a liquid nitrogen freezer at minus 196 degrees, see a grasshopper eating a mouse, eat amazing food (not from the nitrogen freezer), and was even rewarded for my endless questions* with a free gift in the form of a rubber gasket. All in all it was a stupendous day and a course definitely worth attending.

This liquid nitrogen freezer is used to store organic material that would degrade at higher temperatures.

This liquid nitrogen freezer is used to store organic material that would degrade at higher temperatures.

The day was split into eight sections that covered how to prepare your specimens, care for and store your collections, and lots of inspiration for what you can subsequently do with your specimens to make them available to a wider audience. We also talked about how to deal with insects that are not so much the specimen type, but more of the wild roaming, likely to eat your specimens variety. Although there is much to say, here are some highlights.

The Digitisation Project is working to re-house entomology collections and give each specimen an individual QR code for fast and efficient data extraction.

The Digitisation Project is working to re-house entomology collections and give each specimen an individual QR code for fast and efficient data extraction.

We were shown an impressive digitisation project that involved taking a drawer of entomological specimens in need of some TLC, applying both remedial and preventative conservation techniques and then photographing each specimen with a unique QR code. The idea is that in the future, the code can be scanned and will link to metadata on the Museum’s database. Knowing how troublesome paperwork for loans can be, this has exciting implications in terms of simplifying the process and decreasing both the time required and the potential for human error in filling out forms and in transcribing the specimens’ labels.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an essential part of any museum staff members’ knowledge base. Even if a full blown IPM plan is not logistically feasible in your building (as it isn’t in the museum where I work), a knowledge of how and why it works is integral to writing a pest monitoring programme that suits your collection. Housekeeping is, of course, the most important part of keeping museum pests at bay, but even in the best kept collection, pests can and do still occur, and knowing how to monitor and effectively eradicate any outbreaks is integral to preventative conservation of your specimens. It was both interesting and very useful to compare and contrast the problems and protocols that are used by the Natural History Museum with those from my own museum and I came away some useful tips.

The scarab beetle in the centre of this image shows how pins are used to manipulate the legs whilst the specimen is drying, after which it will maintain its shape.

The scarab beetle in the centre of this image shows how pins are used to manipulate the legs whilst the specimen is drying, after which it will maintain its shape.

The element of the course I most enjoyed was the opportunity to both pin an insect specimen, and ask endless questions of the suitably enthusiastic entomologists demonstrating the techniques. There are many more methods used in pinning insects and other invertebrates than I had ever imagined, and being able to have a go myself solidified the information as well as making for an exciting day. I can proudly tell you that the scarab I pinned lost no legs and the metal pin was at a (near) perfect 90 degree angle to the base. It’s all in the teaching no doubt.

Despite both the obvious and more subtle differences between the Natural History Museum and other natural history collections and museums, I felt the information given at the course was delivered in a way as to be directly relevant to all collections represented. Having spoken to the other delegates present, it was unanimously agreed to be a thoroughly useful and interesting day.

– Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Curatorial Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology

* May have been an attempt to silence me

Natural history under the hammer

Reblogged from UCL Museums & Collections Blog

Natural history under the hammer

By Mark Carnall, on 4 December 2013

Recently there have been a spate of high profile auctions of natural history specimens raising many issues about ownership, the value we should or shouldn’t put on natural history and the relationship between professional scientists, museums, amateurs and private collectors. My colleague Jack Ashby wrote about the recent dodo bones that were auctioned. Colleagues Dave Hone and Mark Graham give a balanced view of the recent sale of a Diplodocusskeleton over at the Guardian. The ‘duelling dinosaurs’ fossil was estimated to reach $9 million at auction in New York and last year the controversial proposed sale of an allegedly illicitly smuggled Tarbosaurus skeleton caused much debate.

I thought I’d add my thoughts on the subject here, in particular about the relationship between collectors, museums and ethics.

Lost to Science

One of the most common criticisms that comes from the scientific community is that these high profile and expensive auctions, way above the budgets that museums can afford, result in a loss to science when specimens pass into private collections. I don’t want to downplay that this is a real problem, I know of at least two examples of important material that would likely cause a re-evaluation of entire groups of organisms but which are resolutely in the hands of private collectors who won’t allow them to be accessed. However, other museums, particularly art collections, embrace and work with private collectors. The museums get to display important or interesting objects and the collectors receive credit and validation for the collections they have built up. Furthermore, the buying, selling and trading of artworks means that there’s an excellent paper trail in the form of auction and exhibition catalogues which means that the movement of works can be traced much more readily than natural history specimens which don’t have this tradition of a published, publicly accessible paper trail.

Private to Public

When it comes to natural history I think we’re too quick to demonise private collectors with the “loss to science” rhetoric. Many of today’s largest museums were founded as private collections that were donated to the nation including the Natural History Museum London, the Natural History Museum Tring and the British Museum. Of course the Tate galleries still bear the name of the man whose funds and collections seeded what is now considered one of the most important art collections in the world. Recently two George Stubbs paintings, the first Western depictions of Australian animals was ‘saved for the nation‘  by the National Maritime Museum (NMM). The works were finally secured by a significant donation from a shipping magnate and patron of the NMM. It would be interesting to consider if the paintings would have been saved in the same way if it were the Natural History Museum trying to secure the funds instead.  Natural history museums don’t receive anywhere near the same level or have such a long history of patronage supporting them as other kinds of museums. Often it’s assumed that buyers of multimillion pound specimens erect them in their mansions and display them as ‘trophy’ objects. That’s not to say that this doesn’t occur but I think it’s fair to assume that these buyers may have a keen interest and love of natural history. Perhaps talking to private collectors instead of instantly labelling them as a problem would improve the patronage and support of natural history museums and increase the awareness of ethical collecting and trading.

Grant Museum plastic dinosaur specimens

If relationships were improved there’s also the danger that scientific research on specimens could be used to increase the price tag of specimens as commercial assets. Say for example, if research on the recently sold Diplodocus skeleton revealed that it was the largest, rarest or the only example of a new species this increases the rarity and desirability of the object and pushes the price even further away from the reaches of public institutions. Conversely, research may devalue a specimen, yet another reason why private collectors may be wary of caliper bearing scientists examining their collections. It’s already ubiquitous across museums to never give a valuation on objects brought in for opinions or identifications to avoid certifying or authenticating material for sale. I’d recommend looking across the museum sector to seek guidance on how other museums deal with the issues of research affecting commodity prices.

Amateur vs. Professional

Lastly, working with private and amateur collectors can very realistically improve our knowledge about the natural world. Anecdotally, I’d say that there’s a deep mistrust of museums by amateur collectors (either those buying their collections or those collecting fossils and unfortunately extant animals from the wild). There’s the perception that once an object goes into a museum collection it’s essentially lost to the public, only accessible to card carrying scientists. With museums bursting at the seams with objects, only a tiny proportion of collections on display and visits to collections requiring managing it’s easy to see where this perception comes from. Again, looking to other museums provides guidance. The excellent, excellent Portable Antiquities Scheme is a solution to this exact problem in archaeology. There are thousands of amateur archaeologists, metal dectectorists and collectors and the portable antiquities scheme is an easy way to encourage the wider archaeological community to register finds. They are given full credit for the discoveries, there’s a prestige associated with contributing to the scheme and their finds and data are almost instantly available to the wider sector. Quite why a similar scheme for fossil finds doesn’t exist is increasingly perplexing especially as the legislation and policing of the movement of fossil material, as the aforementioned Tarbosaurus auction highlighted,  is nowhere near as robust as it is with artworks and archaeological material.

With museums brokering discussions with private collectors and auction houses we could better support patronage for museums, save important specimens for the public and improve our understanding of  palaeontology and biology.

Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology