Stirring the hornet’s nest – are natural science collections even legal?

I was wrapping up a particularly difficult male peacock with a helper a few weeks ago and we were discussing natural science collections. “Do you think one day they’ll just be made illegal?” she asked, straight-faced and sincere. I was miffed – this was someone saying to a natural science curator that really, it shouldn’t be allowed. I sighed and spent the rest of the wrapping session (porcupine was also tricky) explaining how wonderful – and legal – natural science collections are.

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Funny Bones

I wanted to be an Archaeologist when I was 11, and this was certainly down to a fascination with the bones of animals. My inspiration from a very young age came from the wonderful series of ‘Funny Bones’ books by Allan and Janet Ahlberg. The skeletons certainly made me think about how the bones of humans and animals (admittedly not 100% accurate) moved together. I trace my later interest to the many books on dinosaurs and prehistoric life that I assiduously read in my school library. Fast forward 20 years and as an intern at Auckland War Memorial Museum in 2012, I was allowed to ‘have a go’ at preparing some native birds for skeletonisation by de-fleshing them. At Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum, I worked on a small project to re-house some Moa bones whose storage and provenance needed to be updated. However, I wasn’t aware of the methods to clean and maintain bone and re-mount skeletal collections in museums.

I was therefore pleased when NatSCA and conservators from the Cambridge Museum of Zoology put together an amazing conference and workshop called ‘Bone Collections: using, conserving and understanding osteology in museums’. Depending on your area of interest, you could attend for some or all of the talks, or take part in a bone cleaning workshop hosted by Bethany Palumbo, Conservator at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and Vicky Singleton and Natalie Jones of Cambridge University Museums. By taking part, I was able to gain some practical hands on experience of handling and observing bones in collections, and using a variety of dry and wet cleaning methods that are recommended as safe to use, easy to apply, and non-invasive.

Bone cleaning in progress (Image: Anthony Roach)

Bone cleaning in progress (Image: Anthony Roach)

Bethany began by outlining the structure and composition of bone and the impact that light, humidity, and temperature can have on bone if not properly cared for. Bone can become bleached through exposure to light. The surface of bones can crack if they become too hot or suffer mould damage if left in cold, damp conditions. Bethany explained that the bone itself can also cause problems, such as with the secretion of natural fats and oils, which are acidic and can ooze out of specimens long after they have been cleaned and erected for display. This can lead to acid burn. Mechanical damage of bones can also occur, where wire is excessively tight in articulated specimens, or fatty acids react with copper wire and pins to cause Verdigris.

Vicky Singleton,  Conservator at Cambridge University Museums  pictured demonstrating dry cleaning methods (Image: Anthony Roach)

Vicky Singleton, Conservator at Cambridge University Museums pictured demonstrating dry cleaning methods (Image: Anthony Roach)

Vicky Singleton and Natalie Jones then systematically went through the various methods for dry and wet cleaning of bones. The methods for dry cleaning include using a vacuum and brush, smoke sponge, a ‘groom stick’ made of natural rubber, and air. These methods are less time consuming, less invasive, and more cost effective than wet methods. I was able to choose specimens from a box of assorted bones, and see the impact of the methods for myself. I could see the difference literally first hand on the digits of a primate hand, using the various dry methods. I then used the wet methods on a collection of horse vertebrae. The wet methods made a dramatic difference to the surface of the bone. These include using solvents such as de-ionised water, ethanol, and white spirit, enzymes, and detergents (e.g. Synperonic A7). I was amazed by the impact of white spirit on greasy bones, where water made little or no impact. The clear favourite to remove dirt in general was actually something I hadn’t ever considered: human saliva, which is full of enzymes. Human saliva! Who knew?

Bones shown partially cleaned by various solvents including water, ethanol and white spirit, as part of the wet cleaning methods (Image: Anthony Roach)

Bones shown partially cleaned by various solvents including water, ethanol and white spirit, as part of the wet cleaning methods (Image: Anthony Roach)

The talks were equally excellent, such as the session by Paolo Viscardi on the uses of skeletal reference collections at Sheffield University, which consists of over 1800 specimens, organised in a useful way for teaching and research. Jack Ashby’s #BoneIdols talk about the successful crowdsourcing project to protect some of the Grant Museum’s most scientifically important and rare specimens was also inspiring. The quagga, for instance, has became something of a celebrity in its own right through a very successful marketing campaign where visitors could see the conservation, re-mounting, and re-storage of the specimen. Interest was also maintained through press releases and blogs about the Quagga and the use of technology used in museums. Jan Freedman’s ‘Game of Bones’ talk on the methods for preparing animals for skeletonisation and using bone collections was also memorable.

Anthony Roach, Natural History Museum (NHM)

Advocacy for Collections – SPNHC2014 Day Three


Today we have a write-up by Rachel Jennings of the Horniman Museum, London:

The need to advocate for natural history collections, so that those making decisions about the future of museums can understand their importance, has been a recurring theme over the last few years – and SPNHC 2014 was no exception. The Thursday morning session, chaired by NatSCA, focused on this very topic. Ben Garrod, in his keynote speech, stated that we need to inspire our visitors so that they become our advocates. Luanne Meehitiya of Birmingham Museums argued that advocacy must start with basic concepts, such as ‘What is natural history?’, because, while it is obvious to us, our visitors and colleagues may have a very different idea.

While the afternoon sessions on collections were not overtly advocacy-themed, I still found the thread running through, with many examples of the importance of natural history collections. Bethany Abrahamson of the University of New Mexico (UNM) showed, by looking at publication records, that natural history collections are supporting a much wider range of research now than ever before. J. Tomasz Giermakowski, also of UNM, demonstrated that historic collections data can be used to target hotspots for current conservation efforts. Tiffany Adrain of the University of Iowa showed that historical research can reveal the importance and improve the future research potential of forgotten specimens.

While advocacy is not a new topic, this year I left the conference feeling that there was a new optimism, as colleagues from all over the world came together to share their vision for the future of natural history collections.

Photo by Judith C. Price

Autism and Museums

Today we have Claire Madge, museum volunteer and mum of three, who kindly agreed to let me interview her about autism and museums.

Claire Madge's blog - Tincture of Museum

Claire Madge’s blog – Tincture of Museum

Q. How aware were you of autism before your daughter was diagnosed?

A. I wasn’t really aware of autism before my daughter was diagnosed in 2012, certainly not the way it affects individuals and the impact it has on the whole family.

It took a year from first asking for help to receiving a diagnosis. For many years I just thought my daughter was ‘difficult’ and I was a ‘bad mother’ for struggling to cope. She is my eldest, so I had nothing to compare her to, I certainly wasn’t aware of the signs. I remember buying many books like ‘How to raise a happy toddler’, desperately trying to find out what I was doing wrong.

Q. She has Aspergers is that right? How does this differ from other forms of autism?

A. She officially has a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder or ASD, sometimes this is also referred to as Autistic Spectrum Condition or ASC. It is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how she communicates and relates to other people, it also impacts on how she makes sense of the world. Because it is a spectrum condition it affects individuals in very different ways. They can be non-verbal with profound learning disabilities needing full time care, whilst some can lead relatively independent lives.

Aspergers is a form of autism, individuals can have average or above average intelligence with no delay in language development but may struggle with social communication, interaction and social imagination.

Q. What sort of challenges does a parent of an autistic child face when taking them out for the day?

A. Autistic children take comfort from routine and familiar surroundings. Going anywhere new, or changing that routine can be challenging and cause anxiety. If we are going out to a museum we haven’t visited before, if we are going on holiday or anything different we have to prepare my daughter by talking about what we will be doing and, where possible, showing her pictures of where we are going and what we will see when we get there.

Autistic children often have sensory sensitivities including sounds, sights and smells, this can also make getting out and about very difficult and stressful.

It can be hard to anticipate problems, which can make planning a successful day out really hard. We took a trip to a museum that had a faint tweeting bird song sound track, my daughter started screaming that it was hurting her ears, and she had a panic attack. We hadn’t really experienced anything like that with her before and it was very frightening.

Sometimes if she is anxious it seems to heighten these sensory sensitivities, which can makes life very unpredictable.

Q. You have said in the past that most museums often don’t cater for the needs of autistic visitors. Is that specifically children or do you feel that they are not catering for adults with autism either?

A. Museums in general don’t really cater for adults with autism. There may be the occasional specialist event or programme, but not a consistent approach, even within museums that run these events. Autism is a lifelong condition, children will not grow out of autism, they become adults with autism who need support, help and opportunities to live their lives to the full. According to a recent study, over 600,000 people are in the UK are living with autism, more than 1% of the population and they are not being catered for in museums1.

Q. What could museums be doing better for these visitors?

A. Basic, simple steps can make a massive difference for autistic visitors, so awareness and understanding of how autism affects the visitors to your museum is a great first step. It is not about radically changing your gallery spaces and the programmes that you run. It is about preparing autistic visitors with visual stories on your website, warning visitors if exhibitions have bright lights or loud noises. Providing quiet spaces with minimal sensory stimulation.

It is not just about autistic visitors, but volunteers too. Only 15% of people with autism are in full time employment, despite the fact that 79% of people with autism who are on out of work benefits want to work2. Welcoming autistic volunteers is one way museums can help, providing fantastic opportunities for individuals to get work experience in a supportive environment.

People with autism often have obsessions. Common examples include: computers; trains; cars; historical events; dates; and science. Obsessions often provide order, structure and predictability, they can be a route to relaxation and a conversation starter that aids social interaction. Ultimately I would like to see museums thinking creatively about using their collections to actively engage with autistic visitors who will often know more about collections than the curators!

Q. Which museums, if any, are getting it right?

A. There were a number of museums mentioned recently in the Museums Association Journal article3 who are running great programmes to engage autistic visitors and volunteers, including the Mary Rose Museum, the Museum of London and the Museum of Oxford.

From my own experience the Science Museum run a fantastic ‘Early Birds’ programme, where they open up the museum at 8.30am, exclusively for autistic children and their families. Many families are visiting the Science Museum for the first time because of the Early Birds events, they are reaching families who are isolated and feel they can’t visit museums during normal opening hours. We went together as a family and it was the first time we had all been to the Science Museum, it was a wonderful, memorable morning that my children won’t forget.

I have spent time talking to staff who run and work the Early Birds events and what impresses me is that they want autistic visitors to feel welcome and relaxed in the museum environment. It is not an event that ends and families have to leave, they are encouraged to stay, as the museum opens to the public, if they want to. It is a truly inclusive approach that I really admire.

I can’t explain how important it is to be able to go out as a family and visit a museum. It seems like a simple thing, but to have a day out together, in a supportive environment, is important not just for my 10 year old autistic daughter but for my 6 year old and my 3 year old too who so often miss out on the kind of experiences that other families take for granted.

Science Museum by Christine Matthews, 2008

Science Museum by Christine Matthews, 2008

Q. What do you think is the biggest obstacle to making improvements in this area?

A. The mistaken belief that it will cost a lot of money to welcome autism into your museum. The Science Museum do receive funding to run their Early Birds programme but not all museums are as busy as the Science Museum. Sometimes it can be as simple as putting up on the museum website when the quiet times are or which are the quieter galleries.

Putting a visual story on your website is not an expensive exercise but can really benefit autistic visitors. Some good examples are listed below4.

Ultimately there seems to be a fear of the unknown – autism is a wide spectrum and it can be hard to tailor events to cater for everyone. The reality is that you can’t cater for everyone with one event. You can only consult with local autism groups, listen to what they need, see what you can do. If you do run events, evaluation is absolutely crucial and the best way to see what works and what doesn’t.

If you just share with your staff information about what autism is and how it affects individuals, the problems they can face when visiting your museum, then that is a massive step forward. Awareness really helps, a bit of understanding goes a long way and costs absolutely nothing.

I’d like to thank Claire for taking the time to talk to us about this subject. I highly recommend her blog for more on this and her museum volunteering adventures. I’d also really like to hear from you all: does your museum have any interesting autism-related projects that we should know about?


  3. (requires Museums Journal subscription)
  4. V&A Museum of Childhood Making SENse pre-visit booklet; London Transport Museum Social Story