Meet the NatSCA Committee – Paul A. Brown

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Archivist

Name: Paul A. Brown

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee? I am the Archivist, responsible for collecting together the archives from our previous incarnations; The Biology Curators’ Group and The Natural Sciences Conservation Group and more recent NatSCA documents. Most of this sits by my desk. Do any of you membership have anything that could be added?

Job title and institution: Senior Curator, Hemiptera (Sternorrhyncha), Thysanoptera, Phthiraptera, Psocoptera, Collembola, Thysanura, Archaeognatha, Diplura & Protura, Insect Small Orders section, Life Sciences Department, Natural History Museum, London.

Twitter username: I am too old to learn how to have one!

On field work at Scolt Head, Norfolk

On field work at Scolt Head, Norfolk

Tell us about your day job: I am presently responsible for part of the ‘small’ orders listed above. This entails re-curating and data-basing the mostly microscope slide collections and dealing with scientific visitors, loans of material and answering enquiries. I still do some research into the taxonomy of Aphids in particular (see research-gate). Almost 40 years in Museums so according to some, I might know something? If you have problems with microscope slides then who ya gonna call, ‘slide busters?’!

Natural science collections are very popular with visitors. Why do you think this is? The public want to see real or proper models of objects to which they can relate to. Museums are not so much dead zoos as a way to show what there is out there, without having to get your boots muddy during long hours of waiting to see the living things which may only be a fleeting glimpse, in the wild or even in a zoo.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now? Even the National Museums have an uncertain future so there are many great challenges to keep our NatSCA profile high with government and funding bodies so as to continue a proper level of care of and access to our collections. During my working career, there has been a steady erosion of curatorial and conservator expertise and staffing levels and knowledge of the taxonomy of our objects which greatly saddens me. Please do look for information on our website at collections at risk, and join us in defending ours and the nations’ natural heritage.

What would be your career in an alternate universe without museums? Over and above my knowledge of Natural History, I have an interest in writing, photography, drawing genealogy, geomorphology, molinology, ancient buildings, archaeology and history and have been a farm labourer and forester (I still wield a chainsaw). So, without museums, I would probably be a reserve or historic site warden of some sort somewhere in the world.

What is your favourite museum, and why? It has to be the Smithsonian as they have so many real specimens on show and excellent dioramas which have such a ‘wow’ factor and must stimulate visitors to have a love of nature much more than any other museum I have visited! Otherwise maybe H.M.S. Belfast (2nd World War Cruiser) because it is a museum object in its own right and all the problems that this entails, as well as being a ‘museum’ full of objects.

Written by Paul A Brown, Senior Curator at the Natural History Museum, London

Famous Flies – Petiver

Yes. That is the title and this is a blog telling you about some of them. I was tasked with the job of hunting through the thousands of drawers, the hundreds of jars and the millions of slides to find the most famous or most infamous of specimens within the Collection at the Natural History Museum London. I have worked on the fly collection at the museum for over ten years now but still regularly come across hidden gems in the collection. Just in the fly collection, we have approximately 3-4 million specimens (when you see jars swimming with flies you will understand why this estimate has such a large degree of error), that have been collected since the early 17th Century from every geographical region around the world. Some of the collectors are recognisable whilst others are less so but have come to mean so much to us who deal with the collection.

So, let me welcome you to the collection. It is arguably the best fly collection in the world – I admit I may be a little biased but please be patient with me. I get very excited about the flies and forget most of my impartiality.

The collection comprises 9000 drawers of pinned specimens, 2,500,000 specimens (or so) in jars, approximately 200,000 slides, and a further molecular collection (both DNA and tissues), frozen in liquid nitrogen tanks at -80oC. Some are housed in the most up to date cases that are appropriate for insect collections whilst others have been kept, preserved in time, exactly as they were when presented to the Museum. This is the case for some of the earliest preserved insect collections at the Museum.

The Natural History Museum was born thanks to the generosity and far sightedness of Sir Hans Sloane. He was an old-school collector and back in the 1800’s he amassed a collection of such importance that folks came from far and wide to visit and study it, including none other than Carl Linnaeus – the father of Binomial nomenclature. Sloane was not a collector of insects or other objects himself but rather a purchaser and receptor of other people’s collections. One of those acquired was from James Petiver, a shop keeper who owned an Apothecary store in London. As well as having herbs and spices necessary for his work, he also collected plants, shells and insects and had a vast network of friends and connections who passed them onto him too.

The boxes of books and the instructions of care.             © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Not only does the age of this collection merit attention, the majority were collected in the late 1700s, but also the method of storage. For these insects, butterflies, beetles, flies etc, were presented as flattened specimens in books. After ‘drowning’ the insects in ‘spirits’ he would press them between the leaves and here they remained for over 300 years. Unsurprisingly not many survived to the present day due to poor preservation but some did.

Unsurprisingly not many survived to the present day due to poor preservation but some did. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Not only do we have the books but we also have little boxes, and within these there are many insects and arachnids. More importantly for me there are many flies.

We also have little boxes. Lots of little boxes.                   © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

This collection has many questions associated with it, including where are the actual specimens from? A common problem and one that has obviously been there from the beginning of collecting. It is interesting to think though that even material that we have held in the NHM for hundreds of years still needs to be investigated.

But to me just looking at specimens of flies that are three hundred years old is quite something. Not all have them have survived – many specimens are ghosts of what they were.

© Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Amongst all of this, there are amazing specimens – some rather famous flies. Shown below are, we think, Eristalis arbustorum – a common hover fly found across Europe. These specimens here are some of the oldest preserved flies on the planet. There is an older collection but the flies are not as well preserved. These little boxes have been inspiring taxonomists for hundreds of years.

Hover flies. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

Those hover flies are good but the real gem lies still within the pages of Petiver’s book and it is a rather odd looking hornet robber fly.

The hornet robberfly Asilus Crabroniformis. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

This has always been one of my favourite flies and this specimen is arguably the oldest specimen of this species in the world. It would be many years before this specimen even got a name!  And it is amazing to consider that for a specimen over 300 years old that, albeit being a bit squashed and misshaped, that it is still utterly recognisable and has retained its colour. Guess I should get around to entering that data to the British Robber fly scheme….

Written by Dr Erica McAlister, Collections Manager- Flies, Fleas, Arachnida, Myripoda, at the Natural History Museum, London.

NatSCA Digital Digest- February

 

"What shall I do this month?" Namibian giraffe, image in public domain

“What shall I do this month?”  Namibian giraffe, image in public domain

What Should I See and Do?

I have had a number of people telling me how good the ‘Extinction or Survival‘ exhibition at the Manchester Museum is recently. You have until the 26th April to see it but we all know how fast time flies so don’t keep putting off your trip. And I’ll do the same.

This Saturday (11th February) the New Walk Museum is running ‘Fossils in Focus’ from 11am to 1pm, at which you can fondle some specimens and take in the Museum whilst you’re at it. For more information, check out the Museum’s website.

Opening soon is an exhibition at the Lapworth Museum of Geology (where I began my career! Ahhh fond memories…*) called ‘Where Land Meets Sea’. It is a photographic exhibition of work by Dr. Richard Greswell who, as both a scientist and photographer, has created what looks to be a stunning exhibition. A more detailed description of the exhibition can be found here.

*Completely irrelevant to this blog

What’s Can  I Apply For?

There are a number of natural history posts available at the Natural History Museum at the moment:

If you would like to help ‘maintain and develop a world-class collection of natural history specimens’, choose whether you are more of an Earth Science or a Life Science type museologist and apply to the relevant position here.

If you’re a little further along in your career, and it happens to have been focused on botany, then the same NHM is also looking for a ‘Senior Curator in Charge, Historical Collections and British and European Seed Plants’. Further information is on their website here.

Finally, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is looking for a Documentation Assistant. It may only be a temporary placement but collecting the OUMNH for your CV is well worth the faff.

Before You Go…

If you have seen an exhibition, visited a museum, or want to tell us about your work, do get in touch as we are always looking for new blog authors. Email us with your ideas at blog@natsca.org.

NatSCA Digital Digest

natscaYour weekly round-up of news and events happening in the world of natural sciences

Jobs

Curator, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL I can tell you from three years of first-hand experience (pseudo-first-hand; as curatorial assistant) that this is the job all curators should be applying for. The Grant Museum of Zoology is an amazing place to work and in this role I know you will have the opportunity to spread your curatorial wings and make a real difference in the natural history sector. The kind of job where you don’t mind getting up in the morning. Closing date for applications is 3rd August. Good luck!

If only for the superb job title, anyone with experience of learning programmes for families and children with ASC (Autistic Spectrum Condition) should definitely take a look at the current vacancy for the Dawnosaurs Programme Co-ordinator at the Natural History Museum. This looks like an amazing opportunity for the right person. The closing date for applications is the 22nd July.

See the job page of the NatSCA website for more exciting opportunities.

News

The next Museums Association exhibition and conference is due to take place on 5th and 6th November, in Birmingham. There is still time to register as an early bird who gets the cheaper worm rates. Early bird registration ends on the 7th August, click here for more.

Around the Web

Sun bear, fox, hippo or pangolin. What tickles your natural history bones the most? Choose your favourite to be the new museum mascot for Derby Museum and Art Gallery! If you are on Twitter, you can whip up some support for the sun bear, errr, I mean, your favourite using: @DMNature and @derbymuseums. The winning specimen will be announced on the 7th August. I’ve already chosen mine, can you guess what it is…?

The Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs have been working up a storm of support lately, with ongoing events at the park complemented by a very dynamic talk at the Grant Museum by the master of science comedy- Prof Joe Cain, from UCL. These incredible statues are a vivid reminder of the evolution our concept of dinosaur appearances has gone through. They are also an important part of our British cultural heritage, that helped shape the palaeontological world in the mid 1800s. Find out more about these iconic statues that are in desperate need of conservation on the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs website.

 

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: Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

Lil Stevens, Natural History Museum, London

Synopsis

The Lyme Regis Fossil Festival took place in Dorset on 2-4 May 2014. Our palaeontologists Lil Stevens and Zoe Hughes report back from a weekend of sun, sea, fossils and fun.

On the right hand side of this page, you will find links to two other blogs, Lyme Regis Fossil Festival Day 1 and Day 2, which outline the activities of the weekend.

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival

2. Conference: Woodward 150 Symposium: Fossil Fishes and Fakes

Natural History Museum, 21st May 2014

Synopsis

‘Arthur Smith Woodward contributed widely to our knowledge of fossil fish, extinct animals and regional geology. This symposium considers his influence on palaeontology and the legacy of his work at the Museum.’

Woodward 150 Symposium

3. Exhibition: Nature, not just ‘red in tooth and claw’

Manchester Museum, Now until September

Synopsis

‘We have an exhibition, ‘From the War of Nature’ that revisits the idea of a ‘struggle for existence’, a very widely misunderstood and misapplied phrase. The exhibition links to the WW1 centenary, and explores whether nature is cruel, nice or anything else. The answer is that it’s not one thing- it’s lots of things. Sometimes animals co-operate, collaborate or divide resources up between them. The old idea of nature red in tooth and claw is a very misleading one- and does a real disservice to the complexity of nature. The exhibition runs until September. It was very rewarding to work on.’

Nature, not just ‘red in tooth and claw’

Compiled by Emma-Louise Nicholls, NatSCA Blog Editor