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.

 

A Tale of Two Playing Cards

The Museum Ethnographers Group conference is being held on Monday and Tuesday at the excellent Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent. The theme is ‘Nature and Culture in Museums’, and the relationship between the two.

I am a zoologist by background, but for the last three years I have been immersed in a different world, working on a review of the Anthropology collections at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. I have learned an enormous amount about material culture from all over the world, seen some incredibly stunning objects, and been surprised by how relevant my Natural History knowledge has been. Many of our objects are made of animal materials, and it’s been a great opportunity to learn new skills in identifying ivories, bone, and antler. Only a few weeks ago I was very excited to be able to identify an Inuit flint-sharpening tool as being made of mammoth ivory!

I have also been asked to add taxonomic data to some Anthropology object records in our Collections Management System, so that we can record the species that are represented by objects. This provides richer contextual data, and links between objects that can be navigated on our website.

Victorian playing cards featuring exotic species (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Victorian playing cards featuring exotic species (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

One such group of objects is this set of Victorian playing cards. They are cute: on one side is a cryptic clue to the identity of an animal, and on the other is an illustration of that animal. I didn’t anticipate how much the taxonomic information would add to our understanding of the objects, or that it would enable them to tell a story about discovery and extinction…

Two cards in the pack, together, tell this tale. The first is the ‘Black-diver’:

Black-diver playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Black-diver playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Mounted Great Auk specimen (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Mounted Great Auk specimen (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Which is actually a Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis). I have never heard ‘black diver’ used as a common name for this bird, but the likeness is unmistakable. The last recorded sighting of this species is from 1852, following the death of the last individuals to be shot, in 1844. I was intrigued to see this species represented in the pack, and was left wondering whether any of the Victorian children who played with the cards had ever actually seen a live Auk.

A second card could potentially hold the clue to this:

 

Reverse of animal playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Reverse of animal playing card (Horniman Museum &Gardens)

Gorilla playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Gorilla playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

The Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei) was not described until 1903, so it seems much more likely that this card represents the Western Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), described in 1847.

The date of the discovery of the Western Gorilla, combined with that of the extinction of the Great Auk, could potentially narrow down the date at which these cards were made enormously: there is only a five-year period in which both species were known to exist together, between 1847 and 1852. However, the actual date of manufacture could be much later: following their discovery, gorillas were incredibly popular with the public for many years, particularly in the 1860s after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, and the first live specimen reached a European zoo in 1876. ‘The Auk’ was taken as the title of the American Ornithologists’ Union’s journal, founded in 1884. So the Great Auk was clearly still in the public consciousness long after its extinction. Given this information, it seems quite possible that the original owners of the playing cards may never have seen either species in the flesh!

But that is as far as my research has taken me for now. This is a story that I hadn’t expected to find in these objects. As museum professionals, we are custodians of more than just collections: we are the keepers of specialist knowledge that we use to interpret our collections, to tell stories that will engage our audiences. Sometimes, to find their stories, you need to look at objects from more than one perspective. By working across disciplines and sharing our expertise, we can find new tales and new ways to tell them.

 

Rachel Jennings
Documentation Assistant, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Collections at Risk

The biggest problems facing collections today are almost certainly posed by reductions in funding. The financial support for museums of all sizes has been decreasing every year, with jobs being lost and stored collections often bearing the brunt of cuts, since they are usually out of sight and therefore out of mind for many decision makers.

Hidden treasurers? Specimens in storage can be overlooked by decision makers in favour of public-facing elements of museum business.

Hidden treasurers? Specimens in storage can be overlooked by decision makers in favour of public-facing elements of museum business.

NatSCA has been to trying to keep track of threats to collections and offer our support in an effort to make the vital role of collections, and the people with the skills to care for them, more clearly recognised by management. Much of this work in the UK has been alongside our colleagues in the Geological Curators Group.

The first issue of our new online publication NatSCA Notes & Comments provides a case study of decline from the Midlands, written by Geoffrey Hall. Although the picture painted is bleak, there have been some small wins, as Ludlow have since acknowledged the importance of maintaining a geologist to manage their globally important geology collection.

We have also been looking at the wider societal role of collections and have been working to raise their profile at a variety of levels, including internationally, alongside the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. Our message about the importance of collections is being heard by a wider and more influential audience, something that is reflected in this week’s Nature, which features an article about the importance and decline of collections.

If you know of any collections that are at risk from staff loss or disposal, please let us know by editing our Natural History Near You map or emailing us at advocacy@natsca.org

Bill Pettit Memorial Fund: Discovery Collections Project

The Bill Pettit Memorial Award was set up a few years ago by NatSCA to support projects including the conservation, access, and use of natural science collections. One of the recent projects we have been able to help with was the curation of some amazing specimens from the voyage of the Discovery. Hear more about the project from Tammy below.

David Gelsthorpe

20150128_114015

In early 2013 we set about organising the task to begin with the curation of the largest, most recent and least organised of the three collections – that of the ECOMAR collection. The start of the ECOMAR project coincided with commissioning of the new UK Royal Research Ship James Cook officially named by the Princess Royal on 6 February 2007. The first ECOMAR cruise departed from Southampton on 13 July 2007. The ECOMAR project was designed to investigate the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone area which lies approximately mid-way between Iceland and the Azores. Four super stations were defined (two north of the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone and two to the south), all had the same bottom depth (2500m) and were revisited during voyages by the R.R.S. James Cook and the R.R.S. Discovery during the years 2007–2010 to replicate sampling, time-series investigations and flux studies.

The Discovery Collections have no full-time curatorial post and we rely on the goodwill and interest of students and other volunteers (including scientific visitors and work experience volunteers) to help with cataloguing, labelling, respiriting, and general curatorial jobs. The samples, though incredibly valuable should be considered at risk. I look after the collections in as much that I manage the visitors to the collections, host students, and manage public enquiries, visits and displays of the specimens. I am also a taxonomist employed to conduct research, describing new species and studying the ecology of the deep-sea benthic fauna. I was employed for four years to work on the ECOMAR program to describe the ecology of the scavenging fauna of the area. I therefore had a particular interest in the curation of this collection.

We employed Amanda Serpell-Stevens, to work on this project, but we had funds for only 8 weeks of her time. Thus the project was reduced from cataloguing the three large collections to just one. When Amanda’s contract ended there was still much reshelving and reordering of the material to be carried out which was carried out on an ad hoc basis by myself, a retired member of staff, Mike Thurston, and Amanda who returned on a voluntary basis to continue work on the project.

20150128_113759

The project began by working shelf by shelf to curate and to catalogue (in paper record) what was held including location and size of each jar, and to change containers for those specimens that were in plastic containers or inappropriate sized jars. The preservative was also replaced in most of the jars and a new label produced for each specimen, as many were poorly labelled. This curation and cataloguing process took the majority of the 8 weeks, with just enough time remaining to enter the data into Excel.

With the availability of a digital catalogue the task of reorganising the lots into taxonomic order was greatly eased. This meant adjustment of shelf heights to incorporate the various sizes of tubs and jars (some of the lots are 20 litre tubs full of holothurian specimens of a single species), and removing all the specimens in turn, which were then replaced first by taxonomic order then by station order using Excel to sort the data. The spreadsheet was updated with the new locations of the specimens as we progressed. The final part of the process involved cross referencing the specimens with the newly published papers and updating the names where they had changed (on both the specimen labels and in the spreadsheet).

There were numerous new species described during the ECOMAR project, which meant further problems in allocating the correct new name to specimens in the collections variously named as e.g. Peniagone sp. nov ‘pink’. While holotypes have been registered in the NHM, London, the rest of the material needs updating to current knowledge, a process which is often neglected, despite it being referenced in the many new publications resulting from the project.

It is very satisfying to have the ECOMAR collection properly curated and to know that I can locate any specimen needed easily. In total we curated, relabelled and catalogued a total of 1300 lots comprised of 1148 smaller jars, 88 tubs (between 5 and 20 litres) and 64 loan specimens. We plan to publish a detailed analysis of this work for the NatSCA journal, including a list of available species, and will make the catalogue available online when time and funding allow. In the meantime interested parties can contact Tammy Horton (tammy.horton@noc.ac.uk) for a copy.

Dr Tammy Horton
Ocean Biogeochemistry and Ecosystems
National Oceanography Centre,
Waterfront Campus,
European Way, Southampton SO14 3ZH
UK

The financial value of museum objects

In the museum sector there’s a bit of unwillingness to discuss the financial value of objects. After all, museums are not run as salerooms and their focus is on the other sorts of value that collections hold.

Of course, for some artworks it can be hard to ignore the massive price tags that they sometimes carry and there are some good arguments that in our materialistic society, which has become increasingly focussed on economics, there are sound reasons for including financial value in considerations about collections. An interesting discussion about this between two NatSCA stalwarts, Jan Freedman and Mark Carnall, was recently published by the Museums Association.

Worth £175 million today. Card Players (5th version ca.1894-1895) by Paul Cezanne is the most expensive painting in the world. For now... (image from Musée d'Orsay)

Worth £175 million today. Card Players (5th version ca.1894-1895) by Paul Cezanne is the most expensive painting in the world. For now… (image from Musée d’Orsay)

For those of us who work in museums, we normally only consider a specimen’s price-tag when acquiring new material, deaccessioning material or dealing with insurance valuations for exhibitions and loans.

When acquiring specimens, the consideration is about whether an asking price is fair and an appropriate amount to spend in the context of institutional priorities and budget. When deaccessioning, the consideration is rather more complex and is linked to appropriate methods of disposal and the motivations for disposal. Deaccessioning shouldn’t be done in order to make money, but disposal by sale may be an option as long as the processes involved in the decision meet professional standards.

The controversial disposal by sale of the statue of Sekhemka has caused problems for Northampton Museum & Art Gallery. (Image of the statue on display c.1950s - uploaded by Bibilovski, 2012)

The controversial disposal by sale of the statue of Sekhemka has caused problems for Northampton Museum & Art Gallery. (Image of the statue on display c.1950s – uploaded by Bibilovski, 2012)

When assessing these sorts of values it can be very useful to look to private auctions for a guide, which take place every so often at a variety of auction houses. For natural history it can be worth checking Sotheby’sBonhams and Summers Place. However, auctions tend to deal with the more showy objects, rather than the scientific specimens that museum staff often have to deal with, especially for research loans.

Insurance valuations are slightly different, since these may not simply relate to the market value of an object, but could take into consideration the cost of conservation if the object is damaged, or the cost of going into the field to collect a similar specimen to replace it if it’s the sort of specimen that doesn’t come up for sale. Either of these possibilities may be far more expensive than a likely sale value.

One of the issues with putting a price on objects is that it may make them more obviously attractive to criminals. For instance, a sudden spike in the street value of illegal rhino horn in parts of Asia around 2009 led to a massive increase in the prices of antique rhino trophies at auction, until special measures were introduced to stop this loophole in trade. In addition it has led to the targeted thefts of hundreds of specimens from collections around the world.

Taxidermy rhino with the horn removed and sign explaining the problem of thefts from museum specimens. (Image by Dr John Hutchinson, 2013)

Taxidermy rhino with the horn removed and sign explaining the problem of thefts from museum specimens. (Image by Dr John Hutchinson, 2013)

Of course, by being aware of the changing value of specimens and therefore the changing risk of theft, museums are able to take steps to ensure that appropriate security measures are put in place to properly care for their objects. So although the financial value of objects can be complex to address, it is clear that there is a need for museums to know how much their collections are worth, since other people may be only too aware.

State of the Union! Natural History Museums 2014

Author Mark Carnall, Curator, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL
#NatureData Coordinating Committee
All views are the opinion of the author. August 2014.

‘After visiting the recent natural history museum community conference in July: SPNCH 2014, Cardiff, Mark Carnall reflects on what the sector internationally is thinking and doing – in particular what’s happening digitally and what people’s thoughts are on a UK natural science database’.

Primate skeletons in the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL ©UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology and Matt Clayton

Primate skeletons in the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL ©UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology and Matt Clayton

At the end of June was a rather special event; the coming together of three subject specialist networks (SSN), the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) and the Geological Curators’ Group (GCG) hosted by Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales. Between them, these three networks represent a sizeable chunk of curators, conservators, directors and educators who work in and with natural history museums and collections. Each SSN has yearly meetings but a syzygy rarely happens.

The full conference was a six day affair packed with field trips, stores tours, talks, workshops, demos, poster sessions and discussions attended by over 250 delegates from almost as many natural history institutions. This provided a great opportunity to catch up and meet friends, facilitated the catharsis in sharing frustrations unique to natural history museums and offered a rare chance to establish a sense of ‘the state of the union’ in natural history museums across Europe, North America and elsewhere.

 

The broad theme of the conference was historic collections and future resources and many of the presentations were about off-label uses of collections, advocacy and digitisation. Inspiringly, the conference was kicked off with a series of keynotes which carried the resounding message of “get over it” when it comes to the communities’ existential crisis in demonstrating value and worth with a rousing series of presentations from Professor Paul Smith and Dr Chris Norris setting the tone for the rest of the conference.

Off-label use of collections, a term borrowed from accidental discoveries of secondary beneficial side effects in the pharmaceutical industry, came up time and time again. Cynically, as the curator of a small museum it’s nice to finally be joined by colleagues from some bigger museums who, without having to face the “use it or lose it” challenge to keep a museum in existence, have cottoned on to the notion that perhaps collections have uses beyond the 10% of material that has a function in alpha taxonomy and (often low impact) taxonomic research. Colleagues presented example after example of natural history collections being used for research into environmental change. One question that wasn’t satisfactorily answered was about how this use of collections can be procedurally built into research. Many of the examples were incidental discoveries (hence off-label) rather than arising from researchers deliberately thinking of uses of collections in the first instance. However, advocates for the importance of natural history collections now have a new suite of examples to convince decision and policy makers about unique insights into the natural world which can only be gleaned from scrutinising collections.

When it came to advocacy, unfortunately the community fell into the trap of talking about scientific research use of collections almost to the exclusion of all other audiences. I’ve written before about how natural history museums need to celebrate and contribute more to being a part of the cultural sector, especially for museums which don’t hold scientifically important collections and specimens. Myopia aside, the community seems to have come on to some degree, telling each other how important natural history collections are, which came out in a panel discussion on advocacy. There are still a lot of stereotypes about what museums are and what they do that need to be pulled down, but there’s a danger in evangelising which can be quite divisive. Another general theme that came out across the series of talk days is that we need to get more sophisticated and generally get better at demonstrating what we do well. The finding of the NatSCA and Arts Council England study into the popularity of different kinds of museum galleries was presented, demonstrating that natural history collections are the most popular, but put some audiences off if they don’t appear to be well maintained or invested in. Natural History Near You was also presented, finally making headway into ascertaining exactly where all the natural history collections are, a fundamental piece of information that has eluded several generations of natural history collections workers. Interestingly, one of the contrasts between the UK delegates and those from the rest of Europe and North America was that with a handful of exceptions, the majority of the social media generated around the conference came from UK colleagues. It seems that social media is yet to take off as a promotional, professional networking and advocacy tool for museum professionals elsewhere.

Lastly, there was a cornucopia of presentations on digitising collections. It’s uncontroversial to say that museums in general are far from being digital – let alone post digital – and that natural history museums and collections as a group are lagging behind the rest of the museum sector. It seems that colleagues in North America and from the rest of Europe are making huge advances in all aspects of digitisation from technical advances, standards in digitisation, data capturing pipelines and networks, and databases linking specimen information. Embarrassingly, UK museums are somewhat left in the dust, contributing little to the 20 or so European and International data repositories and the data that does exist is incomplete, hard to export, manipulate or in many cases even locate – let alone scrutinise. This is in part what the #naturedata project hopes to solve, with “one portal to rule them all” in the UK at least. The need for this is even more pressing thanks to worryingly vague requirements for databases required for compliance with the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing. Three conference sessions on the Nagoya Protocol valiantly tried to deconstruct the bureaucratic layers represented by this legislation but it looks like the practicalities of compliance will be causing headaches for generations of museum professionals yet.

Overall, the conference was an excellent set of days. Networking and socialising with enthusiastic, passionate and brilliant colleagues really is the best way to recharge the batteries and reinvigorate the soul. Throughout the presentations the niggling thought I kept returning to was that all the innovative, experimental and inspiring ways we use to get the most of our collections are still hamstrung by our fundamental issue of getting a handle on what we have in our collections. The curse and gift of natural history collections is their vast size, but it’s no longer good enough to use the size of our collections as an excuse for not getting to grips with every single specimen we have and making them available to the people for whom we keep them in trust.

 

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: Natural History Blog

Russell Dornan

Synopsis

A great blog worth checking out:

‘My name is Russell Dornan and I was the biology curatorial trainee at Hereford and Ludlow Museums. I blogged throughout my 12 month journey through their natural history collections and went on to be the Natural History Project Co-ordinator at the Horniman Museum in London.

I am now the Web Editor at Wellcome Collection.

All views expressed in this blog are mine alone and do not represent the opinions of my employer.’

Russell Dornan's #MuseumSelfie

Russell Dornan’s #MuseumSelfie (Image by Russell Dornan)

Wunderkammer

2. Volunteer Position: Mudchute Volunteer Coordinator

Mudchute, East London Countryside

Synopsis

We have a fantastic opportunity for an experienced Volunteer Coordinator to join our team at Mudchute Park and Farm to manage the recruitment, supervision and support of our volunteering programme.

We are looking for an organised, dynamic and enthusiastic individual who has the experience of working in a multi-cultural environment Inner City Environment with groups and individuals from a diverse background. Experience of working with and the ability to enthuse and motivate disadvantaged individuals is essential.

If you think this could be you, we’d love to hear from you! For more details about this part time position, including how and when to apply, please download the application pack by following the website below.

Please note that applications must be received by noon on Friday, August 29th.

Mudchute Volunteer Position

3. Training: Accreditation Plus Training- Making your objects accessible

University of the Arts, London

Synopsis

Wednesday 10 September 2014, 1.30-4pm

Central St Martins

http://www.arts.ac.uk/csm/about-csm/find-us/

‘Research has proven that touching and handling objects is an important part of the learning experience. However for many museums, allowing visitors to handle objects is an area in which they lack confidence or ‘trained’ staff. This training will address the issue of how we balance the care and conservation of objects against issues of access. Experienced practitioners from Central St Martins will provide guidance on best practice in object handling and discuss how robust systems can make it possible to manage access to collections through handling whilst still protecting them for future generations.

In the session you will:

  • Look at a range of things to consider in order to handling by your visitors.
  • Explore why we use object handling in our museums
  • Learn best practise for handling objects

It is aimed at staff and volunteers who will be developing and delivering handling sessions within their museums.’

To book, fill in an online application form on the Regional Programmes website:

Training Programmes

Training course booking form

Compiled by Emma-Louise Nicholls, NatSCA Blog Editor