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

Celebrating the mundane

This article is reposted from the UCL Museums blog.

By Mark Carnall, Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL

Earlier this month I was lucky(?) enough to have a spot on the excellent Museum Mile Museums Showoff special as part of the Bloomsbury Festival. For those of you who don’t know, Museums Showoff is a series of informal open-mic events where museum professionals have nine minutes to show off amazing discoveries, their research or just to vent steam to an audience of museum workers and museum goers. My nine minutes were about the 99% of objects that form museum collections but you won’t see on display. They fill drawers, cupboards, rooms and whole warehouses. But why do we have all this stuff? Who is it for? In my skit on Tuesday I only had nine minutes but I thought I’d take the time to expand on the 99% and the problem of too much stuff (particularly in natural history museums) and what we can do with it.

Tip of the Iceberg

Museums often display only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to collections. Here at the Grant Museum we have about 7% of the collection on display and it tends to be the Hollywood Animals that make the cut. At larger museums it can be less than 0.1% of the collection that makes up the public facing galleries. In my relatively short career as a museum professional I’ve been very fortunate to see behind the scenes in more museums than most and boy, there is a lot of stuff. Even though I love natural history and am very passionate about museums and the future of the museum sector sometimes I do wonder why do we have all this stuff?

In natural history, the obvious and often made, argument is that our collections can tell us about global challenges that affect us all including climate change, organisms that cause or spread human diseases, extinction, agriculture and aquaculture and from geology the exploitation of fossil fuels. Natural history collections are the only record of life on Earth and if we are to make any models or predictions we need to dip into the data enshrined in objects.

However, there are large portions of natural history collections which could never contribute to those agendas. All the ‘Raggy Doll‘ specimens without data for example. All those specimens that require four text books of explanation. Most fossil specimens can be used to reconstruct the past with only limited impact on what’s happening in the present. There are rooms and rooms full of bad taxidermy and taxidermy dioramas that for reasons of taste, health and safety and changing scientific ideas never see the light of day. Even something as simple as an animal not having a common name (to put on a label) can keep a specimen off display There are large chunks of the animal world which simply aren’t being actively studied (for now). Lastly there are all the models, casts and those dreaded boxes.

Image of a specimen of the crab Hippa testudinaria

Spare a thought for specimens like this. Dusty, pest attacked, wrongly named crabs. SAD SMILEY FACE.

So how do we make the most of the 99% now especially if they aren’t saving the world? Well, in short, it shouldn’t matter how important our specimens are to science. Every specimen has a story to tell.

Museums of Inspiration? Continue reading

Natural Science and the National Curriculum

Last week the UK Government released the new National Curriculum for England, which includes the following section about evolution for Year Six (10-11 year-olds):

Evolution and inheritance

Pupils should be taught to:

  • recognise that living things have changed over time and that fossils provide information about living things that inhabited the Earth millions of years ago
  • recognise that living things produce offspring of the same kind, but normally offspring vary and are not identical to their parents
  • identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution

Notes and guidance (non-statutory)

Building on what they learned about fossils in the topic on rocks in year 3, pupils should find out more about how living things on earth have changed over time. They should be introduced to the idea that characteristics are passed from parents to their offspring, for instance by considering different breeds of dogs, and what happens when, for example, labradors are crossed with poodles. They should also appreciate that variation in offspring over time can make animals more or less able to survive in particular environments, for example, by exploring how giraffes’ necks got longer, or the development of insulating fur on the arctic fox. Pupils might find out about the work of palaeontologists such as Mary Anning and about how Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace developed their ideas on evolution.

Note: at this stage, pupils are not expected to understand how genes and chromosomes work.

Pupils might work scientifically by: observing and raising questions about local animals and how they are adapted to their environment; comparing how some living things are adapted to survive in extreme conditions, for example, cactuses, penguins and camels. They might analyse the advantages and disadvantages of specific adaptations, such as being on 2 feet rather than 4, having a long or a short beak, having gills or lungs, tendrils on climbing plants, brightly coloured and scented flowers.

This provides a fantastic opportunity for natural science collections to support the new curriculum. If you are based in a museum, now would be a great time to start making contact with your Learning / Education departments to discuss how your collections might feed into their support of school groups; if you are in a smaller organisation, or have greater autonomy regarding your collection, you may want to start thinking about what you could do to support schools with your collections. For many of you this advice  will be as useful as an egg-sucking seminar for Grandmothers, but hopefully it will be useful for some.

Caring For Entomology Collections

Seminar series to explore basic entomology collections management, curation and conservation techniques.

NHM (Natural History Museum), South Kensington, London 9.30am – 4.30pm Friday 1st November 2013

Cost £34 for members or £49 for non-members (remember that becoming a member is just £15 a year!).

This course will cover all basic aspects of collections management for entomological collections, including storage and handling of specimens, loans and legislation, and specimen preparation.

There will be specialist sessions including Integrated Pest Management, storage facilities, spirit curation, specimen pinning, molecular collections, basic slide preparation, documentation and databasing. Tours of the collection areas will also occur.

The course will be both theory and practical supported by a booklet covering both aspects.

Schedule (TBC):

9:30 -10:00 Introduction and Coffee

10:00 -10:30 Entomological Storage

10:30 -11:00 IPM

11:00 – 11:30 Morning Coffee

11:30 – 12:00 Digitisation

12:00 – 12:30 Data-basing

12:30 – 2:00 Lunch

2:00 – 2:30 Specimen pinning

2:30 – 3:00 Slide preparation

3:00 – 3:30 Afternoon Coffee

3:30 – 4:00 molecular collections

4:00 – 4:30 Spirit collections

Download booking form

Contacts:

For further information: Erica McAlister – e.mcalister@nhm.ac.uk

For booking & payment: Holly Morgenroth – holly.morgenroth@exeter.gov.uk

To become a member: Maggie Reilly – maggie.reilly@glasgow.ac.uk

NatSCA conference and AGM 2013

Natural Science Collections: Policy and Practice

28th February & 1st March 2013 – The Yorkshire Museum, York

The Yorkshire Museum, York, England. Designed by architect William Wilkins in a Greek Revival style and was officially opened in February 1830. By Kaly99

At this year’s NatSCA conference we will be looking at how collection policies, reviews and legislation influence current practice in curation and care of collections. We will also be addressing some of the ongoing wider issues affecting the sector, including a proposed strategy for safeguarding collections for the future.

As usual, the meeting will provide a fantastic opportunity for communicating with colleagues and finding out what’s going on in the sector – all at a very reasonable price (especially if you fork out the £15 for membership)!

Two day cost: NatSCA members £85 (non-member £100)

Early bird booking by 11th January  £75 (non-member £90)

One day cost: NatSCA members:  £50 (non-member £60)

Early bird booking by 11th January:  £40 (non-member £50)

Deadline for bookings is 8th February 2013

Booking form for the NatSCA 2013 conference [doc file]

List of nearby accommodation for NatSCA 2013 conference [pdf]

Programme of talks for NatSCA 2013 conference [pdf]