NatSCA Digital Digest – July

Compiled by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.

Welcome to the July edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.

Where Should I Go?

Dippy is in Newcastle over the summer, so if you haven’t seen this iconic cast, pop on over!

A nice exhibition is on at the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, Evolution as Inspiration. A mixture of artworks and natural history specimens look at how animals have evolved visual cues.

What Should I Read?

There’s a new book coming out on Britain’s lost ice age giants. The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s lost mammals is out on 11th July. Written by the co-creator of Twilight Beasts, this book explores the history of some of our amazing large mammals that once roamed Britain. Rewilding, ancient DNA, cave fossils and more – it’s a fabulous book (I’ve had a sneak peak!). And well worth one for the reading list!

Six North Atlantic Right Whales have been found dead in the last 3 months. With just 400 individuals left in the world, this species is highly threatened. In museums we are in a unique position to help highlight species at risk, so if you have any North Atlantic Right Whale specimens on display, lets update our labels! Read about it here.

Continue reading

Making a Wild Strawberry Sculpture from Honey Bee Wax. A Scientific Art Collaboration with Cornell University, New York.

Written by Annette Townsend, Natural History Artist, Designer, Maker, Cardiff.

© Annette Townsend

In November 2017 I attended the Cross-pollination, Revaluing Pollinators through Arts and Science Collaboration conference at Swansea College of Art. The conference marked the end of a successful and pioneering project funded by both the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Arts Council of Wales, combining Art with Science to explore new insight into perceptions of the value of honeybees and wild pollinators.

As an artist I’ve spent most of my career working alongside scientists on science communication projects and my current work focuses on the protection of nature and features pollinating insects, so the project was of great interest to me.

At the conference I heard many fascinating lectures and discussions but it was my chance conversation with Assistant Professor Scott McArt, from the
Entomology Department at Cornell University, that sparked a creative idea which has developed into a collaborative piece of artwork, which is now on display in the new PolliNation exhibition at the Mann Gallery in Cornell.

Continue reading

Brexit and the Customs Union: The Practical Impact on Museums

Written by Clare Brown, Curator of Natural Science, Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Who knows where you are and when you are reading this and so this blog comes with a few provisos:

  • Really importantly this is NOT LEGAL ADVICE OR NOTICE. NatSCA has been asked to share information from Defra on this situation but if you need clarification please speak to Defra or a solicitor.
  • The information in this blog pertains to the movement of material between the UK and the EU, it does not apply to non-EU countries, or internal UK movement/material use.
  • The information in this blog is only relevant in the event of a so-called “no-deal Brexit”.
  • This blog was written in May 2019 and so any reference to “current” or “present” refers to this time.

© Leeds Museums and Galleries

With the UK in the EU, Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed species in Annexes B to D can be freely traded and moved within the EU. The main change, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, will be that you will need CITES permits to move CITES good between the UK and the EU for species listed in Annexes B to D.

Please click here for an up to date list of Annex B to D species.

Continue reading

Global Biodiversity Collections: Becoming Part of the Open Data Community

Written by Isla Gladstone, Senior Curator Natural Sciences, Bristol Museums

On 13th March I travelled to Sofia in Bulgaria, my mind buzzing with questions about biodiversity data…

I had been awarded one of 30 funded places on the first training school of Mobilise, an EU initiative to mobilise data, experts and policies in scientific collections. More specifically, Mobilise is an EU COST Action: a bottom-up network funded over four years to boost research, innovation and careers by COST, an intergovernmental framework for European Cooperation in Science and Technology.

Digitisation and data management challenges in small collections promised new skills in the key basics of data quality and cleaning. It also offered a chance to meet colleagues from around the world, and connect to a bigger picture.

At a time of unprecedented human-caused climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation, it feels more urgent than ever to connect museum collections to real-world change. Natural sciences collections offer precious opportunities here. Alongside huge potential to engage communities and inspire debate, specimens are unique sources of the scientific evidence urgently needed to unlock sustainable development solutions:

“There is more information about biodiversity in [the world’s] natural sciences collections than all other sources of information combined.” iDigBio

Collections’ biodiversity data: the what, when, where, who collected attached to many biological and palaeontological specimens © Bristol Museums

Continue reading

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.