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

Subject Specialist Networking

NatSCA is the Subject Specialist Network (SSN) for natural science collections in the UK. This means that we provide a mechanism for communicating about advances in theory and practice in the sector, as well as supporting the development of staff – both specialists and those generalists with responsibilities for mixed collections.

In general SSNs are viewed a valuable resource and are seen as intrinsic to Arts Council England’s (ACE) plans for the museum sector – at least that’s what we were told by a representative of ACE at NatSCA’s recent 20th anniversary conference at the Yorkshire Museum.

The conference topic of ‘Policy and Practice’ focused on strategic issues and practical projects that have contributed towards policy and procedure formulation and testing. I won’t go into a blow-by-blow account of the meeting, which ranged from legislation affecting asbestos and radioactive materials in collections, to the practicalities of choosing and implementing a method for collection reviews and the benefits and pitfalls of disposal.

The meeting opened with a call for greater positive advocacy of natural science collections in a talk that can be summarised as “we need to stop bloody moaning and do something positive”. It was a well received sentiment, despite the fact that in some instances it can be hard to be positive.

The buzzing of the grapevine revealed dark deeds in a university (involving a skip and a departmental collection with notable specimens) and mounting clouds over the National Museum of Wales where cuts are looming, with the sciences bracing to take the brunt. Nevertheless, there was a remarkably positive feeling to the meeting as a whole and some healthy discussion arose that continued well into the early hours of the morning.


The NatSCA conference meal in York 2013. A lot of people and a lot of discussion!

One particular topic that saw a robust response was an NHM call for a national strategy for collections. After decades of the NHM focussing on their global placement the audience was
sceptical about the factors driving this change of focus. Rob Huxley from the NHM performed well on the spot and may have begun the slow work of winning over a surprisingly hostile crowd when he acknowledged that national museums often have lessons to learn from their smaller counterparts.

The full proceedings of the meeting will be published later this year in the new peer-reviewed Journal of Natural Science Collections. I would recommend taking a look if you want to find out how to non-destructively sample parchment for protein analysis, simplify your loan procedures or conduct a review of a quarter of a million objects in just one year.

This article is based on a piece originally written for the Museums Association website.

Useful information for the NatSCA conference in York

Don’t you hate it when everyone else seems to know where they’re going and what’s going on, but you somehow missed the memo and are left in the dark? It can be a particular problem at conferences held in unfamiliar cities, so we’ve decided to pull together a guide to the plans for the forthcoming conference in York to help make sure there is more time spent discussing interesting developments in natural science collections and less time discussing where everybody else has vanished to.

For the directionally challenged we’ve included this interactive map that highlights some of the more useful places to know about. Red pin for the Yorkshire Museum, where the main meeting is happening during the day on Thursday and Friday; blue pins for places we will be meeting on Wednesday evening;  green pins for places we’ll be going on Thursday evening and yellow pins for handy landmarks – you can click on the pins for more details.  Hopefully this potted plan for the conference will help make sure you’ll end up where you want to be.

Wednesday 27th February

In the early evening there will be a committee meeting in the (pretty small) Three-legged Mare on High Petergate, everyone else would be better off in the Guy Fawkes Inn, which is also on High Petergate. If you are standing at the cross-roads in front of the Minster you can see both these pubs but you have to look both ways down High Petergate. The committee will join everyone in the Guy Fawkes once the meeting is over.

Thursday 28th February

During the day we will be at the Yorkshire Museum for the sessions, after which  it’s back at the Guy Fawkes if you fancy pre-dinner drinks, as it’s two minutes from ‘Ask’ on Blake Street where we’re having dinner. After dinner we will head to the large Old White Swan on Goodramgate, after running the gauntlet of smaller pubs on Stonegate (which we probably won’t fit in en masse). Of these Clare recommends The Yorkshire Terrier, Ye Olde Starre Inne, Evil Eye Lounge (yes really) and The House of Trembling Madness.

Friday 1st March

Once again the day will be spent at the Yorkshire Museum, unless you are planning to take the tour to the off-site venue in the afternoon, but more details about that will be made available on the day.

For further information about what’s happening (and to keep up with the talks and discussions) you can check Twitter under the hashtag #NatSCA2013 and follow the NatSCA twitter account @Nat_SCA

We hope you find this useful and we look forward to seeing you in York!


N.B. If you want to print the map and are having trouble, here is a link to a printable version.