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

1. Blog: NatureBase: Observe, Conserve, Protect

Sam Misan


One of the wonderful things about working in museums is the opportunity to inspire young minds. Cliche? Yes, maybe. But that doesn’t make it not true! The Grant Museum recently had a young visitor who told them about his like for blogging about museums that he visits, as well as his own collection of natural history objects. It is great to see how we are viewed by the upcoming generations of natural sciencers, and thought you’d enjoy a perusal of his blog.


2. References: Subject Specialist Networks



Subject specialist networks are an integral tool for sharing information between museum professionals (and others) and tapping into the wealth of knowledge that may otherwise not be written down. The following website gives a list of SSNs, including many that are relevant to natural sciences.

Subject Specialist Networks

Compiled by Emma-Louise Nicholls, NatSCA Blog Editor

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

1. Social Media: Museum Week on Twitter

24th to 30th March 2014


Museums across Europe are using the hashtag #MuseumWeek on twitter all this week. The aim is to improve the social media presence of museums by encouraging dialogue between both museums and the public, and between museum professionals. Alongside the weeklong hashtag #MuseumWeek there are individual daily themes, the remaining of which are as follows:

Thursday #BehindTheArt

Friday #AskTheCurator

Saturday #MuseumSelfies

Sunday #GetCreative

Everyone is encouraged to join in all week.

2. Blog: Work Experience from the Dinosaur Isle Museum

Alex Peaker, Dinosaur Isle Museum, Isle of Wight, and Emma Bernard, Natural History Museum, London


Alex Peaker is a curator at the Dinosaur Isle Museum on the Isle of Wight. He recently came to London to work with Emma Bernard, a curator at the NHM, for a week. Bernard begins the blog by talking of how important it is to maintain communications between museum professionals, and seeking help and advice from others when needed. Peaker describes his role at the Dinosaur Isle Museum and explains how invaluable the time he spent at the NHM was to him.

Editor5807. Image free from copyright

Dinosaur Isle Museum, Isle of Wight. The building was designed to look like a huge Pterosaur. Image by Editor5807

3. Training: British Council – UCL Museum Training School

British Council and University College London


The closing date for applications to the British Council and UCL Museum Training School is 18th April. There are four courses to choose from, or you can register for multiple courses. They are:

How to build local, national and international partnerships
How to develop exhibitions
How to develop a schools and learning programme
How to develop community engagement programmes


The next post is a bit harrowing, so here is a baby rhino playing to start you off on a high. (C) Emma-Louise Nicholls

4. Blog: Objects Safe After Cuming Museum Fire

Patrick Steel, Museums Association


Cuming Museum in London was struck by fire in March of last year, in which ‘two of three displays were lost’. One year on, Steel reports on the current location of the collections and the status of the Museum. The blog looks at how many specimens were lost and what types of conservation procedures were required for those that were damaged.

5. Survey: Testing the European Competency Framework for VET Collections Management

EU Leonardo project, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

A request from the Project:

‘In the EU Leonardo project ‘Testing the European Competency Framework for VET Collections Management’ (EUColComp), the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) is responsible for WP 2 “Research training needs and stakeholder analysis”.  This 2-year project is coordinated by NHM London and started October 2013.

A  questionnaire to inventory past and present training resources in conservation and care of natural history collections, available in Europe (and beyond) is online at:

The results of the survey will be used to develop a ‘Vocational Education and Training’ curriculum to assist staff in developing the appropriate competencies.

If you provide training in the field of natural history collections conservation and care or if you are aware of training others provide, please spare 5 min of your time to help gather this valuable information.

Many thanks for your help with this!
Kind regards,
The EUColComp team

a Leonardo da Vinci Transfer of Innovation funded project’


Compiled by Emma-Louise Nicholls, NatSCA Blog Editor

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

1. Blog: Knowledge Network

Paolo Viscardi, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at Horniman Museum


Looking at Subject Specialist Networks and how this type of inter-museum communication can improve the sector as a whole. An ‘open line of communication’ encourages a quality control that is standard throughout museums, and allows for the incorporation of discussion with non museum based academics. The success of SSNs centres on workshops and conferences though time and money make these logistically difficult. Suggestions are made regarding solving these issues to perpetuate the benefit museums receive via SSNs.

For your pleasure… A sloth bear skull, Melursus ursinus. Specimen LDUCZ-Z1637. (C) UCL Grant Museum

2. Blog: Museum Training for the World

Edmund Connolly, British Council-UCL Museum Training School Coordinator


The British Council and University College London have joined forces to launch the Museum Training School. Based in a variety of museums and galleries across London, this school will give early career museum professionals the opportunity to meet with staff from across the sector, and aims to arm attendees with the necessary skills to ensure ‘sustainability and growth’ of collections, galleries and museums for the future.

3. Event: How Museums Can Contribute to Wellbeing

One day event in Newcastle Upon Tyne


This event is aimed at a range of museum staff such as curators, managers, and those involved in education and outreach. it will look at how museums can focus on wellbeing and use it as a tool in relationships and collaborations with external organisations. It will also investigate ways of securing funding, building on the foundations of wellbeing as a concept.

For further pleasure, the sloth bear skull from an exciting angle. Specimen LDUCZ-Z1637. (C) UCL Grant Museum

4. Event: Museum Week on Twitter

Contacts are @TwitterUK or


The 24th to 30th March is Museum Week on Twitter. The main hashtag #MuseumWeek will be the umbrella tag that will run all week long. Aside from this, there will be a specific theme, and relevant hashtag, each day, centred on topics related to museum and collections. It will be an opportunity to showcase parts of museums and collections that would otherwise not be accessible to the public. It also aims to give museum staff the chance to interact with each other through Twitter, and for both professionals and the general public to engage.

For more information, please contact Twitter on the above email or Twitter handle.

Compiled by Emma-Louise Nicholls, NatSCA Blog Editor