Diving into a Coral Reef with Cambridge Communities

Written by Sara Steele, Museum Education Assistant, Museum of Zoology and Roz Wade, Learning Officer, Museum of Zoology.

This article was first published as a blog for University of Cambridge Museums, 1st June 2020.

Our audiences are full of creativity, something we see in bucketfuls at our events and workshops. We wanted to go further, and showcase audience creations and collaborations in our programming and displays.

As a Museum celebrating the wonders of the natural world, we have an innate desire to protect it. We have committed to embedding sustainability into our public programme : tackling the materials we use and considering the impacts of activity outputs. Not all craft day creations end up on the fridge, let alone as an item cherished for life. Could we bear the thought of our logo sitting atop a landfill?

With this focus on collaboration and sustainability in mind, and with the help of the artistic mind of volunteer Fanny Bara Moreau, we designed a summer activity with longevity at its core.

Every summer, the University of Cambridge Museums box up their wares and head out into the weather with themed activities to communities across the city with Cambridge City Council’s Big Weekend and Children and Young People’s Participation Service (ChYpPs). Summer 2019 had a tropical oceans theme at the Museum of Zoology, with the goal of inspiring conversations around the conservation of our coral reefs. We wanted to use this as an opportunity to bring audiences together through shared making and showcase their creations in our programmes and displays.

We took inspiration from our ‘Patchwork World Map’ project, created from individually-made sections sewn into a large tactile map of the world populated by animals.

We also piloted a collaborative family making activity at our Zoology Live festival in June 2019.

We wanted to emulate the collaborative aspect of these projects, as well as create another resource for future programming and activities.

Not forgetting our overall goal of using sustainable materials, we had our work cut out for us.

What came out of several conversations over (essential) coffee was a 5-metre long scroll of empty reef, soon to be populated with corals. From our point of view we liked how transportable it was, neatly rolling up, and that the only materials were paper, paper straws, and water-based paint. Huzzah!

Alongside handling boxes, participants could explore real coral specimens and had the opportunity to create (reusable) collages from shells. Families across Cambridge were invited to add to the reef using pools of very watery paint, blown into organic branching patterns with a paper straw. There were several ‘races’ to the top of the paper over the course of the summer.

We were so happy with what our Cambridge communities created that we began to embed it within further activities, including as a backdrop to an underwater drama created by our Young Zoologists Club and to recycled makes created by visitors to our ‘Winter Wildlife: A Christmas Coral’ (excuse the pun) family day.

Just as we did for our patchwork map, we found a space in the gallery to show-case the work of visitors. We settled on a long table-case on our mezzanine level. It was the perfect shape for our scroll of a reef, and was a space that most visitors would see. Unfortunately, it is not a fully accessible space, and for future projects we are considering how to make its content available to audiences unable to use the stairs.

The knitted and crocheted animals that you can see here were created by our local WI attendees to Creature Crafternoons, with our early years audiences in mind, and a desire from the team for more diverse ocean dwelling creatures in toy form.

Best of all, we not only generated meaningful conversations and activities for our visitors, but also new resources for future programmes, and a wonderful, colourful, collaborative display for all to see.

Of course, to be used in our learning programmes, the resources had to come out of the display case. However, our collaborative coral reef has inspired further projects displaying work created by our visitors. In March 2020, we ran a workshop in partnership with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and led by artist Hilary Cox Condron to create a vision of Cambridge where we can live in harmony with nature. The collaborative artwork created during this ‘World of Tomorrow’ workshop was made from recycled materials, and included wonderful creative solutions for sustainable transport, homes for wildlife and food production. This was put on display in our ‘Communities Case’ on the mezzanine with the aim of inspiring further conversations about wildlife conservation between our visitors.

We entered 2020 with a view to either using the materials we already have, or ordering only recyclable and sustainable materials. Not only does this do us good, but it also allows visitors to see the potential of craft materials that are not harmful to the planet.

While our non-recyclable materials stock is shrinking, our bank of bespoke and inspired resources is growing. The reef continues to give in the form of new online resources. Families can get stuck into making their own at home or gain help with home schooling during lockdown:

https://museumofzoologyblog.com/2020/05/04/dive-into-a-coral-reef/

https://museumofzoologyblog.com/2020/05/11/our-changing-reef-habitats/

By creating a space within the gallery amid the zoological specimens for community collaborations, we hope to provide a sense of ownership of space for our audiences. Our programmes aim to celebrate the animal kingdom and nurture a desire to protect it. We are proud of the passion our visitors have for the natural world, and through these projects hope to encourage more conversations about wildlife conservation.

We want to make the most of the creations by our wildlife-loving audiences, and during the lockdown our community space has moved online. Here you can add to the ‘World of Tomorrow’ with your creative recycled solutions to live in harmony with nature.

Have you created something animal-themed during lockdown? Or spotted some wildlife from your window? Why not add it to your Community Gallery of lockdown wildlife sightings.

We hope to be able to include more photos of sightings and makes as time goes on so do get in touch via our social media platforms or umzc@zoo.cam.ac.uk to submit.

Telling the Truth About Who Really Collected the “Hero Collections”.

Written by Jack Ashby, Assistant Director of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

One way that museums can decolonise their collections is to celebrate the true diversity of all the people that were ultimately responsible for making them. We often say things like, “This specimen was collected by Darwin”, or whichever famous name put a collection together, when in reality we know that often they weren’t actually the ones who found and caught the animal.

Museums can be rightly proud of their “hero collections” and the famous discoveries represented by them. Acknowledging that they did not work alone does nothing to diminish their accomplishments. We just need to make clear that other people made enormous contributions to their successes, and celebrate them too.

Undeniably, natural history museums have overwhelmingly celebrated dead white men. A major strand of decolonisation work is to show that a greater diversity of people are, in fact, represented in the history of our collections. But in reality, their contributions are rarely documented.

The Malay Teenagers Who Collected Wallace’s Birds

Lately, I’ve been looking at the collection of birds here at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, that Alfred Russel Wallace brought back from his eight-year voyage to the Malay Archipelago. Any museum with Wallace material considers it among their treasures. He co-discovered evolution by natural selection, added mountains of invaluable specimens to museums worldwide, and founded entire scientific disciplines based on his interpretations of what he saw. And he gives a lot of credit to the people of colour who collected much of his material.

Although Wallace certainly does not name every collecting assistant, a Sarawak teenager named Ali – who joined the voyage when he was probably just 15 – was perhaps his most trusted expedition-member and closest companion. And a 16-year-old named Baderoon from Celebes also provided instrumental contributions to his collections (Van Wyhe & Drawhorn, 2015). Wallace respected them, their insights, wishes and their Islamic faith, and wrote openly about their part in his accomplishments.

Portrait of Ali in Singapore in 1862, aged around 22, from Alfred Russel Wallace, My Life (1905)

In Cambridge, we have what appears to be Wallace’s “personal” specimen of Wallace’s standardwing bird-of-paradise Semioptera wallacii, a species which Wallace is famous for “discovering” on this voyage, at around the time the theory of natural selection came to him on his malarial sick-bed. However, in his published travelogue, The Malay Archipelago, Wallace himself wrote:

Just as I got home I overtook Ali returning from shooting with some birds hanging from his belt. He seemed much pleased, and said, ‘Look here, sir, what a curious bird,’ holding out what at first completely puzzled me. I saw a bird with a mass of splendid green feathers on its breast, elongated into two glittering tufts; but, what I could not understand was a pair of long white feathers, which stuck straight out from each shoulder. Ali assured me that the bird stuck them out this way itself, when fluttering its wings, and that they had remained so without his touching them. I now saw that I had got a great prize, no less than a completely new form of the Bird of Paradise, differing most remarkably from every other known bird”. (Wallace, 1869)

It’s clear that not only did Ali collect the first specimen of the species (which we can be confident is one of the ones we have in Cambridge) and realised that it was unusual, but also provided details of its natural history. Nonetheless, the world gave Wallace the credit. According to Wallace’s journals and published accounts, it was commonplace for Ali to make such contributions (Van Wyhe & Drawhorn, 2015).

The Wallace’s standardwing bird-of-paradise at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge – most likely the specimen that Ali first collected for Wallace, described in The Malay Archipelego. It is one of the syntypes (the specimens used to formally describe the species) [UMZC 27/Para/20/a/1] © University of Cambridge

As an aside, when the Museum reopened in 2018, we surprised Sir David Attenborough by asking him to install one of our standard-wing specimens in a display about Wallace, at which point he did an impromptu impersonation of the feather-flutter Ali described to Wallace.

 

Ali was with Wallace for almost the entire voyage, and collected many if not most of the 8,050 birds Wallace sent back to Europe (and prepared the skins of many more he didn’t shoot himself). Ali is therefore represented in the tens of museums worldwide with “Wallace” specimens.

Heroes and Villains and Nuance

Despite Wallace’s respect for Ali and many of the other Malay collectors he references, at times Wallace’s writing exemplifies the deep-set colonial view of naturalists and explorers of the time.

The king bird-of-paradise at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge – most likely the specimen that Baderoon collected for Wallace, described in The Malay Archipelego. [UMZC 27/Para/2/a/10] © University of Cambridge

Another of the specimens from Wallace’s voyage that we have in Cambridge is a king bird-of-paradise Cicinnurus regius from the Aru Islands between New Guinea and Australia, which is in all probability the one he describes in the passage below. He proudly credits Baderoon for having collected it (Baderoon was from Celebes, not Aru), but goes on to imply that the Indigenous people who were acting as his guides simply did not count.

“I had obtained a specimen of the King Bird of Paradise (Paradisea regia) … The emotions excited in the minds of a naturalist, who has long desired to see the actual thing which he has hitherto known only by description, drawing, or badly-preserved external covering — especially when that thing is of surpassing rarity and beauty, require the poetic faculty fully to express them. The remote island in which I found myself situated, in an almost unvisited sea, far from the tracks of merchant fleets and navies; the wild luxuriant tropical forest, which stretched far away on every side; the rude uncultured savages who gathered round me, — all had their influence in determining the emotions with which I gazed upon this ‘thing of beauty.’ I thought of the long ages of the past, during which the successive generations of this little creature had run their course — year by year being born, and living and dying amid these dark and gloomy woods, with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness; to all appearance such a wanton waste of beauty. Such ideas excite a feeling of melancholy. It seems sad, that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy.” (Wallace, 1869)

beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy”. Wallace is suggesting that the people of the Aru Islands could not recognise their aesthetic beauty, nor had the “intelligent eye[s] to gaze upon their loveliness”. In the emotional, evocative sweep of a pen, Wallace dismissed the experiences, understanding and knowledge of the Indigenous people living alongside the birds, in a way which many Wallace fans may find disquieting.

In decolonisation work it can be tempting to either build up people as heroes who valued the contributions of a diversity of people, or knock down them down as racist villains. However, from the pair of quotes above, we can see that it’s probably more nuanced than that. At times, individuals wrote things that suggest they saw their local collaborators as equals, while at other times their words are deeply problematic.

It’s unfortunate, because not only is most specimen documentation inadequate for telling the truths that would allow museums to celebrate a more diverse group of people who contributed to the history of their collections, but the accounts we do have access to aren’t necessarily trustworthy.

But we do have to try, otherwise museums aren’t telling the stories truthfully. Looking for the Alis and Baderoons in our collections might help more people realise that – as well as all the dead white men – people like them played vital roles in the science and the history on display. And that museums are about them too. To fail to do that is a gross underestimation of museums’ relevance.

References

Van Wyhe, J. & Drawhorn, G. M., 2015. ‘I am Ali Wallace’: The Malay Assistant of Alfred Russel Wallace. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 88, Part 1(308), pp. 3-31.

Wallace, A. R., 1869. The Malay Archipelago. London: Macmillan and Co..

With thanks to Mike Brooke, George Beccaloni and Andrew Berry for their advice on matching Cambridge’s specimens to Wallace’s notes. And to the Natural History Museum, London, for making scans of Wallace’s field-notes available online.

NatSCA Digital Digest – August

Compiled by Glenn Roadley, Curator (Natural Science), The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

Welcome to the August edition of NatSCA Digital Digest!

What Should I Read?

We’ve got three great NatSCA blogs to read this month. Donna Young, Herbarium Curator at World Museum, Liverpool, writes of her quest to map and document botanical models manufactured by the Brendel Company of Berlin, now found in collections across the world. Be sure to fill in the survey if you have any in your institution.

A blog by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, tells us about the aims and processes behind a new art exhibition at the museum, ‘Evolution as Inspiration’.

Christine Taylor, Curator of Natural History, Portsmouth Museums, writes about the HLF (or NHLF) funded project to share and raise the profile of the city’s natural history collections, ‘Wild about Portsmouth’.

The Museums Association has published articles covering a range of political issues affecting the sector. Nicky Morgan has become the latest Culture Secretary through the rotating door of cabinet members, and further cuts to local authorities have put museums in Bradford under threat of redundancies and closure. The sector-wide discussions surrounding the decolonisation of collections, human rights and corporate sponsorship continue as Ahdaf Soueif resigns from the British Museum’s board of trustees, citing the museums lack of a ‘clear ethical position’ on such issues.

Continue reading

The Dead and the Living: Natural History’s Two Key Pillars in New Art Exhibition

Written by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and curator of ‘Evolution as Inspiration’

Over the past year, I’ve been working with one of the world’s leading naturalists, Jonathan Kingdon, to produce an exhibition of his artworks, entitled Evolution as Inspiration. Translating his science through his art, Kingdon has sought to explore and explain the how’s of why’s of animal appearances.

Beaks as Flags (detail), 2010. Jonathan Kingdon

Although it is an art exhibition of ceramics, sculpture, paintings and drawings, in several senses a natural history museum like ours is the perfect place for this show. Evolution as Inspiration is arranged in two parts. One focusses on the drawings Kingdon made whilst dissecting animal carcasses as he sought to document and understand the adaptations beneath the skin; the other explores his scientific analysis of the evolution of animal signalling and colouration, resulting from decades of observing the behaviours of wild animals.

These two elements of Kingdon’s work reflect two central pillars of natural history: what we can learn from dead specimens is very different to what we can understand by watching live animals in the field. These dual strands of zoological research are also embodied by the history of our collections, and by the people who work and study here in the Museum, in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology in which we are embedded, and in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) with whom we worked with to co-curate this exhibition.

Continue reading

‘Provocative Practice’: New Ways of Working with Natural Science Collections

A 70 foot long whale skeleton hangs overhead a fantastic ‘collection’ of natural science curators, collection managers, conservators, and education and museum professionals, busily gathering around and eagerly greeting each other at this year’s annual Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) conference. As Natural History Museum ‘fly’ specialist Erica McAlister tweeted: “If that fell that’s most of UK’s natural history curators & conservators wiped out”.

NatSCA delegates gathering below the newly hung Fin Whale. Photograph by Simon Jackson, shown thanks to University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

This year’s event (#NatSCA2017), at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, had a record 110 delegates, and as such was the biggest NatSCA conference to date. At the heart of the conference was the new Whale Hall, part of an enormous redevelopment project of the David Attenborough Building. As many of us marvelled at the huge leviathan overhead, the rest of us rushed between advertising sponsor stalls, exchanged ideas, caught up with one another and most importantly, fuelled up on coffee!

Feeling inspired, we were ready to begin this year’s talks on the theme: “Evolving Ideas: Provocative New Ways of Working with Collections” as Paolo Viscardi, NatSCA Chair, keenly ushered us in to the main lecture theatre. Continue reading