Volunteers Co-ordinators Forum session – 1 May 2018

Volunteers Co-ordinators Forum session – 1 May 2018

I was looking forward to the Volunteers Co-ordinators Forum session on museums as contributors to wellbeing for volunteers at Gainsboroughs House in the first week of May. I have previously enjoyed SHARE events as an education volunteer, but in my new role as a Wellbeing Co-ordinator at the Higgins, Bedford, my focus is to expand our wellbeing programme whilst developing and maintaining strong relationships with our volunteers.

Miranda Stearn, Head of Learning at the Fitzwilliam started with a succinct discussion around the meaning of wellbeing and how it works with targeted museum audiences. The research undertaken by bodies from parliamentary groups, the HLF, the Arts Council, Wellcome and the National Alliance for Museums, Health & Wellbeing highlighted the commitment to partnership working with experts in the field of social care in this relatively new area. On a local scale, the importance of museums linking with GP practices to offer ‘social prescribing’ with wellbeing activities in a non-clinical environment will be invaluable.

Then, a speaker from outside the museum sector, giving us a refreshing and different perspective;  Craig Weeks from Macmillan Cancer Support.  Their carefully considered structure of volunteer management practice from recruitment, induction, support and supervision, including toolkits for managers, demonstrated how dedicated the organisation is to looking after the wellbeing of their 20,000 + volunteers. Effective support to people helping others in such a sensitive area is vital. I was interested to hear that not all volunteers like being called volunteers! People ‘giving their time’ can be a more appropriate description. Despite admitting that they hadn’t got everything right, the principles of having a happy, relaxed, confident, skilled, secure and safe volunteer workforce are embedded in Macmillan’s ethos. 

Jenna Ingamells, Museum Project Officer for Suffolk, discussed the positive health and wellbeing benefits of museum engagement in four Suffolk museums.

‘Creative Heritage & Art in Mind’ workshops enabled people to improve their mental wellbeing through creating work inspired by what was around them. The emphasis on a local narrative with people being connected to the community through art and objects is a great strength. ‘The Men’s Shed’ at Leiston was particularly inspiring. Mainly retired men have used their skills to put back together an engine from the museum collection and in the process enjoyed the company of others and reduced feelings of social isolation. The ‘Lowestoft Rising’ project highlighted the mutual benefits of working in partnerships. Matching the needs of the Job Centre and the museum was interesting, where job seekers are able to gain confidence and life skills by experiencing a taster in all aspects of museum work learning alongside existing volunteers.

David Blackburn concluded the day with an interactive session on what forum members wanted as topics and themes for future sessions and who might ‘own’ these (with support from the steering group with venues and speakers). Some of the ideas could be linked to create a full day of discussions and will be circulated to the group. The final evaluation of the day; ‘did well’, ‘learned’, ‘do better’ and ‘still puzzled’ was a quick and effective evaluation tool and something I can see myself using in the future.

Thanks to Niki Hughes for organising the day and staff at Gainsboroughs House for being such excellent hosts. Engaging with old and new colleagues is always time well spent. However, trying to resist tasting all of the wonderful cakes was the real challenge of the day!

Vicki Blair, Wellbeing Co-ordinator, The Higgins, Bedford

From Botany to Brontosaurs, Molluscs to (Social) Media, Weavers to Whales…

From Botany to Brontosaurs, Molluscs to (Social) Media, Weavers to Whales…

At this year’s Natural Sciences Collections Association conference, held at Leeds City Museum and titled ‘The Museum Ecosystem: exploring how different subject specialisms can work more closely together’, it really seemed like all aspects of this ecosystem were represented.

Those involved in natural history collections, whatever their job title – be they curators, conservators, technicians, academics, educators, communications specialists, or any of the many other roles in found in museums, archives, and collections – all share a passion for, and a fundamental understanding of the importance of, the specimens in their care. This conference was a fantastic opportunity to meet, and hear from those working across the huge range of subjects encompassed by the network. Unlike most presentations many of us are used to giving, the speakers here did not need to spend precious time justifying why their specimens were worthy of attention, funding, and/or study. From huge collections of thousands of mollusc specimens with just half a dozen dedicated specialists based in UK museums putting together the Great British Mollusc Types project, to the decision of Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery to accept (and ‘process’…) a 40 ft long fin whale carcass from where it was rotting on a beach in West Carlisle four years ago, everyone in the audience understood the intrinsic ‘value’ of these collections and our activities.

One of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Standard specimens, as presented by Yvette Harvey and Saskia Harris.

The overall conference theme was looking at how different collections use collaborations with different fields of expertise, audiences, and approaches to explore, use, and interpret their specimens. It is so difficult to pick the highlights as the entire programme was excellent, but the following memorable talks should give an idea of the range of collections and angles covered. Adam Smith and Martin Nunn from Nottingham City Museum and Galleries presented how their collaboration with colleagues at the University of Nottingham and in China led to an innovative exhibition of never-  seen-before-in-the-UK skeletons, displayed in spectacular manner. Yvette Harvey and Saskia Harris from the Royal Horticultural Society showed how they are engaging members of the horticultural world in the importance of documenting cultivated varieties with the horticultural equivalent of Type specimens – ‘Standard’ specimens to which cultivar names can be permanently attached. David Gelsthorpe from Manchester Museum and Donna Young from the National Museums Liverpool showed us the dramatic and visually stunning results of their work bringing art and science together in their exhibition ‘Object Lessons’. Several talks focused on different ways in which to engage through formal and informal teaching – from Alastair Culham talking about the integration of the Herbarium at the University of Reading into undergraduate and graduate teaching, to Felicity Plent and Bronwen Richards from Cambridge University Botanic Garden talking about their collaboration with the Fitzwilliam Museum and local nursery schoolchildren. The challenges of collaborating and engaging with different audiences was a particularly interesting area for a number of talks, particularly Mark Carnall from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History talking about their LGBTQ+ tour of natural history collections, and how they tackled some of the (often very interesting and thought-provoking) conversations that ensued with some colleagues and members of the public.

Felicity Plent and Bronwen Richards presenting their ‘A Nursery in Residence’ project between the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Our hosts, Clare Brown and Rebecca Machin and Leeds Museums and Galleries, put on a fantastic meeting, with the NatSCA committee. It was a brilliant balance of a warm and welcoming group of like-minded people and an inspiring programme of interesting and informative, thought-provoking, and entertaining talks, with plenty of opportunities for discussion and meeting people during the excellently catered lunches, a super drink reception in the Life on Earth Gallery of the Leeds City Museum, and a really super vegetarian thali feast at local favourite, Hansa’s restaurant. A brilliant end to a super conference was provided in the form of behind-the-scenes tours to see the Leeds Discovery Centre, situated to the south of the city centre, near the docks – home to over a million objects, covering botany, zoology, geology, social history, archaeology, world cultures, textiles, furniture… all stored with their associated data, in climate-controlled pest-free conditions.

 

This really is a dead parrot. Conuropsis carolinensis (the Carolina parakeet), endemic to the USA and once widespread before being hunted to extinction, now in the collections at Leeds Discovery Centre.

I am very grateful to the SHARE Natural History Network and NatSCA for their generous support which enabled me to be able to attend NatSCA 2018. My own presentation at the conference focused on just some of the treasures of the Cambridge University Herbarium and some of the collaborations I’ve been working on and developing since I became the new Curator six months ago.  As I start to put together a strategy for managing and utilising the collections in the future, building on existing and forging new collaborations with other collections is going to be extremely important. As reinforced throughout this conference, we can all learn a lot from different approaches and areas of expertise, and working together on projects opens up all sorts of new possibilities for our collections, and I look forward to working with other members of the network a lot more in the future!

One of Charles Darwin’s botanical specimens collected on the Voyage of the Beagle and now housed in the Cambridge University Herbarium.

 

 

 

 

Lauren Gardiner, Curator of the Cambridge University Herbarium, Department of Plant Sciences, Cambridge University

 

My history with the NatSCA Conference

Firstly, a confession – I’ve never actually written a blog before. I must admit, despite a few people trying to explain to me, I’m still not even sure what a blog actually is!  Dictionary definitions don’t help much, “a truncation of the expression weblog”.  Well, I’m not sure what a ‘weblog’ is either (or why dropping ‘we’ from the front makes it any better?).  However, blogs are apparently written, “in an informal or conversational style”, which I think I can just about manage. Another disclaimer about this blog, is that being a technophobe (I don’t own a smartphone), I’ve shamelessly appropriated pictures from other people’s Twitter feeds (and am therefore not culpable for the quality of the photography!).

The Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA), and I go back some 13 years or so. One of the early meetings (soon after NatSCA formed from the merger between the Biological Curator’s Group and the Natural Sciences Conservation Group in 2003) was hosted by the National Museum of Ireland (Natural History), at Dublin’s famous ‘Dead Zoo’ or Natural History Museum. I was a PhD student at University College Dublin at the time, and did much of my research using the wonderful and extensive bird collections at the National Museum of Ireland. I was invited along to the conference on condition that I helped out at the evening reception as a wine server.  Being a poor student at the time (used to screw-cap bottles), made a pig’s ear of pulling the corks out of many a bottle of wine! No-one seemed to mind though, and the reception amongst the zebra, marsupials and tapir of the ‘Mammals of the World Gallery’ was a truly memorable evening (www.museum.ie/Natural-History/Exhibitions/Current-Exhibitions/3D-Virtual-Visit-Natural-History for a 3D virtual tour).

Fast forward to 2018, and I haven’t missed a NatSCA conference since (which may be a record outside of the main committee members?). I was delighted to be able to receive a conference travel bursary from the Natural Sciences East of England Network to be able to visit Leeds Museums & Galleries again for this year’s conference. For me NatSCA’s talks are a very important way to find out about what’s been going on in the world of natural sciences collections throughout the UK, Ireland and beyond – but the most important part is, what I’ll begrudgingly refer to as ‘networking’.

When mentioning ‘networking’, there’s a danger that it might sound like a loafer’s answer; what someone going on a ‘jolly’ might be looking forward to in a meeting.  However, catching up face-to-face with talented, interesting, hardworking individuals in the same field as oneself cannot be underestimated. I’m the only paid member of staff within both the Natural History and Geology departments at Norfolk Museums Service, and I’m responsible for some 1.2 million specimens. Although, other museums with similarly sized collections have more staff, it certainly isn’t unusual for natural sciences curators to be working on their own. Catching up with people in similar situations is not only a relief, I would argue it is essential for the exchange of ideas and injecting new enthusiasm into ones daily work life.

 

My table at the annual conference dinner at Hansa’s Gujarati restaurant, Leeds (picture courtesy of David Gelsthorpe ‘@paleomanchester’ Twitter).

So, what of the more tangible, formal part of NatSCA? Well, stand out talks for me were given by my friend and former colleague at University College Dublin, Dr Adam Stuart Smith, “From China to Nottingham: the making of Dinosaurs of China” – never did a talk make me kick myself more for not going to a temporary exhibition! A hugely important, ground-breaking exhibition, in which the tiny Wollaton Hall Museum in Nottingham managed to pull-off hosting an internationally important, once in a lifetime exhibition, borrowing dinosaurs never before seen outside of China. Some consolation is that the entire exhibition is still (virtually) available to view in 3D at the following web address: https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=QZ2DPMV1zti

Dr Adam Stuart Smith’s fascinating ‘Dinosaurs of China’ talk (picture courtesy of RNG Herbarium ‘@RNGherb’, Twitter).

Other noteworthy talks included: Jen Gallichan and Jonathan Ablett’s (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum of Wales, Natural History) “Great British Mollusca Types: a union database for the UK” – I have to invite the pair to Norwich to look at our mollusc collection; Jan Freedman’s (Plymouth Museums, Galleries & Archives) “The Social Media Ecosystem” – bonkers, but ever entertaining, Jan and I go back a long way, and despite not seeing each other for 12 months at a time, always manage to pick up our friendship where we left off; Mark Carnall’s (Oxford University Museum of Natural History) “Big Gay Animals: an LGBTQ+ tour of a natural history collection” – I was initially unconvinced about the scientific/educational merits of this talk, but I was totally wrong, and Mark gave a humorous, thought-provoking and enlightening talk.

Will I break my own record and attend NatSCA again next year – absolutely, it’s in Dublin once again, and I can’t wait to visit my own stomping-ground, and continue to be educated, surprised, and even entertained by the marvellous people attending the conference (either socially, or more formally during the talks).

Dr David M. Waterhouse, Senior Curator of Natural History, Norfolk Museums Service

Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSca) annual conference 2018

‘The Museum Ecosystem: exploring how different subject specialisms can work more closely together’ 

Does it Fart?, Corals in space, Horse botfly larvae, Mermaid monkeys and the Spiral of doom:- this has got to be one of the strangest conferences that I have been to in quite a while! Held over 2 days in Leeds Museum, the Natsca national conference theme this year was looking at collaboration and cross working with Natural science collections.

As you might have guessed, the talks range widely across all aspects of natural history. My personal favourites included the video of candidates interviewing for the post of ‘Hunter’ the dinosaur at the 2017 Dinosaurs of China exhibition in Wollaton Hall, Nottingham Natural History Museum. Using theatre skills really added to the visitor experience with ‘Hunter’ becoming one the attractions of the exhibition, alongside the incredible once in a lifetime opportunity to see real dinosaur material from China. Dr Adam Smith, gave excellent insight into how they worked with their local university to stage this amazing exhibition.

 Although the exhibition is now over, you can still see the virtual exhibition ‘Dinosaurs of China’ online

Who knew it was the year of the Reef? The Horniman museum has an excellent programme of events based around this, also highlighting their project Coral; a project researching how to spawn corals in captivity to help repair the reefs in the future. I am now wondering how we can use our own tropical shell collection this year….

And in case you were wondering, does it fart? refers to an entertaining talk by Dr Jan Freeman from Plymouth Museum looking at how social media can be used with unexpected outcomes, such as the book ‘Does it Fart?’ which started simplify as people posting questions online as to whether different animals fart. It seems woodlice do! Experts then came together to publish the book.

I am proud that the surprising hero of the conference was from the East of England in the form of the Museum of East Anglian Life’s tweet of the ‘Absolute unit’ ram! Featured in no fewer than three formal presentations, including that by Alistair Brown, policy officer for the Museum Association talking about Collections 2030. This is going to be an important piece of work by the MA, so look out for all the consultation events and opportunity to let them know your views on collections in the future.

Networking at the conference always proves to be a major benefit of going. This year it gave me the opportunity to not only make new contacts, such as Dr. Gardiner the new curator of the Cambridge University Herbarium, but also to meet up and reconnect with people I used to work with over 18 years ago and haven’t seen since! The downside (if any) of the excellent networking opportunities is that I now have a list of projects I would like to do, and places to visit longer than a giraffe’s neck! The potential for collaboration sparked by just talking to colleagues and natural history specialists are very exciting and I can’t wait to apply them to our collections.

Myself and David Waterhouse from Norfolk Museums meeting up with Jack Ashby soon to be Museum Manager at the Zoology Museum, Cambridge. Are these the largest antlers in the UK?

Most surprising outcome of the conference? Was it the book on animals that fart, or the superstar status of the ‘absolute unit’ ram? Well actually, it was bumping into the assistant community curator at Leeds museum in the Leeds Story Gallery, and learning about their incredible changing community exhibition work and contemporary collecting programme! A valuable new contact, as every little helps when you are a natural historian looking after Social History collections!

A big thank you to the SHARE Natural History Network, and the arts council for making it possible for me to attend.

Glenys Wass, Heritage Collections Manager, Peterborough Museum

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