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
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
‘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
Gardener’s Delight – A Volunteers’ Day at Gainsborough’s House and Garden, Sudbury 6th March 2018
This was a most welcome outing after the worst snowstorm in a decade had kept us unwillingly house-bound and absent from our emergent gardens. There were 28 of us, all volunteer gardeners from the region’s museums travelling to Sudbury from our different locations. On arriving at this historic and delightful house, the atmosphere was warm and inviting and worth every mile of the long trek through the cold grey skies of East Anglia.
The view onto the garden below was enticing but our attention was quickly captured by the start of proceedings and anticipation of the unknown. With immaculate time-keeping skills, the invited speakers took us on a journey through the paintings and Iris collections of Cedric Morris, enchantingly secret gardens of East Anglia and the enduring story of our orchards, faded but not lost, due to the painstaking work of Orchards East.
Highlights of the day were the 400 year-old Mulberry Tree, centrepiece of the Museum’s walled garden, the historic beauty of the House and its contents, the enthusiasm, knowledge and dedication of the contributors, the seed swap and the excellent planning and organisation which had gone into making the day such a success; and last but not least the most welcome and enjoyable lunch and refreshments.
Carolyn Flynn, Volunteer Gardener at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, Norfolk
Today’s blog is brought to you by Joe Hoyle, SHARE’s outgoing Museum Development Assistant. Joe worked in this role for two years; administrating the SHARE training calendar, coordinating large events and overseeing the team’s communications and finance. Prior to this, Joe had worked with the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum collection at Norwich Castle, the National Trust in Cambridgeshire, and spent 2 years with Lancashire Museums Service.
In what is fast becoming SHARE tradition, I am ending my time here with some final thoughts. If you are reading this, I will spare you any holier-than-thou predictions. I am neither qualified nor experienced enough to talk about museum futures or their place in the world. My role has offered many fly-on-the-wall moments though, and I have been privy to a range of discussions, meetings, experiences and challenges that have shaped how I perceive museums in this region. I have also had a great deal of fun, so I’ll start there.
September 2016, Newmarket. My colleagues Ruth and Kathy have joined me in the gent’s toilets at the Jockey Club Rooms. We are gazing in awe at the bathroom’s mellifluous grace and majesty. Kathy is holding the soft white hand towels, Ruth is examining the fine cubicle doors and I’m trying to take a photograph of a sink. Nobody is standing guard but we’re hoping not to be found. Our attention to detail while museum conference planning knows no bounds. The best toilet I’ve ever been in? Undoubtedly.
The team at the Jockey Club Rooms, Newmarket. This wasn’t the toilets…
Fast-forward three months. I have made a grave error. I’m sat in a meeting at Imperial War Museum Duxford with my back to the window that overlooks the runway. Half an hour in and I can hear the unmistakable splutter of a Rolls Royce Merlin engine behind me. A Spitfire is taxiing along the runway and I’m missing it. I can only guess at what is happening from examining the eyes of those across the table. They, in turn, are craning their necks around my despondent face to catch a glimpse of the fierce flying machine. I’m a man in his twenties close to tears.
Like the Jockey Club bathroom, I saw the Spitfire in all its splendour eventually. I then saw a Hawker Hurricane. I went back later and saw a Bristol Blenheim, a Douglas Dakota and a Vought Corsair. I also saw a huge French Tricolour that month, captured in 1800 by Horatio Nelson himself and unfurled for the first time in a generation. My job has taken me from creaking wooden buildings of rural Suffolk to sleek, modern edifices in Cambridge. From the Broads of Norfolk to inner city Luton. I have met a great many people, from volunteers to senior managers to celebrities of the trade (I’m still processing shaking hands with John Orloff, the American screenwriter who penned some of the HBO Band of Brothers episodes). Everybody I’ve met has a head full of ideas, all equally valid. But what have I learned?
Delivering a session in Norfolk
Here goes… Are this regions museums in a downward spiral, chronically underfunded yet bloated with CVs from bright-eyed professionals? Well, yes and no. Are museums struggling to broaden their audiences? Probably. Is a museums’ place in society being increasingly side-lined by local government? I think so. Is everybody being asked to do more with less? Almost certainly. The future looks grim for many museums out there, but not all… I think.
In all this hullabaloo, “I want to work in museums” is something I’ve heard a thousand times. Admirable indeed, but why? Museum jobs are as varied as a blacksmith is to a DJ. How does the wish to work “in a museum” manifest itself into brushing mould off the back of a wooden door? Surely… Surely those who work in museums have a fundamental appreciation of history, art and heritage at a base-level? Whether it’s teaching children, informing new audiences, writing, designing, conserving, working in the community, improving accessibility or helping the museum to grow financially, this fundamental appreciation surely comes first? This is certainly the reason I’ve worked in heritage for five years.
“I want to work in museums”. Hmmmm.
When I landed my first museum job at the Lancaster City Museum, I couldn’t help but feel a little short-changed when the manager told me she was originally from Stafford, 100 miles down the M6. A foreigner in a local community museum!? I learned very quickly that this was quite normal and I was in fact being preposterously ignorant. She was a great match for the museum because of her passion and skill. She was a curator first and foremost with a love for heritage.
To be blunt, that’s why I’ve enjoyed my time in the sector. Who else could be so excited by a piece of old cloth or bit of metal in a damp store? I read last week that a novelty lighter from the Mexico 1986 Football World Cup had just washed ashore on a beach in Scotland – my first thought was “get it accessioned somewhere!” My favourite museums, like my favourite people, are always those that are rough around the edges. Those museums where subject matter is the absolute priority (sometimes at the expense of other amenities), put together by staff and volunteers who care. Their collections, lovingly embraced, speak to people.
Life for me beyond SHARE is unknown. Though my compass is pointed north west, I’ve yet to figure out what I’ll be doing. I’m a realist though – it may never be in the sector again. I’ll end on this – If the Goddess of Museums visited me in my sleep tonight and granted me one wish for Her dominion, it would probably be;
“No matter what challenges our institutions face (and there are many), may we never lose sight of how subject matter binds us together with a lust for learning, sharing and caring. May this passion influence what we do, who we employ and how we work.”
Passion and natural enthusiasm trump all other facets, and I really hope it remains so in every museum. Whatever the weather. It may be the only thing some museums have left.
Please be passionate for the subject!
Located in a beautiful Georgian building in the town of Hoddesdon, Lowewood Museum showcases the history of the Borough of Broxbourne and is managed by the Museums, Heritage and Culture team at Epping Forest District Council. The museum recently opened a newly refurbished shop and coffee pop-up.
The old museum shop area had been a multi-function space that was dated, confused and too crowded. Catering had never been offered at the museum. Although it had been considered in the past, the risk of placing an unknown commercial proposition over gallery space was too great a leap. Over time, the provision of a café offer was identified as a priority. It would increase visitor numbers and dwell times, coupled with the creation of a revised hire space to give the museum a new commercial footing.
Last year Epping Forest District, Broxbourne Borough and Chelmsford City museums were successful in setting up a ‘No Borders Partnership‘ that received Arts Council resilience funding to develop a more sustainable footing – a keystone of which was improved commerciality. The Museum’s aspiration to refurbish the Lowewood commercial offer was now achievable and planning for a range of activites began.
Following the appointment of a new Commercial Manager, Shane Bartley, the first identified priority was the Lowewood refurbishment project. It soon became clear that delivery of an improved commercial offer with added venue hire opportunities meant a new divisible multi-use space. This would feature a café-style seating area to complement the new coffee pop up . The new retail offering was also developed in conjunction with the Museum’s Commercial Activities Officer, Francesca Pellegrino, who worked closely with the Council’s Youth Panel to identify new ways to refresh the shop area completely.
The project was delivered within the tight budget constraints of the resilience project grant. There were surprises along the way including the discovery of a floor that was not a floor, and the unearthing of a time capsule (that was returned for future explorers). Surprises aside, the deadline for delivery was achieved and the official opening received support from Councillors and Senior Officers from both local authorities in attendance, as well as representatives from the newly formed Culture Without Borders Development Trust, and the Museum’s Society of Friends.
Initial feedback has been very positive. One review in the Hoddesdon Society Newsletter stated “A new facility at Lowewood, quite apart from the wealth of documents, artefacts and pictures available for inspection, is an attractive snack room welcoming visitors to enjoy tea and coffee”.
For more information contact: Shane Bartley – Sbartley@eppingforestdc.gov.uk