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