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 ( 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:

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

Fenland Network – 14th March 2018

Fenlands Network Event: Social Media, Joint Marketing, Local networking

Last week I attended my first Share Network meeting for the ‘Fenland Network’.  The day we spent at Mildenhall and District Museum was both useful and enjoyable, containing a great mixture of both training and networking opportunities.  Attendees were encouraged to give short, 5 minute updates on the current events and activities which are taking place at their museums and I’ve already been able to share with some visitors here at Ely Museum about these local events, encouraging them to head out to the Mill weekend at Burwell Museum in May and to enjoy the Grand Fen Fayre weekend at Ramsey Rural Museum!

We enjoyed a useful and practical social media training session by Kristian Downer, who was able to give us both some practical takeaway advice and many other future options we can explore.  He encouraged us to find the right social media channels to reach the audience we want to connect with.  By using services such as LinkedIn which is already well used and established within the local business community, we can make direct and meaningful contact with our local business leaders.  He also showed us how to target our Facebook advertisements to reach the audiences we seek which was something the network all agreed we’d like more training on, and that is really a great benefit of attending these network meetings, we were able to establish a training need on the day, and get the ball rolling on organising this training at future meeting!

We discussed updates to the website too and the features we would like to see and find on the website, as well as different ways the network could enhance the website with stories and folklore from our own corners of the Fen.

I’d definitely encourage anyone to attend and get involved with their local Fenland Network, it was a great opportunity to meet with fellow museums, share news and updates and get some useful training that is both practical and relevant for museums of our size and location.  Our thanks must also go to Sally Ackroyd and Steve Watson for organising the event and to the volunteers of Mildenhall and District Museum for their hospitality and enjoyable tour of the museum!

Emily Allen works as a Custodian for Ely Museum. 

Gardener’s Delight – A Volunteers’ Day!

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

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