‘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

Meet the NatSCA Committee – Paul A. Brown

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Archivist

Name: Paul A. Brown

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee? I am the Archivist, responsible for collecting together the archives from our previous incarnations; The Biology Curators’ Group and The Natural Sciences Conservation Group and more recent NatSCA documents. Most of this sits by my desk. Do any of you membership have anything that could be added?

Job title and institution: Senior Curator, Hemiptera (Sternorrhyncha), Thysanoptera, Phthiraptera, Psocoptera, Collembola, Thysanura, Archaeognatha, Diplura & Protura, Insect Small Orders section, Life Sciences Department, Natural History Museum, London.

Twitter username: I am too old to learn how to have one!

On field work at Scolt Head, Norfolk

On field work at Scolt Head, Norfolk

Tell us about your day job: I am presently responsible for part of the ‘small’ orders listed above. This entails re-curating and data-basing the mostly microscope slide collections and dealing with scientific visitors, loans of material and answering enquiries. I still do some research into the taxonomy of Aphids in particular (see research-gate). Almost 40 years in Museums so according to some, I might know something? If you have problems with microscope slides then who ya gonna call, ‘slide busters?’! Continue reading

NatSCA Digital Digest – April

Colobus monkey © E-L Nicholls

What Should I Read?

I came across a very entertaining blog by Lily Nadine Wilks which looks at the frustrations of museum documentation in Mysteries of the Past. She has been working on the Charles Lyell digitisation project at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Having noticed lately that there are more harlequin ladybirds in my house than there are Lego sets*, I was interested to come across A decade of invasion – a story of Harlequin Ladybird in the UK. I can’t believe THAT many ladybirds exist in the UK having only arrived in 2004. They are clearly a prolific species, if only I could teach them to write research papers. Continue reading

Famous Flies – Petiver

Yes. That is the title and this is a blog telling you about some of them. I was tasked with the job of hunting through the thousands of drawers, the hundreds of jars and the millions of slides to find the most famous or most infamous of specimens within the Collection at the Natural History Museum London. I have worked on the fly collection at the museum for over ten years now but still regularly come across hidden gems in the collection. Just in the fly collection, we have approximately 3-4 million specimens (when you see jars swimming with flies you will understand why this estimate has such a large degree of error), that have been collected since the early 17th Century from every geographical region around the world. Some of the collectors are recognisable whilst others are less so but have come to mean so much to us who deal with the collection.

So, let me welcome you to the collection. It is arguably the best fly collection in the world – I admit I may be a little biased but please be patient with me. I get very excited about the flies and forget most of my impartiality. Continue reading

Top Ten Most Read Blogs of 2016

Blogs to shout about (Dakshin, 2013, image in public domain)

Blogs to shout about (Dakshin, 2013, image in public domain)

2016 was a busy year for the NatSCA blog, we published 27 blogs from a super range of authors on an exciting variety of topics. When looking at the analytics of the blog to see what’s popular, it became apparent that people don’t just read what’s current in terms of publication date, they read what’s relevant to them at the time. This means that on top of the 27 blogs published last year, a further 102 blogs dating back to 2012 were also viewed from our archive, in 2016.

Since its inception in August 2012, there have been 182 blogs published on the NatSCA website, and so with such a large number, it’s really interesting to see what grabbed people’s attention, or search engines, the most. Continue reading

Conservation of a Venus Flower Basket

Venus flower basket. (NOAA, 2012, Image in public domain)

Venus flower basket. (NOAA, 2012, Image in public domain)

At The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum, a proposed case re-display was to focus on design. Thus the Art Curator and the Natural Historian got together and produced 13 grubby Venus flower baskets (a type of glass sponge).

As a trained objects conservator I have seen many items come across my desk, however these were a first. Never having seen these deep sea siliceous sponges before, I found them quite fascinating. There are 13 in our collection and at least one of them came from the Challenger Expedition of 1870. The sponges themselves offer a fascinating insight into the first date hotel; a young shrimp couple enter the skeleton of the sponge and mate for life – a jolly good love affair or entrapment? Whichever side you fall on, the actual construction of the sponge is what fascinated the Art Curator. The lattice work formation of the skeleton, which is incredibly strong and functional yet also beautiful, has inspired architects and engineers. Norman Foster’s ‘Gherkin’ building owes a lot to this design of nature. Even David Attenborough listed them in his ‘Attenborough’s Ark’ aired in 2012. Continue reading

How to Store Taxidermy

We all know that discussing issues with other museum professionals within Subject Specialist Networks is an efficient way of disseminating information within the sector, but the following article provides a perspective from a generalist commercial storage company; a voice we don’t usually hear from.

Safestore, the UK’s largest self-storage provider, recently made a video series called ‘Stuff is Great‘ which focused on collectors and their individual passions. Among other client case studies, the series featured Suzette Field and her collection of taxidermy specimens. The following article, How to Store Taxidermy, was written by Safestore themselves and provides useful guidance on how to use these public facilities for storing such material.

This taxidermy collection featured in the Safestore project 'Stuff is Great'. © Safestore

This taxidermy collection featured in the Safestore project ‘Stuff is Great’. © Safestore

As any taxidermy enthusiast will know, a sizable collection can take years to build.  During that time your life and circumstances will change; you may welcome children into your life, move home, change job, all the while accumulating more pieces.  At some point you may be faced with the challenge of storing your taxidermy and with the right know-how it’s not as painful a process as it sounds!

Safestore recently stored a taxidermy collection and found it to be the safest environment for high value taxidermy.  Your attic or garage may seem like a cheaper alternative but both locations are affected by the changing climate throughout the year, putting undue stress on your collection.

Follow these tips for storing your taxidermy safely…

  1. Use wooden crates.

Using a wooden crate for each taxidermy piece means you can affix the mounts to the inside of the crates.  This will keep the taxidermy from touching the inside of the crate and allow air to circulate the piece.  Cardboard isn’t sturdy enough for large taxidermy pieces and doesn’t offer the same protection.

  1. Keep the damp away.

Storage units are typically very dry but the climate can vary from time to time.  Add silica gel packets to each crate as they will absorb any moisture in the air and keep your taxidermy dry.

  1. Keep the pests away.

Moths and small bugs would love nothing more than nibbling away at your taxidermy pieces so using ‘no pest strips’ or moth killer strips will help to keep your crates critter free.

  1. Climate and humidity.

When looking for self storage units for your taxidermy, ensure your unit is somewhat climate controlled.  Units on the outer edge of the building may be more prone to temperature changes so ask for a unit that remains cool and dry throughout the year.

Taxidermy is expensive and some pieces are one of a kind, therefore it is imperative to ensure your items are safe and secure once in storage.  Look for self storage facilities with 24hr CCTV, restricted access, sole key holder policies and intruder alarms.

  1. Check!

It’s super important to check your taxidermy from time to time, especially if you’re storing for a number of months.  Make sure you replace the pest strips and silica packets and check for any signs of damage or stress.  It’s easier to rectify a problem sooner rather than later!

Ultimately taxidermy is for displaying and enjoying, however if you’re in need of an interim home for your collection you’re not short of options.  Keeping your pieces safe and in good condition is easy so long as each item is packed with due care and is stored somewhere out of harm’s reach.

By Tiffiny Franklin, Digital Outreach Executive, Safestore