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Natural History Symposium

On 20 November 2013, 60 delegates from within roughly a two hour driving radius of Oxford gathered at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford to discuss the management and use of natural history collections in the tongue in cheek named conference Crap in the Attic? In particular the conference was designed to be an opportunity to discuss possible joint solutions to shared problems facing the natural science collections in the region.

See tweets from the day here.

Keynote: State of the Nation
The day was introduced by Professor Paul Smith, Director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, who explained that the idea for this meeting came from a session at last year’s Museums Association conference which saw natural history specialists discuss The Elephant in the Room and the decline of specialist natural science curators in the museums sector. Within this session two opposing views emerged:

  1. That the problem of at risk natural history collections could be solved on a national scale quite cheaply. The Museum of Natural History’s Darren Mann suggested at the conference that the £7.83m raised by the Ashmolean to purchase Manet’s portrait of Mademoiselle Claus to prevent its export would probably also have been enough to rehouse the entire UK collection of entomological specimens held outside national and university museums.
  2. That natural history curators are no worse off than any other curators, but that they are more vocal in their complaints, and they need to take more proactive responsibility for the future of their collections and profession.

Paul suggested that the truth probably lies somewhere between the two and that with moderate investment the outlook for natural science collections could be improved, if natural science curators take the lead in securing this future.

Paul suggested that National Museums and ACE funded Major Partner Museums should play a leading role in this move forward, and was pleased to note that this was beginning to happen, with initiatives coming out of the Natural History Museum in London and Manchester Museum as well as Oxford. However, Paul warned that it would be unsustainable for this leadership to take the form of simple resource transfer between larger and smaller museums, and that help should not result in larger museums adopting orphaned collections: if young people can’t engage with natural history collections where they are, where will the next generation of natural science curators and enthusiasts come from? Paul suggested that natural science collections need to come together to make strategic plans for the future of their collections, and seek independent funding for these initiatives from bodies such as Arts Council England.

Watch an excerpt from Paul's talk: "Why are we here?"

Collections Snapshot: significant biological collections in the West Midlands
Next up, Luanne Meehitiya, Curator of Natural Science at Birmingham Museums Trust, discussed the review of biological collections which she is currently carrying out in the West Midlands.

Luanne expressed concern for natural science collections as they appear to have lost more specialist curators than other areas, and because the collections cannot be left without care as they are extremely vulnerable to decay. However Luanne also noted reasons to be positive, as recent surveys show that natural science collections are some of the most popular with the public, and their potential research value.

Watch an excerpt from Luanne's talk "What's the situation?"

Luanne explained that she was receiving Arts Council funding through the Birmingham Museums Trust to conduct the survey of biological collections in the West Midlands, which would complement the previous Fast Forward survey and report on geological collections. Within the survey Luanne decided to focus on covering a breadth of collections, to provide both an overview for the region and practical assistance and advice to individual museum services, and to try and be quantitative in the evaluation through a significance framework in order to have strong material for advocacy purposes.

qualitative methodology was to give collections a significance rating based on
their significance as a collection, their usage and the quality of their care.

Watch an excerpt from Luanne's talk on her review methodology "Investigating the West Midlands"

So far in the review Luanne has visited nine museums and her first impressions include:

  • Smaller museums have larger natural history collections than they think spread across their museum.
  • Collections are being used creatively for engagement which is very positive, however this is  often only a small proportion of museum’s overall collection.
  • There are significant amounts of unused and unprovenanced material which raises questions around collections rationalisation.
  • Museums without specialist curators often struggle to fully grasp health and safety concerns, and unravel government policies and guidance around specialist areas such as CITES.
  • The problem for most museums is the time, space and resources to care for and use their natural science collections.

Luanne’s presentation slides, with speaking notes, can be downloaded here.

Panel discussion: Research and Collections Care
The morning session was closed with a panel discussion which focused on:

  • What support collections need
  • Which disciplines need the most support
  • Which collections are without specialist curators 
  • What we might like to consider investing in regionally. 

The panel was chaired by Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections at the Oxford University Museums of Natural History, and he was joined by Luanne, Robert Huxley, Principal Curator at the Natural History Museum in London, consultant Steve Garland and Richard Le Saux, Senior Keeper at the .

Darren opened by asking the panel what support they thought was needed. The panel agreed that while additional resources and support for collections within museums was clearly needed, a key to success would be improved networks to sharing knowledge, and improved advocacy on behalf of the sector. NatSCA was an obvious main portal for this type of activity, but needs to be more proactive, which is difficult as it is a volunteer led organisation and ‘everyone has a day job’. Mark Carnall (Grant Museum) suggested that there are small things that museums could do (and should do) that would make a difference, such as ensuring that they inform researchers who contact them where else they might find useful collections, and to be more vocal about the good work that is happening within their museums.

Tracy Aze, a Research Fellow at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History noted that she did not think that there was enough awareness within the research community regarding how researchers can take their funding to a museum in order to support research and  public engagement. She thought that increasing awareness about this, especially with junior researchers, could be a boon for collections research and engagement, especially in smaller museums.

Richard Le Saux drew the panel’s attention to the fact that it is not research, but engagement that will ultimately save collections. Delegates agreed and  the afternoon session explored this thinking further.

Watch the panel answer the question "What do our collections need?"

Natural History Collections and object-based learning
Janet Stott, Head of Education at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, kicked off the afternoon session with a presentation on object based learning.

Janet explained that in addition to increasing numbers of designated museum education staff, curators and other museum staff are dedicating an increasing amount of time to learning and communications.  She went on to demonstrate that museums offer a unique learning environment due to the atmosphere of the buildings and the access to collections and expertise they provide.  She and her colleagues consider themselves very lucky to work in one of the best classrooms in the world.

Janet engaging the audience with a big bone!

In particular,  the unique opportunity that museums offered for kinaesthetic learning styles, which can’t be easily achieved in the classroom, and the impact that touching objects can have on the learning experience, which Janet demonstrated with a giant bone!

Watch Janet discuss the "Principles of investigating an object"

Janet shared a quote from a 13 year old student of how they felt about science learning at school:
‘Science at school – I find it quite mundane, there is nothing creative about it. It can be cool when you see something, like a video of a chemical dropping into water or do an experiment, but everything is set out, nothing is your own. In Art, English even History you can express your own opinion about why you think it is happening, but you just can’t in science.’

Janet thought that museums could inject some of the creativity into science learning which is not currently provided by the school curriculum and gave a review of the current school science curriculum, highlighting areas where she thought museums could play more of a role. These slides are available here.

Watch Janet on "Promoting Creativity"

To end her talk Janet shared some examples of the kinds of education programmes currently undertaken at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, including:

Janet’s slides are available here.

Using natural history collections for biological recording
Janet was followed by Stave Hewitt, Keeper of Natural Sciences at Tullie House Museum, who gave an overview of the creation of the Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre (CBDC) within the museum and the impact it has had.

Established in 2010, the museum hosts the CBDC on an at cost basis, with the CBDC self-financing with ring-fenced funds within the wider museum reserves. This has seen a significant increase in the museum’s ability to work with their natural science collections in terms of members of staff dedicated to natural science collections, membership of the Cumbrian Natural History Society which is imbedded within the museum, the number of records that the museum has available and the number of species that have been recorded. This has meant that the museum’s collections are both now invaluable for confirming the reliability of the previous generation of recorders and collectors, and can act as a long term home for voucher material supporting present and future biological records.

The collections at Tullie House have already enabled recent taxonomic splits to be applied to historical records and overlooked species to be brought to light, and have provided historic data to give a proper understanding of contemporary environmental issues, for example the dwindling of certain butterfly species in the area, which have been reintroduced based on their known historic sites.

Watch an excerpt from Steve's talk on "Museum collections and biological recording"

Steve’s slides can be downloaded here.

Panel: Engaging with natural science collections
The afternoon panel was chaired by Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and she was joined by Janet, Steve, and Helen Roy, an Ecological Entomologist with the Biological Records Centre.

First the panel discussed how museums can facilitate deeper engagement with the natural sciences beyond the first school trip, or museum visit, or even participation in a citizen science crowdsourcing activity. The panel concurred that a key method of achieving this was working with wildlife organisations as well as offering opportunities at the museums themselves, such as the After School Club at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History which is a 9 week intensive programme for kids identified by their school as having ‘a frog in their pocket’. It was agreed that volunteering provides an important gateway for adults, and that unlike many art and social history collections, there are significant opportunities for volunteers to work with natural science collections. The key is for volunteers to be proactive in order to engage deeply with the museum; Darren commented ‘if we find someone with the hunger, we can feed it’.

In the course of the session, the panel considered provocative question of  whether if new investment was to become available, collections care or public engagement should be prioritised. This was eloquently responded to by Mark Carnall from the Grant Museum who stated that in this day and age, where curators and museum professionals are increasingly expected to ‘do it all’ - research, collections care, engagement – resources needed to be treated in the same way and that they are too indivisible to prioritise separately.

Round Up
At the end of the day Paul took the delegates through a wrap up session which reflected on the discussions and looked at ways to take them forward.

1.How can natural science collections better advocate for themselves, and how can the various museums and organisations work together more effectively to achieve this?

It was agreed that there where possible museums could do more to advocate to researchers accessing their collections about the sector as a whole, and that whenever museums are in attendance at research community meetings, they should ask organisers for five minutes just to remind the research communities what museums can provide.

2. How can larger museum services realistically offer support to smaller museums with natural science collections?

It was agreed that seeking funding for a peripatetic curator would be a good idea, and that their work should start with a collections review along the lines of Luanne’s work in the West Midlands. There was no consensus about whose responsibility it should be to monitor collections care, and importantly collections disposal, but it was felt that the increased knowledge of these activities that would be provided by a review would be beneficial.

3. How museums can better share best practice in using collections to engage audiences?

It was agreed that a series of half day workshops focussing on different areas of engagement – for example senior school, lifelong learning, etc. – through case studies would be beneficial, and that these could be held 2-3 times a year at museums throughout the region.

Anecdotal feedback from the day suggests that delegates found it to be a useful forum to network and share ideas, as well as discuss some of the shared issues facing the sector. It was agreed that the opportunity to get together and discuss what is happening was invaluable and something that should be repeated – maybe next year.

If you would like to provide any feedback on this event or this blog please feel free to contact us: | .

Watch all the above video excerpts from the day here:

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