NatSCA conference 2012

I spent last weekend at the annual conference of the Natural Sciences Collections Association.   It took place in London at two venues; the wonderful Horniman Museum and the recently re-developed Grant Museum.  It was a great opportunity to learning new things; chat to some interesting people; drink lots of coffee (not through needing to stay awake mind!); and eat some great food.  The food at both institutions was very good but the highlight for me was the Thursday evening meal at Chutneys vegetarian restaurant.  What a treat!

The theme of the conference this year was ‘Use It or Lose It’, and many of the talks focused on the importance of collections for research and the use of museum objects for teaching.

Thursday began in glorious fashion with the sky reflecting the great promise about what the day would bring.  Following some introductions given by our hosts, Jack and Paolo; and a brief overview of recent developments at the Horniman by director Janet Vitmayer; we were treated to an interesting look at young children’s experiences in natural history museums by PhD student Elee Kirk.  Her innovative use of digital cameras helped to remove some pre-conceptions about children only liking shiney, charismatic objectys; although some ideas like a love of scary things remain eternal.

Roberto Portela Miguez and Oliver Crimmen from the Natural History Museum gave a talk about the challenges faced and benefits gained from taking a punt on a charismatic yet expensive specimen like the Giant Squid.

After a coffee break, Jack Ashby from the Grant Museum gave a talk about a university museum providing worth to the institution and using the collection for wider public and academic needs such as art projects, which are good for funding.  He also discussed some recent additions to the Grant such as QRator, an innovative use of social media to respond to visitor questions.

Mary Spencer Jones from the NHM gave a stimulating talk about documenting long term biodiversity changes in Scotland and Tristan da Cunha (an isolated Atlantic outpost) using Bryzoans.

Finally, Liz Knight and Esther Amis-Hughes from Leeds Museums and Galleries provided some great entertainment as well as a serious message about using the collection in outreach with the local community and creating ‘the wow factor’ in your audience engagement.

A delicious lunch and a little time spent in the Horniman itself preceded the NatSCA AGM were I was formerly introduced to everyone and many things to do with the good ship NatSCA were discussed.

Following this, a group of us got the bus to get a tour by Dr Joe Cain, head of the Department of Science and Technology Studies at UCL, about Crystal Palace and the dinosaurs.  What a sight the original glass house designed by Joseph Paxton would’ve been!  But the 300 meter long glass house and the fountains as tall as the stadium lights which are now found there would still have been no match for Benjamin Waterhouse-Hawkins’ brilliant prehistoric creations (in my slightly biased eyes!)  what a treat it would’ve been to behold the water powering the fountains recede and reveal the monstrous beasts in all their glory.  It’s ironic that Waterhouse-Hawkins was commissioned to fill an otherwise uninteresting part of the park; now they are the definite stars of the show!  They were made out of cement and looked every inch the ‘dinosaurs of old’; like a living monument to past palaeontological endeavours.  I like the fact that a lot of them are anatomically incorrect!

Crystal Palace Dinosaur Photo courtesy of Rachel Jennings (Horniman museum: http://rachisaurus.wordpress.com)

Following Joe’s great tour we headed to the Grant Museum for a drinks reception (it was hard work but we managed to get through…)   Then on to the Indian restaurant, Chutney’s for a great banquet of vegetarian food!

I was pretty stuffed following Thursday’s meal! (image of a puffer fish courtesy of the Grant museum).

The following day (Friday 30th) began in the UCL main building.  We were welcomed by Sally MacDonald, Director of UCL Museums and Public Engagement, who stressed the importance of using a collection; even if it means losing it.

Jan Freedman from Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery was the first speaker giving us a detailed look at the problems overcome and achievements of accessioning an entire collection from the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth.  Sometimes this involved getting rid of and transferring certain specimens due to storage restrictions.

Ed Baker from the NHM gave a futuristic look at natural sciences and the web; although I detected a notable intake of breath as he began the talk by saying “if it’s not online it doesn’t exist!”  Ed was able to show us how even incomplete data is better than nothing and I will definitely investigate the use of scratchpad in the future.

Paolo then delivered Hannah Russ’s lecture on reviewing collections for HE teaching.  I was particularly taken by ‘skelecycle’ (reusing skeletons in teaching) and the pros and cons of de-accessioning items to universities were they can be used more regularly.

Following a coffee break, Rosalind Duhs and Leonie Hannan put us in the mind of a student engaging with object based learning to show the importance and benefits of using collections for this purpose.

Finally, Sally Colvin from the Museums Association gave us a timely update on funding issues and what’s available to apply for via the MA.

Following a nice lunch in the UCL courtyard (again in the sun; we’d definitely been spoiled!); myself and the rest of the red-stickered crew went for a snoop around the Petrie archaeological museum.  This was quite timely with a programme airing on BBC four about the great man just before our visit.

Ancient Egyptian stelae (courtesy of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology)

We then took part in a workshop at the Grant museum on the collections review which took place at the Grant recently.  It was discovered the Grant had double the number of items in the collection than previously thought; where had it all been hiding?!  Finally we toured the Wellcome Collection which is a personal favourite of mine having spent many a good hour in there awaiting my train back up north from Euston!  The latest exhibition on the Brain contained some very beautiful objects and made me think more carefully about how science and art can come together; a theme repeated time and again during the conference as cuts take hold.

I left the conference with more enthusiasm for a career in natural history curation than I had before the conference.  Despite the cuts, if you have the determination then this is definitely a a fascinating and rewarding sector to work in.  I was made to feel welcome; met some wonderful people; and learned a great deal.  I left hoping I would remain part of the NatSCA community for many years to come.

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About Trainee Curator

I will be writing a blog about the next twelve months spent as a trainee biological curator based at Manchester Museum.
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