Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales
Collections Reviews in Wales
Collections reviews are a hot topic in museums these days, and for good reasons. Reviews form an integral part of collections management. Last October on this blog, I introduced a number of recent reviews of natural science collections. Now it’s time to talk about the Welsh Museums Federation’s approach.
The dry bit first: we developed a methodology that reflects the constraints of the project. And they are pretty tight: we needed to undertake 20 reviews with an average time allocation of two curator days each. This means getting an overview of holdings, assessing their significance, and identifying any collections needs in a single day. We adapted UCL’s significance toolkit rather than using the more recently published CyMAL assessment. We felt that this better reflected the questions we were asking and the constraints of the project. If you want to know more about the methodology, please get in touch with the 'Linking Collections' project manager.
‘Linking Collections’ was conceived because natural science collections up and down the country are, generally speaking, relatively neglected and in need of TLC. We have found that this really is the case. In some cases, specimens were lovingly repackaged in acid free tissue in good boxes – and then not checked for ten years because of lack of specialist curatorial expertise, sometimes with spectacular results. If you work in a museum you know all about this; you are likely to have seen things no mortal eye should ever have to witness.
Let’s focus on the review process itself. It’s quite simple really. A pre-review questionnaire sent to partner museums early last year collected information about scope and approximate size of collections. This then formed the basis for a decision on how many and which curators (reviewers) to send to each museum. Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales very kindly provided ‘Linking Collections’ with expertise in the form of specialist curators; the National Museum is now the only museum in Wales with specialist natural science curators.
The project manager acts as the match maker and organises the (review) dates. At the museum, each reviewer is
paired up with a local member of staff or a volunteer – in either case somebody who either already is, or will be in future, working with the natural science collection. In this way, the reviewer benefits from local knowledge of physical access to the collection. At the same time, the local staff/volunteers get hands-on training in object handling and a deep insight into their collection from the reviewer. This way of working not only speeds up the process of working through a collection; it also forms an important part of the training element of ‘Linking Collections’, as one of the main aims of the project is to improve the local understanding of natural science collections.
While the reviewer assesses the objects, the assistant fills in the EXCEL data matrix on a laptop. The data matrix asks for a definition of a ‘review unit’ as well as its size (a unit can be a single specimen or an entire cupboard full of specimens); information about provenance, the collector, collection date. We then record any information about local relevance and historic notes, as well as a simple indication of conservation state, documentation, quality of packaging and any potential health and safety issues. Then there is a block of columns with significance assessments, on a traffic-light-scale, regarding different levels of importance (local to international) and value (scientific, historic, educational, …). Finally, the reviewer also records an initial recommendation for potential use of the review unit.
The information we get from this assessment helps determine the potential of each collection. It will also enable to identify gaps in collections that could be addressed, in the future, through the museum’s collecting strategy. And because the approach is consistent between 20 museums it will be possible to compare these collections directly, and see how they complement each other, or whether there are similar problems affecting them. This last point is particularly important in the context of establishing the Distributed National Collection in Wales, which is what this project is all about.
Follow 'Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales' on Twitter @LinkinCollWales or Facebook.
Now that the collections reviews have started in earnest (6 collections down, 14 to go) and things are settling down a bit (ahem...), it is about time to introduce our project partners. Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales is a collaborative project involving many people and organisations. The idea of creating a network of collections (the very philosophy of the Distributed National Collection) would not be possible without partnerships. If we think of the project as a growing plant a number of analogies spring to mind.
The Welsh Museums Federation is instrumental for sowing the seeds of the Linking Collections project; the Federation is the strategic body for sector professionals in Wales and promotes good practice while providing a forum for discussion. Like a spider in her web, the Federation has the links it takes to pull the strings.
The seeds are watered by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund which provided a grant of £100,000 towards the project. These grants fund collections work outside the scope of an organisation’s core resources; in this case for a project manager to pull together collections reviews, data digitisation and online publishing, education resources, a touring exhibition, community engagement and training for museums.
Major nutrients for healthy growth of the little plant, lets say Nitrogen and Phosphorus, are provided by two major partners, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and CYMAL. Amgueddfa Cymru looks after the national collections. Seven museums in different parts of Wales with different themes provide one of the cultural backbones of the nation. Specialist curators from National Museum Cardiff are crucial for the smooth and reliable completion of the collections reviews in the partner museums.
CYMAL are the Welsh Assembly Government's heritage and culture arm; they provide advice and support to the sector in Wales, develop professional standards, manage grant schemes and advise the Minister for Culture and Sport on policy matters. Thanks to support from CYMAL, a number of training courses are going to be run for partner museum curators and volunteers.
And here they come – they have already been mentioned a couple of times: the partner museums. There are 20 of them, and in our little analogy they are the soil in which the plant is growing. I am going to list them all because they deserve it:
And we are not finished: communities are the carbon dioxide each plant needs for photosynthesis, and communities take an increasing interest and get more involved in their local museums. This ranges from amateur collectors organising community-curated displays, to Welsh speakers sharing their knowledge of vernacular terminology, to volunteers helping with identification and curation of museum specimens.
The light for the healthy growth of the plant comes, naturally, from school pupils (particularly from local primary schools), who are increasing better able to utilise their museum, through improved engagement programmes, updated exhibitions and a system of ready-to-use loans boxes with activities and guidance for teachers.
Last but not least, each plant needs someone to look after it, and the gardeners in this case are the members of the steering group. Usually, they prefer to remain modestly in the shadows, but they, too, deserve a mention for their work of seeding and weeding:
Dr Richard Bevins, Keeper of Natural Sciences, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales
Diane Gwilt, Keeper of Collections, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales
Jane Henderson, Senior Lecturer, School of History, Archaeology and Religion, Cardiff University
Dr Hefin Jones, School of Biosciences, Cardiff University
Rachael Rogers, President, Welsh Museums Federation
Mike Wilson, Head of Entomology, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales
A healthy plant is growing
Now I am going to sit back and watch the plant grow. Oh no, there is the next collections review to organise, the data to be edited, the annual report to finish, another meeting coming up… However, I will very much enjoy this new growth in the museum landscape. I hope you will enjoy it too.
For any comments, suggestions, or to contribute to this exciting project please get in touch: Facebook - Linking Collections Wales, Twitter - @LinkinCollWales.
Collections Review at Carmarthen Museum
On Friday, Adrian Plant and I, along with Christian Baars, took part in a Collections Review at Carmarthen Museum as part of the Esmee Fairbairn ‘Linking Natural Science Collections on Wales’ project. The museum, was in a lovely old house, the old Bishop’s Palace, just outside Carmarthen. We spent the day in the natural history store, systematically going through all of the boxes to see what was in each one and assess it’s condition and potential importance. As not all of it had been accessioned even the curators were not sure what might be there and we had a very interesting time never knowing what might be in the next box. Amongst the specimens we found were a collection of weaver birds’ nests and a ‘vasculum’ (metal box containing botanical specimens) containing an old seed collection along with the original bill of sale. Hopefully, some of these specimens may now find their way out to public display at some point in the future.
Distributed Collections - More than the Sum of their Parts
This is ‘Part 2’ of my thoughts on distributed collections, the first one having appeared on this blog in May 2013. There is a drive to create a Distributed National Collection in Wales as part of a move towards joined-up content in museums, which is essential to provide both public and professional access to collection information and specimens alike. The Welsh Museums Federation is at the forefront of this development, with the main aim of the Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales being to implement the Welsh Museums Strategy’s concept of a Distributed National Collection for natural science collections.
If collections are dispersed, access to data and specimens can be difficult; there may not be much information about a collection, or access may be restricted because of lack of staff, or stores may be physically inaccessible – if you have anything to do with museums you will have been in a crowded store where you can’t swing a (mounted) cat for the number of boxes and things triple-stacked on top of each other. There are many reasons why collections may be dispersed and I would like to explore some of these reasons here.
Dispersal within a single museum
In many cases, particularly in museums with a social history focus, inaccessibility of natural science material can arise from the way the collection is classified and, accordingly, organised in the stores. Museums with dedicated natural science collections keep all vertebrates together, all fossils in one place and all insects in the same cupboard. However, if your focus is on collecting local social history objects your collections management system will be designed to help you classify dresses, wooden spoons and Victorian drill bits. Any natural science specimens will then be slotted into that classification system with the result that, for instance, some mounted objects and taxidermy are stored in the ‘Hunting’ section while others can be kept under ‘Domestic’. As a result, specimens which under one classification system (natural science) share common characteristics are physically dispersed throughout a store because under a different classification system (social history) the emphasis is on different features.
Dispersal within a regional area
Historically, many collections with local relevance ended up in local museums. This is why so many museums have a couple of stuffed barn owls and a box full of cow bones – seemingly unnecessary duplication. This may be a reflection of the relatively similar collecting interests of people – have you been able to resist the temptation of picking up some old cow bones when you saw them scattered in a field? And once you have them in your possession, what better to do with them than donate them generously to your local museum as an example of the local biodiversity?
Local museums are, of course, also fantastic repositories for local biodiversity and geology. However, there is rarely a collections strategy which would ensure systematic sampling of the entire local flora and fauna. As a result, the extent to which the local area is actually represented in the museum collection depends on a number of things (enough material for another article), essentially chance. This means that, theoretically and statistically, the combined collections of many museums in a geographical area may be a fairly good representation of the natural history and geology of this area. Is this really the case? While creating a Distributed National Collection in Wales we will soon find out.
Collections may be dispersed for other reasons, for instance entirely deliberately. The artist Marged Pendrell has her own take on dispersed collections of natural science material. Over a number of years she had collected a large number of skulls from North Wales. A recent move to a smaller studio prompted her to disperse part of her collection by offering sheep, fox and badger skulls – as being representative of her local environment in Snowdonia – to interested takers. Marged compiled photographs of the skulls in their new residences into a book (Dispersed Collection – Skulls). In that sense, while the collection was broken up physically, it still exists as a concept, with information about the specimens preserved and accessible.
Every museum with natural science collections has a near identical remit – to inform the public about biodiversity and natural history – and as a consequence every such museum has much the same material (although the extent and diversity varies with the size of the collection). There are numerous duplicate mounted foxes, mammoth teeth and trilobites of the genus Calymene in collections across the UK (and Europe). However, even before the recent haemorrhaging of specialists from museums only a small number of collections employed expert curators who would have detailed knowledge of very specific parts of collections. Therefore, many museums hold collections that are not publicly available, not even publicised. This is no fault of the curators – every museum has overlooked areas of collections which are low priority for that specific museum but which may be internationally important.
As a way around this dilemma Mark Carnall from the Grant Museum of Zoology has suggested – as a thought experiment – to reorganise collections taxonomically (scroll down to page 65). Instead of storing specimens from every taxonomic group, storage space would be used instead to house only specific taxonomic groups, i.e. all the nation’s badgers would end up in in museum A, all the dandelions in museum B, the fossil corals in museum C – you get the picture. Arguably, an impossible task, as the logistics and resources involved in achieving this would be phenomenal. However, there would be a number of advantages to such a system, mainly in terms of efficiency, specialist knowledge of each collection, access and research.
National Dispersal - the case of Wales
Natural science collections exist in more than 100 institutions in Wales. The majority of specimens are kept at the National Museum in Cardiff, but records of the natural history and gegology of Wales are, in essence, distributed across many different collections. Combined, these collections give a pretty good picture of Wales' natural environment (albeit one which may be distorted by historic events and the personal interests of individual collectors and curators). At present, however, it is difficult to access these collections as even local curators often do not have sufficient knowledge about their holdings.
The Welsh Museums Federation’s Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales project is aiming to improve this situation. It does not suggest changes of location or ownership of collections, but envisions much improved access to basic collection information for museum users. Collections reviews to establish a base line of collections knowledge are now under way, and a website will be the public access point to this information. In addition, a major touring exhibition of the treasures of Welsh natural science will showcase our wonderful collections and will be a powerful way of bringing them into greater prominence, offering the public a change to engage directly with our distributed national collection. Welsh natural science collections, wherever they may be stored, will be accessible to any potential user.
Natural Science Collections Reviews
There are many reasons for undertaking a museum collections review.The main aim is often to establish the present state of a collection – level of documentation, physical location of specimens and object, as well as their storage and conservation requirements. One objective of the Welsh Museums Federation’s Linking Natural Science Collections reviews is to establish what kinds of collections are distributed across museums in Wales. This information will then be used to enable improved management of natural science collections on a national level, as well as facilitating better use of these collections. Due to the scope of the project and resource limitations, only about 20% of Welsh natural science collections are going to be reviewed – those members of the Welsh Museums Federation which are also accredited museums. This is bringing Welsh institutions one step closer to a Distributed National Collection.
A number of natural science collections reviews have recently been undertaken in various parts of the UK, largely stimulated by the Museum Association’s programme Effective Collections to improve the understanding and use of stored collections. This programme is supported by a grant scheme to enable collections reviews with expert help.
The overview presented here is fairly comprehensive but does not claim to be complete; if I have not mentioned other review projects please get in touch and let me know as I may not be aware of, or do not have sufficient information on them. While there are many similarities between these projects, each had its own starting point and aims. Accordingly, the methods vary between projects.
Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery undertook a review of their spirit collection in 2009 to increase skills of curatorial staff, make recommendation for improved use of and access to the collections and to promote the collections. Specialist consultants assessed the collection. The methodology applied utilized the University College London’s Collections Review Toolkit to assess condition, documentation information, potential use and significance.
University College London
University College London carried out a review of their varied collections of 380,000 objects between 2007 and 2009. The primary objective was to survey aspects of collections care, use and significance with a view to inform future management of the collections and developing them as a resource for teaching, research and public engagement. The review also considered the historical significance and their relationship with UCL. The result is a clear and accurate picture of the contents of the collections, where and how they are housed, and to what degree there are integrated into the work of the university.
The Regional Geology Stewardship assessed geological collections held in the West Midlands between 2009 and 2012. Now, the West Midlands Biological Collections Review aims to create a snapshot of the biological collections held in 55 institutions (including educational institutions and historic houses, but prioritising accredited museums) - their significance, condition and current usage, and to offer practical advice with managing and using them. At each institution the curator will fill in a form adapted from the Significance 2.0 framework of the Collections Trust and the RAW Collections Care Healthcheck. The project is managed by the Curator of Natural Sciences at Birmingham Museums Trust who will also provide training for collections that are at greatest risk and have greatest untapped potential.
Royal Albert Memorial Museum
The review at Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) was even more ambitious, as they reviewed almost one million objects during 2011-13. The entire – and very diverse – collection was divided into 122 review groups of related or connected material. This was preceded by entering each item from the collection in an electronic database (which had taken almost ten years to complete). A two-stage review then assessed the significance of objects to inform future use of the collection: a macro-level review from the perspective of a non-expert to determine significance and potential, and an in-depth assessment involving external subject specialists, peer review or public consultation. The review methodology was based on a hybrid version of the Renaissance East Midlands ‘Reviewing Significance Framework model, which itself draws upon the Collections Council of Australia’s ‘Significance 2.0 framework, and University College London’s ‘Collections Review Rubric. This uses a grid to determine importance in a structured way and can then be used to aid planning for future collections projects, use and interpretation. The review method can also identify gaps in the collections where future collecting programmes can be focussed.
North West England
Five museums in the North West (The Beacon in Whitehaven, Penrith and Eden Museum, Keswick Museum, Stockport Museum Service and Touchstones, Rochdale took part in a natural science collections review because they hold relatively large collections, but have no natural science curator; subject specialist consultants where therefore used. The objective was to find ways that the museums could work together to increase understanding about the collections, and to give guidance on the storage, use, and scientific and cultural value of the material held. The review highlighted scientifically important specimens and an extensive educational potential of the collections.
The Horniman Museum’s Bioblitz review was completed this year (2013), followed by Geoblitz. This reviewed a collection of 250,000 natural history and 175,000 geological specimens within 12 months by employing subject specialists to assess each specimen. The idea was to assign relative significance levels to specimens to facilitate planning a programme of future collections management, research, conservation and the use of the collection. Significance criteria were historic, scientific, rarity/uniqueness and public engagement; specimens rated in a number of these categories, serving several roles, now make up the core of the collection. The process of the review itself was also recorded, via Twitter, a blog and photographs; this helped facilitate conversation with user groups to determine future uses of the collection.
Gwynnedd Museum / Bangor University
Gwynedd Museum & Art Gallery and Bangor University departments recently carried out condition surveys of their diverse collections (natural history, geology, ceramics, art, furniture etc). The aim was to get a better idea of the nature and scope of each collection, and also to be able to prioritise any work needed in the areas of collections management and care, documentation, and conservation. External reviewers provided a condition report and a prioritisation of future work required. This has already resulted in a funding application for a Collections Officer post to improve collections management, care and access; the long-term aim is to accredit these collections.
Doncaster Museum Service undertook a review of their natural history collection (379,000 specimens) between 2010 and 2013 to determine collections development needs and to improve access to and promote the use of the collection. The Taking Stock reviewadhered to the Museum Association’s ‘Disposal Toolkit and used consultants if internal expertise was not available. C.I.R.C.A, the latest element of Taking Stock, has been instrumental in refining and developing the approaches to reviewing collections. This methodology is now being retrospectively applied to the internal and Effective Collection advisory reviews, to facilitate decisions on collections development.
Linking Collections in Wales
The ‘Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales’ project is currently reviewing collections in 20 museums across Wales with the help of specialist curators from Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales. Levels of importance (local, regional, national, international) are being assessed as well as the type of value of specimens or review groups (scientific, historic, aesthetic, social, educational, rarity). Recommendations will then be made on potential uses (science, education, pubic engagement, none). The reviews are scheduled to be completed by early Summer 2014 and the results will be made available publicly via Peoples’ Collection Wales. Landmark specimens discovered during the reviews will be showcased to the public in a touring exhibition from Autumn 2015. This will be one way for people to explore our Distributed National Collection.
Museums are Good for You
Museums are brilliant and inspiring places, there can be no doubt about it. People visit museums for many, many reasons. Museums make you smarter, inspire, are a focus for the community and a great place to spend time with your friends and family. But what effect does a museum visit have on you? The entertainment factor of a museum makes you feel enjoyment. Understanding how things work raises your self-esteem. Appreciating the aesthetics of a great object stretches your imagination and is uplifting. And you get all of this in a calm and safe place. People definitely visit museums to feel good and if you need a bit of a lift I would wholeheartedly recommend you visit your local museum.
There is plenty of research to back all of this up. Museums make us happy – museum visits contribute more to wellbeing than arts and sports. Museums, especially if working in partnership with other organisations, can make a huge contribution to mental health (Museum Development North West Who Cares report). The economic benefits of museums are estimated to be in the order of £1.5 billion per year. And while many museums have reduced their own carbon footprints, the role the cultural sector play in driving wider societal change is also growing.
Museums have an enormous potential to change and develop communities. One of the best places to visit in any town and city for access to current research and new ideas is the museum. Museums are therefore best placed for being hot spots of community engagement. In this context, the Museums Association, through their new flagship campaign Museums Change Lives), encourages museums to be more proactive in making an impact on society and people’s wellbeing.
It is hard in the current financial climate especially for small museums with staff shortages, leaking roofs and paint peeling off the walls to continue this work. Fortunately, museums attract some of the most enthusiastic and resourceful staff and volunteers, who, despite these pressures, will do anything they can to ensure that museums continue to be good for you.
The Welsh Museums Federation’s ‘Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales’ project is supporting curators in 20 local museums around Wales. By providing training and information about natural science collections we are going to ensure the continued use of these collections for inspiration, learning and community focus. We are enabling curators to care for and use their natural science collections. This will help to ensure that museums in Wales can look into the future and still make us happy for many more years to come.
Museum Education in Wales
Since the late 1990s, when the report ‘A Common Wealth’ argued that museum education needed more resources and a higher profile, there has been a shift within museums. Education is now viewed central to the role of museums and integrated into everything museums do. Museums have always been spaces of scholarship, and there is a clear link between scholarship and education. The purpose of museum education has to be to enhance the ability of visitors to understand and appreciate museum collections.
The new emphasis on learning in museums mainly comes from a change in philosophy within the museum sector, but it is also driven by funders such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, who encourage applicants to include specific learning elements within their projects. It is surely not a coincidence that the Clore Duffield Foundation has funded dozens of Learning Spaces in the past 15 years.
Local context of big concepts
The purpose of the ‘Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales’ project is to lead the way in the implementation of the Distributed National Collection in Wales. This, very much in line with the modern way of viewing museum education, naturally includes a symbiotic relationship with learning. One important way of using museum collections is to integrate them into the school curriculum. Schools should be able to use their local museum as a resource to support their teaching.
In Wales it has recently been proposed to modify the Cwricwlwm Cymreig, and to integrate the Welsh dimension into every subject taught in schools, not only History. In the centenary of the death of Alfred Russell Wallace, who was instrumental in developing the concept of Evolution to explain the diversity of life, schools up and down Wales ought to be able to call on museums for local examples. This local distinctiveness is important in a cultural context; it can also be used as a teaching aid, and this is where the potential of the Cwricwlwm Cymreig lies as a useful integration in the National Curriculum.
There are many positive local examples to illustrate the wider context, for instance Wallace (who was born in Llanbadoc), the naturalist Edward Lhuyd (or Llwyd, after whom the Snowdon lily is named, as well as the Welsh natural history organization Cymdeithas Edward Llwyd), Arthur Trueman's work on Coal Measure stratigraphy, T.N. George's contributions to Welsh geology, geneticist Steve Jones, Bill Frost's 'flying machine', etc. The work of these pioneers could be used to illustrate the subject and make it meaningful at local school level, as well as their personalities heralded as positive local role models.
The Welsh Museums Federation, through the ‘Linking Collections’ project, will develop education resources for schools specifically linked to examples in local museums. These will be available online to teachers. Our aspiration is to create digital and web based resources, derived from museums, which are so easy to use, comprehensive and fascinating that they find a place at the heart of education.
Of course, while museums support formal learning, they can do much more than that and the educational activities of museums should not be limited to the school curriculum. Museums provide experiences and opportunities that many people lack; they stimulate discussion and debate; and they provoke responses ranging from joy and pleasure ('I have never seen that before') to disbelief and doubt ('I don't believe it and you have got to work hard to convince me that it's true'). All of this contributes to both our intellectual and emotional education and development and enhances our lexicon of experiences. And because we know that the habits of museum visitation are formed early in life and passed down from generation to generation, schools are ideally placed to support sustainable numbers of museum visits, and hence the focus on the school curriculum by the ‘Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales’ project.
Access to Museum Collections – online
Professor Dimbledare of Warthogs University is a geneticist working on the evolution of parasites in insects. This is important because bee populations are currently declining partly due to being attacked by increasing numbers of parasites; this threatens human food production, as bees are the most important pollinators of many fruits and vegetables. Professor Dimbledare wants to find out whether there is historic evidence for temporary increases in parasite attacks on bees. He wants to look at museum collections worldwide and extract DNA from specimens. Where does he start looking for suitable collections?
Can you help me find...
This is a hypothetical scenario, but a typical example of the sort of enquiries frequently received by museum curators. Museums are being approached either through the mailing lists of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (which has a worldwide reach), the Natural Sciences Collections Association (UK), or – and this is really hard work – individually, one by one. When (15 long years ago) I undertook the research for my PhD I wrote to more than 20 individual botanic gardens around the world to ask if they had any clippings of a wonderful little fern-like plant called whisk fern (Psilotum nudum).
Museums are vast repositories of nature, and there are thousands of them. They document life on Earth (past and present) by housing specimens and associated data. Not all museums contain everything, but combined they represent a brilliant account of the natural history of a country and even our planet (see the Distributed National Collection article below).
Museum specimens are being sought for research projects, exhibitions in other museums, and by school teachers and university lecturers for education inside and out of the classroom. Museums are usually very happy to let people look at, study, and even borrow specimens. But finding an example of an animal, plant, fossil or mineral in a museum collection can be extremely difficult. The chances are you have some specimens in a museum near you – how do you find out where?
Internet data bases
Both the scope and quality of databases vary. Some only list basic collections information and contact details of staff (e.g. Index Herbariorum and Registry of Biological Repositories). Others contain information about individual specimens, both living and fossil (e.g. GBIF, Geological Collections of Estonia); these types of data bases are created specifically for researchers. Others again try to capture the culture, history and natural history of an individual country (People’s Collection Wales), aimed for use by the general public. The number of records in these data bases is huge, reaching into the billions.
There is, however, a discussion amongst scientists how much information we want to make available publicly. Sometimes it is not a good idea, for example, to publish information of where to find species that are endangered. Museums do have a responsibility to care for not only their collections, but also the conservation of living species. It would not be a good idea to alert everyone and their dog to the occurrence of species listed as threatened or endangered by CITES;because nobody would want to drive them closer to extinction through overcollecting.
So, where does this leave Professor Dimbledare? Increasingly there are attempts to include global information in data bases, so he should find it easier in the future to locate the specimens for his research. Some data bases are merging, e.g. Index Herbariorum and Registry of Biological Repositories. And in Wales, the People’s Collection is currently being redeveloped to make it more user-friendly; in the near future it will be easier to upload and search for information on museum collections, including natural science collections. With increasing digitisation it gets easier all the time to locate museum specimens.
Museum collections in Wales – Knowledge is Preservation
More than 100 institutions in Wales have natural science collections in their care. Natural science includes all things connected to the natural world: bird skins, insects, minerals, shells, fossils, plants, fluid preserved specimens and even microorganisms such as diatoms. These collections contain an awful lot of knowledge of our present and past natural history, and one purpose of museums is to preserve this knowledge for posterity.
What is a museum?
Museums are guardians of knowledge, and collections are what makes museums special. Collections are what sets museums apart from other organisations, the absolute core of museum work. There has been a discussion for a while over the traditional concept of the museum as a collecting institution, and whether to broaden the definition of a museum to include institutions without collections, for example one-object museums (e.g., ship museums) or science centres. However, exhibitions, research and many education activities are not possible without specimens and objects from museum collections.
Hand in hand with collections goes the knowledge that is embodied in them. Knowledge of the objects, their collectors, their provenance, their age, their cultural and scientific associations, and simply where objects are stored. This is the information that makes a collection usable. In recent years, many museums have managed to update their storage records. In many cases records are available in digital form and are easily searchable. Having said that, every museum curator knows that records are far from complete even in large museums with fancy collections management systems.
The overwhelming majority of collections information is in the heads of the curators looking after these collections. This is especially the case for tacit knowledge – the ‘soft data’, information about collectors and their biographies and interests, stories and anecdotes about objects and collectors. The sort of thing that makes or breaks good exhibitions. Most of the time, these stories are never written down; instead, they are passed down the generations from curator to curator, and it takes years to learn all this.
It is easy to argue that a collection without information is worthless. If I cannot identify the objects in my collection, if I cannot find them, if I do not even know I have them, there is no point keeping the collection because it is, to all intents and purposes, worthless. Ultimately, this last point is the biggest danger – most curators are aware of stories of valuable collections ending up in a skip because the person making the decision did not have the right knowledge. And if we do not know what we are throwing out we have no idea what we are losing. Ultimately, society as a whole would become poorer culturally, historically and scientifically.
The specialist curator
Good curators then are not a luxury but a necessity. And a good curator needs to be a jack of all trades to be master of one: trained in a specialist subject, with experience of collections management, research, design, public speaking and storytelling, a communicator who understands the need for sharing knowledge with other museums and, crucially, the public. With people like that looking after museum collections our cultural and scientific heritage should be perfectly safe.
But here’s the thing: the number of natural history curators fell by one third in the past ten years (Museums Journal 113/04). The trend is similar – if somewhat less dramatic – in other subject disciplines. There is an increasing number of ‘orphaned’ collections, which have nobody to care for and protect them, let alone use them. In Wales the current situation is that out of more than 100 institutions with natural science collections, only a single one has any specialist curators left – the National Museum.
This makes it immensely more difficult for museums to use their collections. We do need to know where collections are and how they can be accessed. Local communities, schools, tourists and researchers want to see those collections and learn about them. The good news is that most of the collections are still there.
How collections reviews can help
The ‘Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales’ project is now starting to assess the first collections in local museums. Specialist curators from Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales are soon going to review collections across Wales. The intention is to capture information about those collections in a single database. This does not replace the need for specialist curators, But local staff and volunteers will trained and much more able to utilise their collections. This will mean better educational materials, better exhibitions and a better experience for museum visitors. Most importantly, however, it means that these collections will be safely preserved for future generations.
Natural science collections in Welsh museums – a Distributed National Collection
There are number of reasons why we would want to undertake a national review of museum collections. One of them is to aid the development of a Distributed National Collection (DNC), one of the most exciting collections management concepts in recent years.
DNC - What is it?
The idea of the DNC implies a shared responsibility for our heritage. The Museum Strategy for Wales recognises that collections telling the story of Wales are kept across the nation by a diverse range of museum institutions. Collections – and the knowledge that goes with them – remain at the heart of museums; they are the reason museums exist and what makes them unique.
Many museums collect to reflect the culture and natural history of the geographic area they cover. Other museums collect material related to a specific site, activity, community or object specialism. A museum’s collecting remit is usually defined in its acquisition policy. When accepting objects into their collections museums consider not only to their own acquisition policies, but also those of other museums – this coordinated approach to collecting is one benefit of the shared knowledge that comes with a DNC.
There are a number of reasons that may reduce a museum’s capacity to collect as comprehensively as it had previously done. An agreement with other museums could facilitate the development of specialized subject-based collections, and arrangements to facilitate management of and access to objects and specimens. Institutions across Wales would co-ordinate the collection, display, research, storage and disposal of collections to ensure the greatest access to collections with efficient targeting of resources. This strategy represents a move away from the location of collections to a focus on how they are used and cared for.
Why do we need one?
The concept of the DNC was adopted by CyMAL for the Welsh Assembly Government within the 2010 Museum Strategy for Wales, and endorsed by museums across Wales. Collections and the stories they tell are the most fundamental of museum assets. In recent years there have been a number of important initiatives to better document, understand and care for museum collections. Whilst this remains by no means a comprehensive achievement with much still to be done, we now have an opportunity to take stock and develop new concepts and initiatives.
Driving factors for the development of a DNC may be funding constraints, or loss of specialist expertise. However, the DNC is about more than simply pooling resources. The concept enables the museum sector to, among other things:
- promote our collections,
- work collaboratively across the sector,
- collect comprehensively, and
- improve access both within the collecting community and for the public.
How will it help the public?
The public benefit lies in a better understanding and appreciation of our collections, which opens up ways and means to improve our enjoyment of and access to them. Knowing where the most historically significant and intrinsically important items and records are kept, and how they can be accessed, can only be of benefit to those who wish to see them as well as to those charged with their long term care and interpretation.
What’s in it for museums?
The DNC enables information to be discovered and shared, omissions within collections identified and areas of overlap addressed with informed collecting. This makes museum collections more robust and relevant. Scientists, such as biologists and geologists, in particular, have long known that museum collections globally are one single resource. Specimens held in museum collections form a physical inventory of the history of life on Earth. Specimens are kept, in preference to data and images alone, for the physical information they contain.
Museums are seen by the public as unbiased guardians of factual information and therefore have the potential, if they are not reduced to simply recycling nostalgia, for influencing public opinion in an authoritative way. The concept of the DNC formalises the relationship between museums and supports easier sharing of specimens and information. It forms a coordinated strategy to ensure the preservation of a nation’s cultural material, and to facilitate broader physical and intellectual access to it. Museum collections will add up to much more than the sum of their parts. This partnership approach is important in any subject discipline, not only in natural history, for museums to retain their status as keepers of knowledge.
Natural history museums are in the midst of an unprecedented opportunity for linking collections-based research with the experiences they offer to the millions of people they serve each year. If they are successful in fully integrating these two historically separate realities, they have enormous potential to elevate the public understanding of, engagement with, and participation in urgent and compelling scientific challenges now and in the future.
Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales