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.
Y Fforymau Cyfranogi
Gwirfoddolwyr yr UAH yn gwyngalchu’r Capel
Sefydlwyd Fforwm Cyfranogiad Our Museum yn 2011 tra’n datblygu cais i Gronfa Treftadaeth y Loteri i ailddatblygu Sain Ffagan a’r cais i Sefydliad Paul Hamlyn i ddatblygu ymgysylltiad cymunedol yn yr Amgueddfa. Canlyniad hyn yw bod cyswllt annatod wedi bodoli rhwng ddwy fenter o’r dechrau. Staff yr Amgueddfa, Ymddiriedolwyr a chynrychiolwyr sefydliadau trydydd parti a sector cyhoeddus sy’n gweithio’n agos â grwpiau cymunedol yng Nghymru yw aelodau’r Fforwm. Mae cyfrannu at y Fforwm yn fodd iddynt gyfleu anghenion a diddordebau’r cymunedau y maent yn eu cynrychioli, a dod yn greiddiol i fethodoleg yr Amgueddfa drwy hyn.
Nod y Fforwm yw gwneud Gwirfoddoli yn greiddiol i’r Amgueddfa ac yn gynaliadwy ac i greu ‘Cymuned o Wirfoddolwyr’. Y prif nod yw sicrhau bod anghenion gwirfoddolwyr yn greiddiol i’n gwaith, gan wneud gwirfoddoli yn haws ac yn fwy perthnasol i’r cymunedau amrywiol yr ydym ni, fel amgueddfa genedlaethol, yn eu cynrychioli.
Cynhaliwyd ymgyrch fawr dros yr haf i recriwtio gwirfoddolwyr. Gyda chymorth ein Partneriaid Cymunedol cafwyd tua 50 o wirfoddolwyr i weithio mewn amryw swyddi ar draws yr Amgueddfa; yn yr Uned Adeiladau Hanesyddol, Addysg, Ystadau a Digwyddiadau ymhlith eraill. Cafwyd gwirfoddolwyr o bob lliw a llun, a phob un yn gwirfoddoli am resymau gwahanol; rhai wedi ymddeol, rhai’n fyfyrwyr, rhai’n chwilio am her newydd ac eraill yn chwilio am weithgaredd rheolaidd mewn lleoliad prydferth lle gallent ddysgu sgiliau newydd a chyfarfod pobl newydd.
Gwirfoddolwyr Addysg yn paratoi ar gyfer y gweithdy Creu Tarian.
Alfred Russel Wallace
Today marks the centenary of the death of the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. We are marking the occasion with our exhibition 'Wallace: the Forgotten Evolutionist?' which celebrates the many great achievements of this brilliant Welsh born scientist.
Come visit the exhibition or join in on some of our associated events and talks. You can also follow events and activities nationwide on the Wallace100 website.
A Window into the Industry Collections
Hello, and welcome to the first blog entry on our Industrial collections. In this blog we aim to let you know about some of the interesting and varied objects that enter the museum collections via our Industrial sites. These include Big Pit National Coal Museum, Welsh Slate Museum and National Waterfront Museum, as well as the National Collections Centre. We collect in all fields of industrial and maritime history and we hope through this blog to tell you more about new collections as they come into the museum and how we look after them.
Recently a number of unusual items have come into the collection relating to the coal industry.
Promotional keyring by Phurnacite Coal Products Ltd. Showing 'Phurnacite Man' in the shape of a coal briquette with arms and legs. This dates from c.1980s.
Four golf balls sold during the 1984-85 Miners' Strike. These show caricatures of Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, Arthur Scargill and Norman Tebbit.
This is an example of a Terry towelling baby’s nappy sold in the canteens of the National Coal Board. They would have been sold along with towels and soap. This example was purchased from Cwm Colliery cokework's canteen in the mid-1970s. The soap is stamped P.H.B. which stands for Pit Head Baths.
Y Fforymau Cyfranogi
Y Fforwm Amrywiaeth
Dyma grŵp o gynrychiolwyr sefydliadau sy’n gweithio’n agos gyda grwpiau cymunedol amrywiol. Sefydlwyd y grŵp gyda’r nod o sicrhau y bydd ailddatblygiad Sain Ffagan yn hygyrch, o ddiddordeb i bawb ac yn cynrychioli pawb. Cafwyd y cyfarfod cyntaf ym mis Ebrill a thrafodwyd dulliau o gydweithio, dulliau o ymgysylltu â chynulleidfaoedd allweddol a phwysigrwydd datblygu modelau arfer gorau.
O ganlyniad i’r Fforwm, cymerodd grŵp o gynrychiolwyr Cymunedau yn Gyntaf De Glan yr Afon ran mewn gweithdai dehongli ym mis Awst. Ymhlith y gwrthrychau a drafodwyd roedd delw o’r dduwies Durga a chyfres o wrthrychau archaeolegol yn ymwneud â’r gweddillion dynol hynaf i’w canfod yng Nghymru. Dywedodd y curaduron ei bod yn braf gweld y gwrthrychau trwy lygaid newydd. Roedd y grŵp yn awyddus i osod y gwrthrychau yng nghyd-destun hanes y byd – dull diddorol fyddai’n helpu i ymgysylltu â’r rhieni o gefndiroedd amrywiol sy’n byw yng Nghymru a’r holl ymwelwyr tramor yr Amgueddfa.
Wallace; the Forgotten Evolutionist?
This week our exhibition to commemorate the centenary of the death of the brilliant naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace has opened for exploration. But who was he?
Wallace was many things - an intrepid explorer, a brilliant naturalist, a social activist, a political commentator – overall a remarkable intellectual. By the time of his death in 1913, Wallace was widely praised as the 'last of the great Victorians'.
Wallace is most famously associated with co-discovering the process of evolution by natural selection alongside Charles Darwin. Yet we have all heard of Darwin, whilst Wallace has become more of a forgotten figure.
In his time Wallace travelled extensively, surviving malaria, numerous fevers and even shipwreck! He covered thousands of miles, lived with indigenous tribes and collected over 125 000 animal specimens. He also wrote widely on a range of subjects, publishing more than 800 articles and writing 22 books.
This exhibition attempts to explore some of Wallace's life and work, and in doing so raise our awareness of this remarkable man. The exhibition uses a mix of media, and has rich diversity of specimens on display, including specimens collected by the great man himself.
Associated with the exhibition are a range of workshops, talks and tours. Check out the website for an up-to-date list of ‘whats on’.
We really hope you enjoy the exhibition and welcome feedback on your visit
False Widow Spiders: not really that horrible…
There has been a great deal of press attention recently on the ‘false black widow spider’. Sadly allot of this information has been unnecessarily alarmist and often wrong. So what is this spider?
The term ‘false widow spider’ has arisen because the spiders look very like the real ‘black widow’ spider. There is good reason for this - the spiders are closely related and belong to the same taxonomic family, the Therididae.
This spider family is very large, and is made up of many different genre, or species groups, of spider e.g. ‘black widows’ belong to the genus Latrodextus, whilst the ‘false widows’ belong to a different genus called Steatoda. So whilst they are related, they are different enough to belong to different taxonomic species groups.
Of these two spider groups only Steatoda is found in the UK. In total we have seven species of Steatoda, six of which are native and one of which is an introduction. Of these species at least three get called the ‘false widows’ – these are S. bipunctata, S. grossa and S. nobilis. The only way these spiders can be accurately identified is by checking key diagnostic characters as the abdominal patterns can be very variable.
S. nobilis, and to a lesser extend, S. grossa are the species causing the concern. They can inflict a painful bite, and very rarely these bites can cause more severe medical issues. However these are not aggressive spiders and will only bite if trapped or badly handled.
So are there plagues of these spiders this year? Well certainly not to my knowledge. This time of year we have large numbers of the ‘orb web’ spiders around our homes and gardens and many of the so called ‘false widow’ reports are actually these common and harmless spiders.
Even if you have a species such as S. nobilis around your garden or shed, you still should not be worried. Contrary to press reports they do not gather to attack you. In fact they would rather be left alone in the quite, dark corners where you usually find them. This posting on the Natural History Museums website provides a sensible overview of these spiders and their habits.
If you do find a spider you are concerned about then I’m happy to try and identify it. If you can get a good image then do so, and email it across. If you have the spider and can get it to the museum then drop if off for my attention – the front desk aren’t always too happy about having live spiders delivered so make sure the lid is secure!
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.
Roots of power and herbs of healing... "remedies for weak men and nervous women"
There is an odd story attached to this little booklet. Some time ago, I received a telephone call from a lady offering to donate a catalogue from an old Cardiff herbalist. It sounded intriguing and something that would fit in perfectly at the library over at our sister museum St Fagans: Museum of National History, so we gratefully accepted the offer. A few days later, the Librarian and I were weeding through a pile of old booklets and we noticed an old Cardiff herbalist catalogue [date written in red ink - 29/11/29] and I remember saying how bizarre it would be if this was the same catalogue as the one that was on its way to us. Yes, you guessed it, it turned out to be exactly the same one! We ended up keeping both copies, placing one at the St Fagans library and keeping one here at National Museum Cardiff.
What exactly went into the herbal remedies is one mystery now most likely beyond solving [many of the ingredients are listed but not all] but it is the naive and whimsical wording of the ailments themselves that are so interesting to us now [Remedies for weak men and nervous women, Poverty of nerve force and That don't care sort of feeling spring to mind] and this naivity is illustrated further with the Disney-like wizard and his bubbling cauldron on the cover.
I have done a little research but, apart from a few scanned newspaper advertisements, have found no other information on Trimnell except for one of his old medicine bottles that sold recently on Ebay for £1.99 [see photograph below].
Glamorgan Archives hold some limited information on Trimnell but no actual documentation.
All photographs [except the Ebay one above] in this post taken by the author.
Y Fforymau Cyfranogi
Ymweld ag M Shed
Ymweld ag M Shed
Fforwm Dylunio’r Defnyddwyr
Dyma grŵp sy’n pontio’r cenedlaethau ac sy’n cynnwys oedolion ifanc o Fforwm Ieuenctid Caerffili, eu harweinwyr Ieuenctid a phedwar athro o ysgolion uwchradd de Cymru. Mae’r grŵp wedi bod yn cyfarfod ers dros ddwy flynedd ac wedi gweithio’n agos gyda’r penseiri ar ddyluniad yr adeilad newydd (y Gweithdy) a datblygu’r Prif Adeilad. Maent hefyd wedi bod yn cyfarfod â’r dylunwyr arddangosfa (Event) i roi adborth am y syniadau ar gyfer y gofodau oriel. Eu cyfraniad diweddaraf oedd mynychu gweithdai dehongli lle cawsant gyfle i ymateb yn uniongyrchol i wrthrychau a thrafod dulliau o gyflwyno a dehongli gyda’r curaduron perthnasol.
Dyma luniau o’r grŵp ar daith feincnodi i M Shed ym Mryste (gofod arddangos a ddyluniwyd gan Event) a’r gweithdy dehongli ym mis Gorffennaf.