Visitor Services and Dinosaur Detectives

Today has been a typical example of the extraordinary mix of activities which go on daily in the museum.

It started with the monthly Staff Forum which had been advertised thus:

‘Visitor Services will be presented by Chad, Ailsa, Supervisors Shaun and Karen, Visitor Services Assistants and Skills for the Future trainees. They will speak about the many projects they are involved with, including accessibility in the Museum, tours, placements and work experience.’

On the face of it, this didn’t sound as if it was going to be as interesting as last month’s fascinating presentations by conservation interns.  It turned out to be completely engaging, it provided a fantastic overview of the role of the front of house staff and I have to say was also very moving.

I’d already spent quality time with the Visitor Services staff during an enjoyable morning shadowing them around the galleries, and I was completely impressed by their enthusiastic commitment to providing a fantastic experience for visitors and by their compendious knowledge of the exhibits.  An extremely approachable bunch, they continue relentlessly cheerful in reorientating me during my daily ‘disorientation’ moment as I forget which set of stairs I’ve just come down.

Head of Visitor Services, Chad McGitchie, outlined the team’s vision to make the visitor’s experience the best of any in Manchester, if not the world, not only by pursuing best practice as a team but by using the skills of the individuals and actively pursuing the personal development of each of the team through projects they are undertaking.  The members of the team spoke about their projects – this was the moving bit.

Karen Brackenridge is developing her work with work experience students at the Museum to make it not only a more accessible activity for students with disabilities, but a life-changing experience for them.  She described how one ex-student, who may never be in a position to work, continues to enjoy working with museum staff.

Shaun Bennett is working on information links with other museums in the area through the Cultural Concierge programme and on effective use of social media to enhance the visitors’ experience to Manchester.

Luke Gleahall has been working to anticipate and reduce any disruption that might be caused by the temporary closure of the vivarium, which will affect access to the Nature’s Library gallery, particularly for those with mobility problems.  Electronic documentation has been created to give a virtual tour and it is intended to provide audio descriptions.  This will be a valuable resource even when access is not disrupted.

Maxine Byrne had already done level 1 sign language and is applying for funding to improve her skills and to be able to train other staff in order to provide signing for hearing impaired visitors, for example on tours.

Damien Scully described the mental health champion training he had undertaken and how he hoped to use this to improve awareness and understanding of the needs of all visitors in order to provide better access to the Museum for them.

What really came across in the way they spoke was the personal commitment of the individuals to the team vision for excellence and the effectiveness of this strategy.

After the Staff Forum, my next appointment was with the Dinosaur Detectives.


Kayleigh Rose helps the students make deductions about animals from their fossils.

As well as gaining experience of all the activities that go on in the Museum, one of my targets is to develop an education session based on the collection.  Just over a week ago I’d observed a workshop for Year 9 gifted and talented students delivered by Emily Robinson, the Secondary and Post 16 Coordinator.  This was part of a reward  spending a day at the University.  The group was made up of 2 students and a member of staff from each of several different schools, so it was not a typical schools learning session and in a way was a little artificial.  The session was called the Colours of Nature and was all about the different forms of camouflage adopted by animals and the advantages this provides to them.  I found it very useful to see how specimens from across the collections had been brought together, how they had been prepared for handling or looking at, how the rules for handling them were explained and how they were used as part of the session.  It was also a useful reminder from my teaching days in a previous incarnation about allocating time, maintaining pace and encouraging participation by all students, not just the confident ones.

Today’s Dinosaur detectives session was a completely different kettle of fossils.  The KS2 students had done some preparation work with their class teacher using resources provided by the Museum, and Kayleigh Rose who took the session soon had them getting hands on experience to help them decide if the animals that had become the fossils she gave them to handle were small or big, fast or slow, if they lived on the land and if they were herbivores or carnivores.

Hands on!

Hands on!

As dreadful chance would have it, news came through to the Discovery Centre of a murder that had taken place in the fossil gallery just this morning and the class were taken to investigate the crime scene and identify the likely victim and culprit by matching clues to fossils on display.

The crime scene!

The crime scene!

Finally it was back to the Discovery Centre to look at body parts of the suspects and decide if they were in the vicinity at the time and  had the means and motive to commit the awful deed.

Culprit, victim or innocent bystander?

Culprit, victim or innocent bystander?

The session was a fantastic use of the collection and Kayleigh’s skill to encourage the students to use the knowledge they had and the clues available, to make deductions, to work together and importantly to see that many different conclusions could be reached by different people from the same evidence.

And then it was lunchtime!

Just time to pop into the Collecting Trees exhibition which opened on Saturday.

The Trees exhibition - worth a closer look.

The Trees exhibition – worth a closer look.

While this exhibition had been in the process of construction I’d had valuable opportunity to see how the cases were designed and fitted, how the objects were prepared by conservation and positioned in the cases, and to discuss some of the problems and their solutions with the workshop and conservation staff and Rachel Webster, the Curator of Botany, who coordinated it all.



Or like this?

Or like this?

This case could not be moved once the items were placed in it, to avoid damage to them, and the large perspex case which covered it had to be carefully manoevered into place before being fixed to the plinth.  A low ceiling had to be negotiated to boot!

The afternoon was spent working on a project to document part of the Leo Grindon collection of cultivated plants in the Herbarium – but that’s a story for another day.

Herbarium sheets

Over the last week I’ve been working on a project which has given me some experience at cleaning and repairing Herbarium sheets, specifically specimens of the genus Fraxinus (Ash).

These plants are part of the Leo Grindon collection which is the third largest of the collections in the Herbarium.  Approximately 10,000 Herbarium sheets were donated to the Museum in 1910 after Mr Grindon’s death in 1904.   His collection focuses on cultivated plants and the specimens include the stems, leaves, seeds, flowers and seedlings.

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Botanical illustrations and cuttings from newspapers and magazines are attached to some of the Herbarium sheets.

Unfortunately, the air quality of the period is immediately apparent from the sooty state of some of the Herbarium sheets!

2013-06-03 14.56.26Dirty

Smoggy sheet (The pinkness is the fault of the photographer/camera!)

These sheets had gone through the ongoing pest management process of being sealed in plastic and frozen to kill any damaging drugstore beetles or other pests and were to be tidied up before being refiled in the Herbarium.

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Pest damage.

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And they don’t stop at the top sheet! This is the sheet underneath.

Sometimes there's nothing left ...

Sometimes there’s nothing left …

The first task was to carefully re-attach any material that had become loose.

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Gummed paper strips are used to reattach stems.

Loosened material is placed in hand-crafted acid-free paper envelopes

Loosened material such as flowers are placed in hand-crafted acid-free paper envelopes which are attached to the sheet.

The soot was removed as far as possible using smoke-cleaning sponge which removes the soot without reapplying it next time you touch the paper.

From the paper ...

From the paper …

... to the sponge.

… to the sponge.

Once all the sheets had been cleaned and tidied, they were sorted into species and the species were then placed into separate labelled folders sorted alphabetically.

The next job was to enter information about the sheets onto the KE EMu database.  There was no record of these specimens on the database so it was a great opportunity to become familiar with the process from the start, ensuring information was recorded about the genus, species, their attributes, where the plants were from geographically, whose collection they were from and where they are stored.

This required some interesting detective work to ensure the species name was the latest accepted one and also to find out where some of the locations the plants came from actually were these days!  Its rewarding to know that the specimens are pest-free and clean and that the records of these plants are now available and searchable on the database, making that part of the collection more accessible.  Further information can be added to the records about the conservation that has taken place, photographs, if they are loaned out or used in events.  All that needs to be done now is to thoroughly vacuum the box the sheets are stored in and to put the box in the correct location – or all that work would be a waste of time!

Sheets in their nice clean box...

Sheets in their nice clean box…

...and put away.

…and put away.


Week 2

Although this was a short week after a lovely sunny Bank Holiday, there’s been plenty of learning going on.

Tuesday saw some training with Rachel in the Herbarium on using the camera with a camera stand.  This allows the camera to be clamped in position for more exact focusing and provides strong lighting from two  mounted lamps.  

2013-06-05 11.45.49 (2)The specimen is placed on the base which is marked with a centimetre grid to aid alignment and provide a scale.  I got some practice by photographing the Herbarium sheets of Nettle, Elder and Wild Garlic which had been used for the Urban Naturalist event last weekend.

Edible plants Nettle 130528Edible plants Elder 130528Edible plants Wild Garlic 130528

These can be added onto the plant records on the KE EMu database.

I also had fun taking some pics of the beautiful cinchona specimens below which had been looked out for the medicinal rainforest plant display.

DSC_1945_cinchona_bark_rotatedI’ve spent time this week filling out the plan for the year by booking in-house and other courses and arranging work-shadowing to get some experience of the other sections that are vital to the running of the Museum – this is an ongoing activity to make sure I get the most out of my time here.

Thursday was an action-packed day.  It started off with a Staff Forum with 3 presentations: the first from Marion Endt-Jones, external curator/academic from the University, about the forthcoming Coral exhibition due to open in the autumn.  This will bring together many aspects of coral from mythology to conservation and will include art objects, objects from the collections, hopefully living specimens and a crocheted reef!

That was followed by presentations from two student interns about conservation projects they’ve undertaken during their time at the Museum.  Shiree Roberts had been working on a Japanese lacquered tray

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and Gabby Flexer had been working on a Norwegian bridal headdress.

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Although these topics didn’t relate specifically to Natural History, it was really interesting to hear about the conservation techniques used on these beautiful objects and the tricky decisions that have to be made about the line between conservation and restoration, which doesn’t only apply to these sorts of objects.  This was particularly true of the headdress which was originally in many loose parts with no record of how the bits went together, and required much research to get to a position to put it back together.

The weekly box mending/cleaning club with the assistant curators followed and this week it was turn of these lovely tins of fruit and veg seeds ( donated in 1904) to be spruced up.

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After lunch it was time to get messy in the Discovery Centre at one of the Museum’s half term events: Making Marvellous Mobiles, based on the Nature’s Library gallery.  It was great fun encouraging the young and not so young visitors to let their imagination run wild and discussing the objects displayed on the tables which included a baby crocodile and the rabbit peeping out of the photo here.

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The week was rounded off with a very useful course on Risk Assessments run by the University of Manchester.

Spring Wild Food Forage

This event on Saturday, 25 May was part of the Urban Naturalist series of public events at the Manchester Museum with Jesper Lauder (a medical herbalist) in association with Cracking Good Food.

The weather was great and Jesper kept us engaged and entertained during the afternoon, providing lots of information about the culinary and medicinal uses of plants we found in our walk around near the Museum.  Many, but not all, were plants that you would expect to find in this area, and often would be considered troublesome weeds.

Jesper explains that pine pollen is high in testosterone.

Jesper explains that pine pollen is high in testosterone.

Here are my jottings from the afternoon …

St George’s mushrooms

Jesper had come across these on his way to the event.  As its name suggests, this mushroom typically appears around St George’s day (23 April), often but not always in meadows and it makes fairy rings which can help in tracking it down.  It has a cucumbery smell and is best eaten cooked.

In the Museum Allotment:

Ground Elder

The stems of this member of the carrot family can be eaten raw but beware of imitations.  Best picked before it flowers.

Cow Parsley

An edible plant with feathery leaves, the leaves are edible and can be used as a seasoning.  It can be confused with the poisonous hemlock which has distinctive red-purple spots on the stem.

In the cultivated beds near the buildings:


2013-05-25 16.36.11(Or ‘slug food’ as it is known in our garden).  The leaves of all Hosta varieties are edible, using the younger, more tender parts for preference.

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The flowers of this plant appear before the leaves, so its sometimes called ‘son before father’.  Traditionally used as a cough suppressant.  The leaves can be steamed and used like spinach.

2013-05-25 16.31.24Hairy Bittercress

This edible plant is a member of the mustard family.  The flowers and seedpods can be eaten – I enjoyed it the next day as a seasoning in my cream cheese sandwiches!

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This is similar in appearance and habit to scarlet pimpernel but chickweed has white star-shaped flowers while the scarlet pimpernel has red flowers.  Chickweed can be used as a salad plant and has a grassy flavour.

Mahonia2013-05-25 16.27.07

The mahonia is also known as the Oregon grape for its hanging fruit which darken to a deep blue.  The ripe berries are edible though with a very sharp flavour and can be used to make jam or wine.  The leaves should not be confused with the holly with has poisonous red berries.  Some uses of the root are to treat digestive ailments and IBS.

Cleavers2013-05-25 16.25.13

Also called Goosegrass or Sticky-willy because it has small hooked hairs which grow out of the stems and leaves so it sticks to absolutely everything.  It is edible although the hairs make it less pleasant to eat raw.  It contains a lot of moisture which Jesper demonstrated by twisting the stems to produce a juice which smells of pea pods and can be used in a refreshing drink.  It is also good for making a cooling pack for the skin, or for nettle stings.

In the grassy areas around the campus:

2013-05-25 16.38.09Alkanet

This pretty plant was growing against a beech tree.  Also known as dyers’ bugloss, alkanet is a member of the borage family.  It is used in the Middle East.  The leaves can be wilted and used in the same way as spinach in recipes.  The flowers can also be eaten raw.  The root  produces a red/purple dye.


A ‘beech gin’ called beechleaf noyau can be made by picking the young leaves around this time of year, packing them down, covering with gin and leaving for about 3 weeks (making sure all the leaves are covered to prevent them decaying).  A light green/yellow liqueur is created or a richer colour results if copper beech is used.  Its handy that this can be made just as last year’s sloe gin is running out!  The young leaves can also be used in salads.


The Stone Pine, a native of the Mediterranean, is cultivated for edible pine nuts which are harvested from the woody pine cones (the female part of the plant) in the autumn and dried.  The less conspicuous male cones produce the pollen which has a high nutritional value.  It is also high in testosterone and it has been suggested that this is responsible for fish changing gender from female to male in rivers used for transporting the timber.  The pollen is sold commercially at very high prices, but can be easily collected.  The male cones are edible too.

Lime Tree or Linden2013-05-25 16.33.25

In all trees, as the leaves age the level of tannin increases.  This deters animals from eating them.  However, lime leaves are generally low in tannin and it makes a good salad leaf.  A tea can be made from the flowers and bracts which is good for calming the nervous system and this is produced commercially.

In grassed areas where the grass had been left unmown around the daffodils:


The leaves of this useful plant can be used in salads and the young buds can be pickled and used like capers.  The flowers are also edible and can be used to make wine.  A ‘coffee’ can be made from the root when dried, roasted and ground.

Yarrow or milfoil

The leaves can be infused to make a tea.  Oil of yarrow is a dark blue essential oil extracted by steam distillation of the flowers.  One of its uses is skincare.

2013-05-25 16.23.50Lady’s Smock or Cuckoo flower

The flowers of this meadow plant are edible


After a very pleasant ramble, we returned to the Museum for a welcome brew and chat and had a look at a selection of Herbarium sheets of edible plants from the Museum’s collection :

2013-05-22 08.51.19eElder

The fruit and flowers are used to make wine.

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Nettle makes wonderful soup using the young tips (rinsed well to remove the wildlife!).  It is also used to make beer, wine and tea and is used to treat prostate enlargement and to enhance kidney function.  Jesper also suggested that arthritis sufferers would find it beneficial to sting the affected area, which increases the blood supply.



 Wild Garlic2013-05-22 08.52.17

The buds and the flowers can be eaten.  The bulbs are small and with a milder flavour than garlic.  However it is the leaves that are eaten raw or cooked, more than the bulbs.

Jesper rounded off the afternoon by giving us a quick tour of plants to avoid because of their toxicity, including hemlock, water dropwort, autumn crocus, henbane, datura (thornapple) and deadly nightshade.