Conservation corner: fragile frog

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After cleaning.

This little frog needed cleaning up for a television appearance.

Here’s the before picture …

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The dust was removed first with a fine brush and puffer and then it was  the old stick and dampened cotton wool, but very, very carefully, especially as one of the back knee joints had come adrift.

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The loose bit in the top left was there already, honest, and was identified as a bit of the lower jaw.

Finally the box glass was cleaned and peeling paper stuck back down.

Widening horizons: MA Conference

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On 11 and 12 November, I attended the Museums Association Conference along with my 3 fellow HLF trainees.  The experience took me out of my comfort zone at times, was depressing at others, but stretching, informative and rewarding overall.

Of the 2 keynote speeches, 3 networking events, 8 talks and seminars and 4 workshops here are snapshots of 3 of the most inspiring and/or practically useful sessions I attended …

Dead zoos

 3 panel members set out their position for two issues relevant to my own area: Why do we need specialist natural science curators and how can natural history collections help people connect with environmental sustainability issues?

For me, obviously the first topic was preaching to the converted, but the questions raised by the audience highlighted current issues with natural history collections, particularly the lack of specialists ie ‘How can collections be used without a specialist curator?’

Darren Mann (Oxford Museum of Natural History) explained why curators need to evolve from ivory tower ‘curationists’ to curators who not only care for collections, but make collections accessible and engage with visitors, students, researchers and others. Specialist curators are needed so collections aren’t lost.

 Clare Brown (NatSCA) outlined what a gift a natural history collection is for discussing and promoting environmental issues and examples were provided by the panel and the audience.  She encouraged actively seeking help and collaboration  – with NatSCA (who can help with funding applications, for example), and with larger museums who have a responsibility to support others.

 For Henry McGhie (Manchester Museum), using natural history for environmental messaging is about connecting collections to the present.  A questionnaire made us wonder if our attitudes relating to nature were the same as our values.  Key messages were: ‘You are not your audience’ (nature means different things to different people, and these views are equally valid) and ‘More love, less loss’ (hammering the extinction message can lead to apathy).

 An audience member suggested promoting environmental sustainability was not necessarily presenting a ‘balanced’ view.  It was pointed out that the Code of Ethics lays out the need to support biodiversity and sustainability. Specialists can help people to understand complex issues and provide a trusted point of reference.

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Keynote speech:  Ricardo Brodsky, Director of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile .

This was a thought-provoking speech about an institution set up for a specific purpose at a particular time, dealing with extremely difficult issues both past and present. 

Given with the aid of an interpreter, he set out the context for the opening of the museum in 2010 as a national and regional reference centre, with a mission to make known the human rights violations during the military regime from 1973 to 1990.  Mr Brodsky described it as the State’s expression of moral reparation, to return dignity to each victim and fulfil a duty of memory, to strengthen the national will and prevent similar events.  The first precept was to establish truth – 2 commissions acknowledged massive human rights violations by the government at the time.  Victims’ groups were initially critical, seeing the museum as a government-led project. (It is a private foundation set up by the state with finance awarded annually.)  However, he says, people now feel included.  Some visitors experience tension between records of physical reality and their subjective memories so it is critically important to have the most accurate available records.  ‘To transmit a universal message requires a central reference and the opportunity to debate’.  We were reminded this is an environment in which many protagonists still hold public posts. 

Overcoming your fears of managing volunteers.

Curators rely on the work done by volunteers so I was keen to get an insight into how others approach this and this was one of the most practically useful sessions attended.

The benefits of recruiting volunteers were outlined – creating ties to the community, acting as ambassadors, performing tasks staff don’t have time for, providing specialist knowledge/skills and not least, providing a team for staff who may spend a lot of time on their own.  The nitty-gritty of recruiting a diverse range of volunteers, setting up role descriptions, interviewing and training were discussed as well as handy hints on how to fit it all in with the day job.  How Volunteer Managers work with curators was an interesting question which, unfortunately, there wasn’t time to discuss.

By combining this session with the workshop on Tips on how to professionally manage volunteers and the session Youth Justice, I comprehensively covered the benefits, practicalities and pitfalls of working with volunteers and young people.

Boxing clever with migrating birds

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Yellow-crowned Amazon, Amazona ochrocephala.

The Natural History collection stores at Gallery Oldham are in the basement of an empty building which is to be redeveloped, which means the collection has to be moved elsewhere during the process (see previous post).  Part of the bird taxidermy collection has already been rehoused in new storage boxes.  My task on this placement project was to produce a more accurate estimate of storage requirements for the remaining approximately 450 specimens, so funding can be sought.

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Part of the current storage of bird taxidermy and on the left, examples of the boxes to be used.

In 1988* 849 specimens of 321 species were recorded in the collection. ‘These are mainly mounts, but also included are 30 study skins.  The collection contains at least 125 foreign species while about 83% of the species regularly breeding in Britain are represented.  At least 20% of the specimens originate from the Oldham area.’

Patricia Francis, the Exhibition and Collections Co-ordinator,  estimates the collection now contains about 1000 bird specimens including 40 – 50 assorted parrots, parakeets, cockatoos and hummingbirds which were obtained under sad circumstances when brought into the country in consignments  for the pet trade.

The birds had been largely physically stored in groupings outlined in The Kingfisher Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe by John Gooders.

Patricia chose a box brand offering a useful range of dimensions, transparency, strength and ease of handling. They can be used on side or end to provide further options.  Appropriately labelled, these will provide not only for safe transfer, but also future storage of the collection.

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I was also asked to calculate storage allowing for the future mounting of unmounted specimens, which was a tricky requirement.

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What will be in the next box?  Many boxes had been sealed for a number of years.  This is a mixture of birds perched on twigs and unmounted birds.

The dimensions of each specimen or group were recorded in a spreadsheet, along with information on taxon, unique identification numbers, mount type and current location.

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The longest box dimension was 61 cm. Quite a few obviously weren’t going to fit!

Once all the information was entered, it was sorted, within the overall Gooder groupings, by family, genus and species so that birds could be allocated to boxes taxonomically.  Where necessary, grid diagrams were used to see what would fit where and a final report provided of the estimated numbers of boxes of different sizes and costings.

It was a useful experience in project planning and implementation – the project took 28 hours over 5 days (spread over a number of weeks).

I’m grateful to Patricia for this opportunity to work at Gallery Oldham and  to work with this amazing collection.

I’m looking forward to visiting the forthcoming Gone Fishing exhibition at Gallery Oldham in December, and seeing other aspects of the collections – particularly the 1930s Mallinson’s fish and chip range!

*Oldham Museum – The Natural History Collections: S. J. Hayhow (1988).

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Conservation corner: Fossil fish and ferns

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Fossil fish on sandstone.

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Fossil ferns.

These 2 specimens, one of fossil ferns in coal and one of fish in sandstone, were dry cleaned with latex sponge.  It was hard to see much difference before and after for the ferns, but the fish appeared out of the grime in a very satisfactory manner.

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Latex sponge.

 The specimens were for use in an education drawing session at the Museum – ‘Patterns in Nature’.

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The light colour is an effect of the lighting – not cleaning, but shows up the structure.

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Its nice to be able to see where you’ve been …

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The corner stain from an old label came off well with IMS solution and a cotton wool swab.

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The stone was riddled with fish. This tiddler was on the ‘reverse’.

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An accession number was glued on.

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To protect the specimen, a box was lined with foam and the shape of the specimen was cut out of another piece of foam which was then placed in the box.

DSCF0526Please feel free to leave a comment.