A closer look at lichen Lobaria

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Following on from a randomised survey of all British lichens in the Natural History Museum’s collection (see previous blog), I completed my week there finding out more about one particular British lichen, Lobaria amplissima.   For all 109 specimens of the lichen, as well as recording the same information as in the previous survey, I was particularly looking for the presence or absence of cephalodia* and apothecia**.

Lobaria amplissima is a large, ‘leafy’ lichen, normally green but paler when dry.  It is sensitive to toxins making it a good indicator of ecosystem health.  It is found on Ash, Oak and Sycamore, often in old woodlands and predominantly to areas in the west of the UK  where the air is cleanest – North and West Scotland, Cumbria and Devon and Cornwall.

Combined with information in other local and national databases, the data recorded may make it possible to identify more precisely any changes in the geographical distribution of the species over time, and any correlation between environmental changes and the presence of nitrogen-fixing cephalodia and/or the sustainability of colonies.

*Cephalodia

Lobaria amplissima is relatively unusual in that as well as the symbiosis between a fungus and a green alga in the ‘leafy’ structure (thallus), a cyanobacterium is also involved.  The cyanobacteria form brown-black gall-like structures called cephalodia, which can be seen in the photo above as small black nodules.   The alga and cyanobacteria provide food to the fungus through photosynthesis and, in addition,  the lichen gets added nitrogen from the cyanobacteria in the cephalodia, which may be an advantage in nitrogen-deficient environments.

**Apothecia

In the photo above, the red-brown cup-shaped structures are apothecia, the fruiting bodies from which spores are released.  They mean the lichen is reproducing sexually, an indicator of the vitality of the organism.  Organisms which only reproduce asexually can be vulnerable to environmental changes since mutation is the only way new genetic combinations can appear.

A more recent specimen, showing neither apothecia nor cephalodia.

A more recent specimen, showing neither apothecia nor cephalodia.

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As well as the privilege of working with the lichens themselves, the label information made it a fascinating task. Was the collector aware of the impending cataclysm?

Thanks to Dr Holger Thus for the opportunity to work with this wonderful collection and delve a little deeper into these amazing organisms.

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A survey of British lichens at the Natural History Museum, London

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This was the first of two projects completed in the Cryptogamic Herbarium at the NHM, working with Curator of Lichens, Dr Holger Thüs.  With one of the largest lichen collections in the world at 400,000 specimens, and at least 10,000 type specimens, it was an unmissable opportunity to learn more about these fascinating organisms, about the historical and current curation of lichen collections, and to hone my skill at reading handwriting through the ages.

At the NHM the lichens are divided physically into British and Worldwide.   The survey provided data on:

  • The geographical distribution of British lichens in the collection
  • Collection and acquisition of the specimens as recorded on the specimen labels
  • The prevalence of the various methods of mounting and storage used.

Analysis of the data will allow a comparison of the geographical distribution of specimens in the collection with national databases to assess significance.  The depth and accuracy of information about the specimens already held on the NHM database can be reviewed and the information will help in planning resources needed for future collection management projects and digital databasing.

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The British lichen collection is stored in 7 walls of cabinets, some wooden, some metal.

A randomised sample of 100 store locations was generated, making sure there were no duplicates.

For a single species at each location, data was recorded for 2 sample specimens, one at the top left of the first sheet in the first folder and the second sample from the bottom right of the last sheet in the last folder.  In total, therefore, approximately 200 specimens were examined (some species only having one specimen).

Information  recorded for each specimen:     

  • Barcode number
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Barcoding specimens improves their accessibility by making information about them on the database searchable and linking them to other associated data or specimens.

Barcodes were added where missing.  Specimens had only been barcoded previously if they were particularly important eg type specimens, or culturally significant, or if they had been accessed for particular purposes such as research projects.

  • Species name on folder and on specimen label

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The species name on the folder is Acrocordia conoidea, but the name on the specimen label is the now superceded name of Verrucosa epipolea.

  • Vice-county number and name if present, and other locality information from which the vice-county might be identified
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Vice-counties were introduced in 1852 – this one looks as if it was possibly added to the label more recently.

Vice counties are divisions based on the ancient counties of Britain used for biological recording.  They are similarly sized geographical units which are independent of  local government reorganisations and allow data collected over long periods of time to be compared. 

Early collectors sometimes gave just the name of a house or wood.  Working out where they might be from provided some interesting historical detective work!

  • Collector, year of collection and herbarium owner

The earliest recorded sample was 1790 from the Herbarium of Rev Hugh Davies.  It was frustrating when the full date wasn’t given – does ’60 refer to 1760, 1860 or 1960?

  • Sheet information

Other information about how the lichens were mounted included whether the label was typed or handwritten.

A significant amount of data was recorded about the state of the storage of the specimen.

It was recorded whether the specimen was on a sheet marked as being on on permanent loan from Kew.  There is a permanent loan arrangement with Kew which means all (non-lichenised) fungal collections were transferred from the NHM to Kew with a reciprocal transfer of algae, lichens and bryophytes from Kew to the NHM.

Other questions were …

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…  is it glued directly to the sheet, as here, or in a packet glued to a sheet.

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If so do the ends of the packet fold under as here – and make the lichen vulnerable to damage when opened?

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… or with ends folded over on top, so the specimen is easily accessible.

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Best of all, is the specimen in a packet which is not glued to anything, but can be stored 4 packets to a folder, and easily accessed?

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Finally, how many collections are on the sheet? Not always an easy question to answer when there may be more than one ‘collection event’ under a single label.

When planning a review like this, its worth bearing in mind the time taken to:

  • Physically locate and transfer samples
  • Decipher handwriting, and revisit previous records when something becomes clear
  • Identify locations :  http://www.cucaera.co.uk/grp5/ is recommended as a tool for finding vice counties from a place name, grid reference or postcode.  It also provides a zoomable map with vice county boundaries clearly marked.

I’m very grateful to Dr Holger Thus for this opportunity.

Developing a museum outreach collection

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On my first day at Manchester Museum, I was intrigued by some large silver boxes.  Each held a selection of objects from a different gallery in the Museum, or an aspect of a collection.  Community organisations can host a visit from these ‘Museum Comes to You’ boxes with a member of the Museum staff.

So I was excited to be asked to develop a box based on the Nature’s Library gallery – but also a little overwhelmed!  This beautiful gallery opened in April 2013 and showcases an outstanding collection of preserved animals, plants and fossils, collected from around the world over the last 200 years.   As a starting point in choosing 8 or 9 specimens out of over 4 million, I went out with Kerry Beeston and Curator of Community Exhibitions, Andrea Winn,  to see how the objects were used.

Andrea and Kerry skilfully described objects from the Natural Science collections to members of Henshaw’s Society for the Blind and there were soon lots of conversations and questions flying – ‘What is it?’, ‘Where does it come from?’ and ‘How old is it?’.

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Andrea and Kerry were praised for their engaging description of the objects.

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These particular objects  had been chosen for their variety of texture, shape and colour.    They didn’t necessarily have much information associated with them, limiting their usefulness as a flexible resource for a range of groups.

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A beautiful selection of shells from the Indian Ocean sparked lots of discussion and memories of distant lands.

Very positive feedback from this and two other groups asked for a greater variety of objects – Herbarium sheets were particularly mentioned, and staff wanted more information about objects.

Nature’s Library  ‘showcases objects from the collections, where they come from, how they are used for research and what they mean to people today’ with the overarching aim of inspiring a greater interest in the natural world, helping people think about their own relationship with the modern natural world and telling people about what the museum does.

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The fruit of the Coco-de-mer – an endangered palm with the largest seed of any plant, weighing up to 30 kg. Its interesting shape has given rise to many legends!

A group of 8 or 9 objects was considered optimalThe objects musn’t be hazardous obviously, and they need to be robust enough or suitably packaged for transport/handling.  Objects were chosen to:

  • Reflect the range of the collections
  • Be amazing in their own right, visually, with interesting texture, aroma or sound
  • Have fascinating natural history
  • Provide lots of angles to talk about –  the history of their collection, their collectors and how their use today reflects the  museum’s teaching and research role as a part of the university.

People are also interested in curatorial aspects – the various forms of conservation and storage, how the museum keeps track of them and their associated information.

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Apart from choosing the objects (liaising with the relevant curators), researching information was hugely enjoyable and hard to know when to stop.  But I had to remember that it can become a real memory test for those presenting the objects.  I aimed to provide enough variety of information that they could find something to connect with.  The objects are augmented by images of them in their natural habitat for use in the sessions.

I met members from the Engagement Team and Conservation Department to look at the final selection, to get their input from the presentational point of view and think about how people might engage with the objects, as well as flag up any handling issues.  Then the objects were left with the Conservation team to check their stability and to be mounted / packaged while pilot sessions are set up to try them out.

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This Whale Barnacle is my particular favourite.  This one is 6 cm across.  Not a mollusc, but a crustacean (like crabs etc).  They live almost exclusively on Hump-backed Whales.

Moving on Up Event

Originally posted as Moving on Up Event Report 3 on Museum Development North West:

Nearing the end of my traineeship at Manchester Museum,  I’m grateful to Museums Development North West for the opportunity to find out ‘secrets of the successful museum career’, and see how others are finding things as their careers develop.  A wider theme through the day was the nature of leadership and how to effect change at whatever level within an organisation.

Hilary McGowan’s ‘How to pitch yourself’ had immediate practical impact and focused precisely on her message – clarity.  We learnt how to work up a personal pitch for different scenarios – in the lift, in the Dragon’s Den, in an interview, in a presentation, using a target time to put ourselves across succinctly.

Speed-mentoring was too good an opportunity to miss and a chance to practice my pitching.  Jack Kirby, Head of Collections at MOSI, got straight to the point with lots of common-sense advice.  If you get a chance to do this but are apprehensive, take the opportunity – its well worth getting another perspective.

Tamsin Russell, organisational development manager at National Museums of Scotland, got us taking control of our careers with ‘Mapping your success’, making the point that its good to have a plan even if other factors (such as life) intervene.  In 5 easy exercises we plotted our working lifetime and worked out how many ‘5-year chunks’ we have left, ticked roles on an organisational structure that would attract us, and reflected on what was needed to bridge the gap between where we are now and where we want to be.  ‘Listen to the advice you give your friends’ was a thought-provoking piece of advice.

In ‘Question time’ three museum directors, Kate Brindley, Graham Boxer and Katy Archer, shared how they got to where they are today and fielded questions from the audience.  There was little disagreement between the panellists on most things:

Tips for getting that job

  • Don’t be afraid to throw away the plan, its important to work out what you don’t want to do.
  • Apply for everything, don’t worry about rejection, be persistent.
  • Don’t expect a linear career path.
  • Interviews work both ways, use them to learn about the institution, and ask for feedback.
  • After shortlisting, most candidates interviewed will probably have the necessary skills, so its important to be yourself.  Make sure your attitude and values come across.  Show enthusiasm for the organisation and passion for the job.  Ask good questions – but not too many!

But bear in mind …

  • You won’t be happy if the organisations values don’t match your own.
  • Always put yourself first, you might do something not perfect to get a foot in the door and valuable experience, but be selfish.

How to cope when jobs you want to move into are disappearing

  • Taking other roles outside work add breadth to work life.
  • Have a go at everything, get different experiences and network outside your organisation, keep abreast of developments.
  • The prevalence of short-term contracts mitigate against developing project development skills, but they can widen skills and experience.

Qualifications? A difference of opinion … from ‘not relevant’ to ‘lack of qualifications can be an issue’.  It was acknowledged that they’re often used for shortlisting.  In response to a comment off-panel that ‘there’s no point in getting a degree from somewhere rubbish’, strong opinions were expressed that organisations need to lose the straitjacket of qualifications and review the criteria they use so they get people with the skills they need.  Senior staff need to look at the whole person, their skills and not whether candidates ‘hold a Courtauld degree – that mentality is unjust and blocks talent’.

So, you’ve got the job – now, how to be part of ‘a radical workforce who challenge themselves and the sector.’

Richard Wilson of OSCA, the Social Change Agency, thinks a new breed of leader is needed – the Anti-Hero – open minded, passionate, not detached, adaptive – very different from the ‘heroic leaders who dominate our institutions today’.  These days, he said, we don’t need to learn stuff anymore (our smartphones can look it up for us), but we need empowering, transformative learning – changes in how we know.  And we can individually change things we are passionate about through using the support of colleagues and friends.

But – what makes a radical workforce?  

Maggie Appleton , Rowan Brown and David Fleming described how they would shake up the museum sector.  This prompted fruitful group discussion out of which came:

  •  Think of your audience and know your values, be prepared to be flexible but stick to goals.
  • Using questioning to bring a fresh perspective
  • Remember, being radical is relative.
  •  The importance of personal passion working in an existing culture.  Work within the system to gain trust before trying to change things.
  • Theres’ a danger of a community feeling let down if there’s lack of continuity through constant changes.
  • Use periods of consolidation – not constant change.
  • Organisations want to be seen as radical but don’t want to change ways of working.
  • For the security of their career, people may feel they need to be strategic rather than radical.
  • Trust and empowerment of junior staff is needed, respecting the contributions of all staff.
  • Difficulties of motivating jaded staff
  • A culture is needed where its possible to fail.

In his Final Thoughts, David Anderson was bored by the argument ‘Are museums for collections or people?’  We need to think about what we want to achieve.  Again, as at the MA conference, he asked ‘Are we a profession, a service, or a vocation for a bigger purpose beyond ourselves’. His answer was ‘a vocation’, with special responsibilities to help improve people’s lives (prompting a twitter-flurry –  ‘but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t pay a living wage’.)

This was the second time I’d heard David Anderson speak and again he finished with a rather depressing call to action.  He said what he’d heard today gave him great hope in the human spirit and urged us to act on today for ourselves but also for the sector – its up to us to sort this mess out…

In a day when we were urged to be leaders, there was acknowledgement that its not always easy to say what we think, and that we all need the support of friends and colleagues and an organisation that’s prepared to listen.  It was clear that everyone I met, or who spoke, is committed to working in organisations which change lives for the better, and that’s reassuring.  Events like this can help to evolve a supportive museum community with a shared ethos.

Claire Miles
HLF Curatorial Trainee in Natural History, Manchester Museum