A look at the Alfred Denny Museum of Zoology

(Click on images to enlarge.)

If you’re looking for somewhere to while away an hour in Sheffield, I can highly recommend this collection of biological specimens at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at Sheffield University.  It’s open to the public on the first Saturday of the month, when bookable hourly tours are run by student volunteers.  Our group of about 10 were given a brief introduction by Zoology students Chloe and Merryl, then allowed to wander and ask questions.


There was no chance of getting bored given the small scale of the collection and the huge variety of specimens. My family (a 10 year old, a 2nd year university student and 3 parents, one a natural history/museum nut) found plenty to keep us all thoroughly occupied, interested and drawn from one cabinet to the next. For some visitors half an hour was plenty, while we had to be politely edged out of the door with the lure of a look at the Sorby slides when the hour was up!


The collection includes fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals and arthropods, represented by skeletons, spirit specimens, taxidermy and pinned insects.  The specimens are arranged systematically by Phyla in the 15 cases and there’s a useful plan in the Museum Guide provided.


The room is not much longer than this, with cabinets around the walls too. These beautiful cabinets were transferred when the museum moved from its original location in Firth Court.


Photo: Heather Miles

‘Half-specimens’ show the animal’s inner workings.


Observational skills were encouraged.


Wonderful to see a Manitee skeleton.


Photo: Heather Miles

Part of the amazingly preserved and unique collection of slides of marine organisms prepared by Henry Clifton Sorby in the early 1900s.


Photo: Heather Miles

All the specimens are clearly identified by labels, but sadly we were told much of the information associated with them has been lost, so our guides couldn’t tell us much about where they came from, apart from a story about the porpoise being barrowed up from the fishmarket in Sheffield!

Although the museum was only opened to the public in 2012, it’s been a teaching resource for over 100 years and is used with undergraduate courses on biodiversity and evolution.  As with most museum collections, what’s on show is a fraction of the whole and we were told further displays are in development. The museum’s curator is Prof. Tim Birkhead.

The department also runs a ‘Be a Scientist for the Day’ programme.  This offers primary students the chance to work in the labs to find out what it’s like to be a real biologist and to explore the museum. There’s plenty of information about the collections on the Museum website, worth looking at before a visit.


‘Ugh! I don’t like the crinkly bits!’ Joe Young, age 10.









Exploring Arbor Low with a new digital trail

Arbor Low henge

Arbor Low stone circle

I took advantage of the beautiful weather at the weekend to test out one of 4 digital trails Buxton Museum are currently piloting as part of their Collections in the Landscape project.  The apps offer trails based around Buxton Waters, Stories of Shopping in Buxton 50 years ago and a Dovedale family activity trail, but I was particularly keen to try out their Arbor Low digital trail.

Buxton Museum & Art Gallery have used a Stage I Heritage Lottery Funding to explore digital access to the collections, inside and outside the museum, bringing together the landscape and the archaeological and geological artefacts found in them.  The digital trails are still in the pilot stage and the Collections in the Landscape team have used Collections Ambassadors, Twitter and Facebook to spread the word, get people involved and elicit feedback.

I was interested to see what information had been provided about the history of the construction and later excavation of Arbor Low and nearby Gib Hill and how this information was presented.  As a young child, I lived in Middleton-by-Youlgrave only 2 miles down the road, and although Arbor Low was a very familiar place to me I knew very little about it, except that it had been excavated by Thomas Bateman among others, who had lived at Lomberdale Hall, between Middleton and Youlgrave.

The site is set high on the limestone plateau, and as Dr John Barnatt, Senior Survey Archaeologist for the National Park, explains in the audio, it can be seen from a long way away, but is hidden when nearby until the entrance is reached, deliberately enhancing its mystery.


The app provides a tour of 5 stops which visitors can either view on a map or as a list, and access in any order.  Clicking on each stop provides a choice of audio commentary, or detailed text illustrated by photos and drawings of excavations, finds and people.  In the audios Dr Barnatt expresses articulately the fascination of the sites for both archaeologists and the general public, talking about how Arbor Low was probably used by the people who built it and later visitors to the area; why the architecture of the monument was deliberately dramatic;  what we know about the barrow and the finds (including human remains), and what that means the site might have been used for, and the excavations of Gib Hill.  I learnt the stone circle was built between 2500 and 2000 BC, around the same time or slightly later than Stonehenge.

There was some variability in signal strength, but I found, having explored the app before my visit and again afterwards, in its current state of development, it successfully answered questions raised during the visit, and brought the human element to this a dramatic, ancient monument.


Walking across the field from Arbor Low to nearby Gib Hill.


Lichen growing on the fallen stones.

Widening horizons: MA Conference


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.

2013-11-12 11.06.47

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.