Museum collections are boring. There we said it. They desperately need a makeover. The words and language associated with museum collections have the amazing power of making even the soggiest of lemon drizzle cakes dry up and desiccate like a cracker left in the desert. Recently, one Welsh Museum director’s head famously dropped off through sheer boredom at a collections committee during a particularly dry discussion of making sure the museum legally acquires new obj… christ, it nearly happened to me just now. You know the story. In a recent Museums Organisation survey on perspectives on collections an astonishing 78% of respondents strongly agreed with the statement I wish our collections staff would die so I could get on with my work.
These days, fussing about the meaning of language has never been less important or inconsequential and it’s something we can all get our teeth into without really having to change anything that we do or say or think. Everyone can and should have an opinion about second guessing what everyone else is trying to say, regardless of their qualification or need to. It is known. With this kind of meaningless change we can all get behind, firmly commit to and not have to do anything about in mind the following significant update to Collections Newspeak, CN 5.0, was made at the 67th (virtual) Congress of Collections Concordance Registry (CCCR). Please diligently expunge all retired terms and update with suggested new ones. This way we hope to dupe the museum sector into thinking collections and collections work is as exciting as [this decades buzzword concept] or even the perpetual self flagellation of everything the sector does in the hope that somebody, anybody notices us.
Digitisation in museums remains a hot trend. On paper, all we need to do is digitise specimens, stick ’em online et voila, everyone in the world has access to our beautiful specimens. Of course, it isn’t quite as straight forward as this but I won’t go over the issues with esoteric resource finding, digitisation vs visualisation and access to the Internet here, instead I’m going to focus on the difficulties of visualising natural history specimens. Unlike prints and paintings, most natural history specimens don’t really have an obvious ‘side’ to take an image of. Flat fossils, herbarium sheets and microscope slides are a bit more obvious but then it all falls apart when it comes to disarticulated skeletons, fluid preserved specimens, taxidermy, nests and even eggs.
This blog post is a guide to taking images of one particular kind of specimen relatively common in natural history museums, the shells of the curious ram’s horn squid, Spirula spirula. So-called because their internal shells are shaped like ram’s horns, the shells of this widespread marine species are found washed up on shorelines across the globe. It is the only living species in the order Spirulida. Little is known about the specifics of where these animals live, how they reproduce, feed and migrate but the shells of these specimens are common in museum collections. Here are the 12 contemporary ways you can visualise these characteristic shells. Continue reading
Still with me? This series is a step by step approach to the process of documenting natural history museum specimens in a cathartic attempt to explain the process to those who may wonder what museum curators do (some of the time) and in answer to the question, why isn’t your collection digitised yet? I’ve chosen Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s cephalopod collection to start with as a small subset of the zoology collections and one of the less well known parts of the collection. Part 1 looked at how we make a start from almost scratch. Part 2 dissected a ‘typical museum’ label and dipped a toe into some of the problems interpreting specimen labels. In this part, I’ve now added all the specimens I could find onto a spreadsheet and will start piecing together some of the overarching information currently entombed in data labels, apocryphal accounts of the collection and written documents.
Natural history specimens can come with a wide range of labels associated with them. Some are obviously recent museum labels that are easy to interpret but over the centuries multiple labels will have been glued, stitched or extremely loosely attached to specimens as they move from collectors to vendors to researchers and to other museums. Some of these labels are the only remnant of information which gives us an insight into a specimen’s history, information which has otherwise been lost. Without this history, important specimens can be overlooked and the use potential of specimens diminished because researchers often refer to collections based on their age and where they were collected.
Now let’s look at the range of labels found with specimens and begin to piece together what they may mean. Continue reading
Welcome to part two of the driest museum blog series ever, getting into the nitty gritty of how we ‘document’ natural history specimens from start to finish. Last time around we’d set up our spreadsheet and set off to the stores to start recording information and observations about specimens. Unlike works on paper, machinery or archival documents natural history specimens don’t readily come with information embedded, inscribed or machine stamped into them to aid with identifying the who, how, what, where and when associated with specimens. They’re also incredibly inconvenient in that many don’t even have an easy place to write information on so a lot of specimen information is written on labels, on, attached to or otherwise associated with specimens.
Label information is really key to the information management of natural history specimens and alongside other pieces of documentation, provide sometimes, primary, often times secondary information evidence pertaining to what the thing is, how old it is, when and where it was collected as well as the internal museum information such as publications on the specimen, questions over the identity, anatomical labels, marks, scribbles and scrawls. As a golden rule and one I impress upon visiting researchers using the Oxford University Museum of Natural History zoology collections is never trust a label. As we will see in this instalment they can be outdated, inaccurate or just plain wrong.
Interested in museum documentation? Having trouble sleeping? Then read on. Continue reading
Well, it started with a list actually, well before that it started with months of familiarisation with the collections at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the Collections Manager (Life Collections) at Oxford University Museum of Natural History and I manage the zoological collections (excepting the huge entomology sensu latu collections) and I’ve been in post for nearly two years now. My role at the museum as I see it is to facilitate access and use of the amazing collections at the museum but in order to do this, we need to get a handle on what material is in these collections.
This multi-part series will take you through the process from start to nearly finish, I suspect the pace of these blog posts will outstrip the pace of the work, in documenting the cephalopod collections at the museum. I have taught collections management in the past and (sadly) am very interested in how documentation works but in my work across the sector and wider, when discussing the problems with managing natural history collections, people not familiar with the work will ask “Why don’t you crowd source it” or “Just get volunteers to do it”. I’m afraid in many cases it isn’t that simple so these posts will take us through the whole process which is frustrating and laborious at times but ultimately satisfying when done right. It’ll be cathartic for me and scratch that teaching itch and who knows, it may be of some interest to others at the very least the nerdy museum documenters out there (shout outs to @RussellShepherd and @RegistrarTrek and the #MuseumDocumentation no offense intended).
Series introduced, let’s get on to documenting cephalopods. Continue reading