Subject Specialist Knowledge: The Answers Part 1

It’s been a hot minute (read two months) since I got back from the Museums Association conference and wrote this blog post about what subject specialist knowledge means when it comes to museum professionals. I felt that the term ‘subject specialist knowledge’ is used so often that the meaning of the phrase has become a bit abstract. Ambitiously, I said I’d upload the ‘answers’ in a couple of weeks but it’s taken me so long to write these up precisely because, those snap decisions that your friendly neighbourhood curator inherently knows when thinking about museum specimens, is such a huge amount of information to type up.

So here are the six objects and the answers to the first half of the 32 questions I posted, that every good curator will know. I’d like to iterate that these are ‘easy’ ones for a natural historian and I’m sure colleagues in other fields can think of similar examples. This is the knowledge you lose when you don’t have the specialist on staff or access to a specialist or specialist network to advice. Continue reading

Half of world’s museum specimens are wrongly labelled: The Excuses

Hot off the press this morning, the Telegraph reports that according to a new and unnamed paper in the journal Current Biology, half of world’s museum specimens are wrongly labelled. Now, I could dig out the original paper to see what the Oxford University and Royal Botanic Gardens colleagues actually said. I’m sure the estimations are vague and the researchers are ballparking the issue. I’m sure they didn’t conflate specimen labels with display labels as the Telegraph has. However, that headline is already out leading scores of people to throw their museum merchandise into the skip shaking their head “I trusted you museums, I trusted you”. So what’s needed isn’t clarification or explanation. What we need is excuses. STAT. Here are some off the shelf excuses for museum professionals who may be facing some tough questions this morning*.

    1. It’s the bloody botanists. The reported story is all about ginger and potatoes. It’s the botanists. They are letting the side down.
    2. It’s the bloody entomologists. Well over half of all natural history specimens are insects. So whichever way you look at it, entomologists are letting the side down.
    3. It’s the hippies. Bizarrely, the coverage claims that more than 50 percent of the world’s natural history specimens have been discovered since 1969. Firstly, I’m not even sure what that means. Is a specimen discovered when it is collected? In any case, it’s all those hippies in the 60s that messed things up. They are letting the side down.
    4. It’s the dyslexics. Unfortunately, for the Telegraph, in an article about specimens being mislabelled they’ve managed to incorrectly spell both Diplodocus and specimens. Even whilst making a joke about how the Natural History Museum is pretty sure that the dinosaur in Hintze Hall is dilpodocus (no italics, no capital). Yeah, it’s a dilpodocus, dilpy for short. Do spelling mistakes count? If they do then it’s the dyslexics, the dyslexics and human error are letting the side down.
    5. It’s the loss of subject specialist knowledge in a hard hit museum sector where we are losing expertise year on year. Best not mention this though. It’s depressing.
    6. It’s the bloody art historians and archaeologists. The headline doesn’t mention natural history museums so it’s probably the bloody art historians mislabelling paintings. Well there’s only a couple of hundred thousand of those, so it’s probably the bloody archaeologists too not labelling their pot fragments correctly. Art historians and archaeologists are letting the side down.
    7. We’re only half way there. When we started, none of them were correct. Give us another 300 years and we’ll finish the job.

spicimins

There we go folks. If you’ve got any excuses to help out colleagues in our time of need, why don’t you leave them in the comments. Together we can weather this ‘scandal’.

UPDATE: 17/11/2015 Corrected for many, many doubly ironic typos for writing this up in haste.

*Who am I kidding?

Museum Visit: Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea at the Natural History Museum London

Image of Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea exhibition

It’s only when I uploaded this image that I noticed the interesting (and probably expensive) sexy ceiling thing goin’ on there. Note the giant hexagons strewn about. This will be important later on.

Last week I visited Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea at the Natural History Museum, London. I had high hopes for the exhibition as there’s a certain frustration at seeing the same Hollywood Animal exhibitions at natural history museums over and over again. It’s forgivable to think that museums were nothing but dinosaurs, mammoths and fossil humans (as interesting as they are). Did it live up to high (tide) expectations or was it going to be a wash out? READ ON TO FIND OUT NO MORE RUBBISH PUNS I PROMISE. Continue reading