An endangered species? Boosting Natural History Curators’ ranks through partnerships

Joining forces: A partnership project in the South West aims to help support natural history curators and collections throughout the region

Main Image: Taxidermy platypus. A common specimen in museums, and the potential of use is huge: if you know how to use it safely. Photograph by Jan Freedman

Once their numbers across the UK were much higher. Today they are quite a rare sight. If you are lucky, you might just spot the enigmatic creature in one of only four remaining spots in the South West. Numbers across other regions have also been reduced. Beautiful, adaptable, protective and caring: they are survivors. The natural history curator may be a rare sight, but they are far from extinct.

The South West has the largest number of museums than any other area in the UK. There are over 210 accredited museums dotted throughout the region, each with their own doorway to the past. Out of these, around 39 hold natural history collections, ranging from small collections of birds eggs or taxidermy, to much larger collections of over one and a half million specimens. That’s massive! Out of these 39 or so museums, only six have collections with a paid natural history specialist in post. Six. That is alarming.

I’m not saying that all of them should have a paid natural history specialist. Ideally the number would be much higher though because with a lack of specialist knowledge or support, it is difficult for those who are working with natural history collections to release their full potential – to care for, use and promote them. This can be dangerous, and I wrote about a lack of subject specialists in a recent blog post for Museums and Heritage.

Would the non-specialist know what this creature is and how to conserve this specimen? It is a lamprey in spirit. The red lava-lamp-style bubbles are the fatty lipids seeping out of the lamprey. [Specimen from the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery]

Recognising this lack of expertise in the region, the last remaining natural history curators banded together in 2015 to develop a new project. It wasn’t a project to save themselves; it was a project to pool their expertise in order to help increase the care of and access to hundreds of thousands of specimens spread across the region. Led by Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, the project was successful in securing a grant from the John Ellerman Foundation in partnership with South West Museums Development, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (BRLSI), Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, Royal Cornwall Museum Truro, and Bristol University.

This project isn’t just aiming to help unlock the potential of the wealth hidden in collections in the South West. It also has an ambition to empower the custodians of those collections with the skills they need to care for them in the safest and most appropriate ways and to help them increase access.

This work has already begun. Training workshops are being delivered across the region to give curators, collections managers and volunteers working in these museums the confidence and knowledge they need.

Several training sessions have been set up, from how to display specimens to cleaning natural history collections. I was fortunate enough to assist with one of the workshops which covered handling and storage held in Plymouth. It was a fantastic day, which included basic key handling and storage techniques, store tours, and some hard work for the delegates creating safe storage for birds eggs and sub-fossil bone.

From a box of bones, to safe well stored specimens. Plastazote cut outs make sure the specimen is safe for many years. [Photo by author from the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery]

Staff from seven museums and National Trust properties in the South West came along and shared their experiences (and fears) of working with their natural history collections. By the end of the day, there were excited whispers about what they were each going to do when they got back to their respective workplaces. What this group took away with them was more than just basic skills in handling varied natural history collections. They went home knowing there was support for them and that help and advice were easily available. They went home knowing that they’re not alone.

I am proud to be a part of this project: proud that Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery is a part of this project. It’s giving staff in much smaller museums the confidence to care for their collections. It’s empowering the curators to make the right decisions based on the knowledge they have learnt from the training sessions. I am proud because this project is protecting our history for the future.