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Natural Science Collections Association’s annual conference brings curators out from their hiding places

It’s the event of the year. Across Britain and Ireland, natural history curators are beavering away in their museums. Often they won’t see another of their kind all year. Until this annual event – the Natural Science Collections Association (NatSCA) conference at Derby Museums

(Main Image: The NatSCA conference delegates in the nature gallery at Derby Museum. Photograph by Hannah Allum.)

If you work with natural history collections, this is the event not to miss. Sadly, I did. For the first time in nine years I couldn’t make this wonderful conference. I was sad to miss it: the great variety of talks, the passionate atmosphere, and my colleagues: I missed them most of all. I missed sharing ideas, and problems. I missed the laughter shared by good friends. I missed being surrounded by 98 other people who love museums and the collections we care for.

Fortunately, I could follow, and even engage with, the packed two day conference through Twitter (#NatSCA2016). The theme of the conference was how museums connect people with nature. And museums are doing a lot of different things.

Many museums have events that take people out and about, using the knowledge of staff to open up local wildlife to people. These events give families and the public the confidence to ask questions and find out more. They also encourage people to have a greater appreciation of their local environment. There are other projects too, from gathering all the specimens from an historical scientific voyage to knitting animal skins to help raise the awareness of endangered species!

A family exploring the small world of mini-beasts at a family friendly natural history event in Plymouth. Photograph courtesy of Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

Not all talks focused on events. Several talks outlined projects working with artists, inspiring a different audience (in fact artists are one of the most regular users of natural history collections). Another looked at how undressing the taxidermy specimens and showing how they are made provides people with a better appreciation of its history, as well as looking differently at that animal. A few talks focused on local societies and trainees which are both more important that we realise: these are key in keeping that specialist knowledge alive.

There were many other fantastic presentations – and there is little space to go through them all here. But you can glimpse by looking at the conference hashtag #NatSCA2016 and many will be written up on the NatSCA Blog. The enormous variety of ways museums are engaging and inspiring people is a testament to the hard work of staff all around the country.

Under the skin. The amazing work of Jazmine Miles-Long to show how taxidermy specimens are prepared. Photograph by Paolo Viscardi

Museums didn’t inspire me to work in natural history. It wasn’t because I thought they were boring, or because the labels were over technical. It was because I was never exposed to them when I was younger. In fact, my first museum experience was a visit to the Natural History Museum when I was 18.

What inspired me to look at wildlife and nature differently were wonderful monster movies: The Clash of the Titans and The Land That Time Forgot being two of my favourites. Watching these films made me more and more curious about wildlife (there was wildlife in inner-city Manchester if you looked). I would be transfixed by a pigeon bobbing its head as its scaly legs and sharp claws moved across the paving slabs, or the delicate detail of a bushy bumble-bee resting on a garden wall.

Now I am working in a museum, I know how much our collections can inspire people to notice the natural world around them. And, as lots of museums have shown at this conference, there are many, many ways of doing this. The passionate, dedicated, and extremely hard working curators are showing more and more people the wonders of the store rooms.

We may inspire some to follow a career in science. Perhaps we may inspire a few to find their calling in museums. But what we want most of all is to inspire people to look at the world around them. We want people to be connected with what is important, and notice it. Notice how rich and diverse the wildlife is. Notice how beautiful and fragile our planet is.