Exciting new project puts natural science collections on the map

Natural Science Collections Association maps out local collections nationwide through crowdsourcing

Museum collections are the nation’s treasures which should be available to be enjoyed by everyone.

The most obvious use of collections is through exciting and inspiring public displays within the museum.

Wonderful specimens are used on displays to tell a story or are included as part of a theme, and allow all ages to discover something new.

Octopus (Polypus vulgaris) collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

However, there are many other uses of collections such as to researchers who may be investigating a specific species, or a group of species, all adding important information to our understanding of the incredibly beautiful biodiversity of our planet.

As well as researchers, artists regularly visit collections to take a closer look behind the scenes to sketch, etch or photograph the beauty of the natural world using real specimens.

Schools and universities will also contact museums to see if specimens can support their current teaching: from glittering rocks for the rock cycle for six and seven-year-olds to wonderful spirit specimens for an introduction to marine taxonomy catered towards undergraduate students, there is a use for all ages.

Lamprey PCMAG

Local specialist interest groups and amateur taxonomists use the collections as a resource to check their identification skills or discover something exciting about a relevant collector.

There are literally millions of specimens spread across more than 400 museums in Britain and Ireland.

Finding the collections

But how do these different users know where to go with an enquiry, or do they even know if their own local museum has collections which may be able to help them?

For many the first port of call is the Natural History Museum, London, which can undoubtedly assist with many different types of enquiries.

But this is a national museum, what about the smaller local authority or independent museums that hold fascinating and relevant collections which can be used too?

Of course, a lot of knowing who has what is if you are in the ‘inner circle’ you hear whisperings, you may talk to people, you may see something that catches your eye at another museum.

But an ‘inner circle’ is only useful, of course, to those inside the circle. Those outside the circle have to search using other ways.

Often, if a quick internet search doesn’t bring up a museum that has what someone is looking for, they will give up and go to where they know will have it, generally the national museum.

Museums will promote their collections, but even so, leaflets, web pages and talks may not reach everyone.

Even today, in this digital era, knowing what collections are held where is actually not very easy.

Creating a natural history map

But, what if there was a map; a map showing what museums had natural history collections, and the types of collections?

What if all a user of museum collections needed to do was search this map for their area of interest and the search listed of all the museums that had those types of collections?

Well, that’s exactly what a project developed by the Natural Science Collections Association (NatSCA) is trying to achieve.

One of the great things about working in museums is that we are part of a community of passionate, devoted curators who care about not only their collections but other museum collections too.

I am proud to be on the NatSCA committee, along with several other enthusiastic natural history curators from a variety of museums who are keen to support the collections across the country.

NatSCA is a charity and membership organisation, whose mission is to promote and support natural science collections in order to improve care, understanding and enjoyment of the collections for all.

This subject specialist group is open to curators, conservators and education staff who work with, or care for natural history collections.

Increasing awareness of ‘Natural history near you’

One of the key aims is to increase awareness of the scientific and cultural value of collections, and this is being achieved by a grand new project ‘Natural History Near You – Putting Collections on the Map’.

This is a project that aims to help researchers and other users of museums to find specific collections.

Sea Anemone (Sagartia parasitica) PCMAG

It isn’t just focused on just the big museums, but aims to include every museum that holds natural history collections in Britain and Ireland.

Natural History Near You is a crowdsourcing project; meaning the map can be updated with museums holding natural history collections by the wider community.

This is a simple way of sharing and collecting useful information about museums, allowing all different kinds of users to access collections in their local area, and even plan effective trips to several different museums.

This project supports NatSCAs other aims, which include:

· Developing an open, friendly and accessible network for sharing information, experience and skills.

· Facilitating the professional development of stakeholders in natural science collections.

· Identifying and promoting good quality practice in the care and use of natural science collections.

· Challenging neglect of collections and lobbying for the appropriate resourcing of collections for their care and sustainable use.

Mapping the collections highlights where natural history collections are held, and can provide a record of the state of natural history collections in Britain and Ireland.

Some of the smaller museums may need support to use or undertake conservation on their collections, and NatSCA can offer support and advice for staff caring for these collections, and offer advocacy if needed.

Listing museums that hold natural history collections provides a platform for those which may not be frequently used, but are no less useful or relevant.

Previously curators in smaller museums may have been looking after natural history collections but without a natural history background.

They may have felt isolated looking after several different types of collections: not any more.

Sea Cucumber (Cucamaria normani) PCMAG

There have been some fantastic projects to help understand these collections and train staff, for example, the fantastic New Light on Old Bones project.

Putting all natural history collections on a map, shows just what amazing collections are out there.

Today, there is a wonderful community of passionate curators who are working together not only for the collections they care for, but for all the nations treasures.

Natural History Near You project