Documentation Rules OK!

I’ve spent the last two days at the MIMSY UK User Group meeting, a gathering of people from different museums who use the collections management database MIMSY XG, to learn more about the system and how other museums use it to document their collections. It has been very interesting, and has left me thinking a bit about documentation in general…

Firstly, an admission/confesssion: when I started volunteering in a museum, back in 2007, I wanted to be a curator. A natural history curator, because that is my educational background. But also because I didn’t really know what other jobs were available in museums…I knew what a preparator was from my Palaeobiology MSc studies, but I had no idea what a conservator was, and no concept at all of what the term ‘documentation’ meant in a museum context. I think I had some woolly idea that collections were catalogued in a Victorian-style ledger, and that’s all you needed.

Seven years later, and documentation is almost all I do. I haven’t worked with a natural history collection in at least two years. And I do miss it, because zoology is my first love, but the more I learn about documentation, and the more I understand its importance, the more passionate I become about it! I think that’s partly because I have the right sort of pedantic mind that wants everything to be neatly organised, and partly because of my scientific background. In science, as in documentation, data is everything. The quality of your output depends on the quality of your data input. If you do not have data on your objects, then you cannot generate information about them, and you cannot interpret them for your audiences. People in our department are sometimes referred to as ‘OCD’ or ‘anal’, in a vaguely disparaging way, but I don’t think that’s fair. As museum staff, we are the custodians of our collections and the mediator between our objects and our audiences: we present objects, we build narratives around them, we use them to represent histories or ideas. And we can’t do that if we don’t know precisely what they are, where they came from, and how we acquired them. Documentation sits at the heart of everything that museums do: without information, without data, our collections are of little value.

And without this data, we would not be fulfilling our legal obligations to our collections: we need to know the history of our objects to prove their ownership, to know that they were legally collected or imported, to be accountable for our holdings, and to provide for their security. Our database technology now allows us to track everything that happens to an object, including damage and conservation work, where they go (whether that is just a change of location within the stores, or a loan to the other side of the world), and how they are used, be that as part of an exhibition, community event, or academic research project. Long gone are the days of the leather-bound ledger!

Showing Off

It seems I’m a glutton for punishment! Despite my general dread and fear of public speaking, I’ve signed myself up for next’s week’s Museums Showoff event in Camden on the 14th May – an evening of comedy and wonder in which 1o people get up on stage and are allowed to talk for 9 minutes each about museum-related things. I will be doing a run-down of some of my favourite things that we’ve found in the Horniman Museum‘s stores so far during the Anthropology collections review.

This time the venue is The Black Heart pub (next to Camden Town station). Doors open at 7pm, show starts at 7.30. I should hopefully be on in the first half. It should be a good night!

The March of Progress

The review of the museum’s Anthropology collections continues apace. We have seen many thousands of objects already, and this week we finished one room of the store!

Ahem. That is, we finished the food-related items in one room of the store. As we are moving through the collections thematically, rather than starting in one place and just doing everything, I think it will be a long time before we actually finish finish any one area. However, this still represents significant progress, as we have done the objects relating to food processing (cutlery, strainers, graters, corers, chopsticks, teapots, frying pans, ovens (yes, we have a couple!))… It was very satisfying to be able to put the last ‘Bay Completed’ label up, having started the room working on spoons several months ago!

Next, the Food & Feasting team will move on to objects relating to hunting, trapping, and fishing, which should be interesting. We have a LOT of beautiful fish hooks. And arrows. Many arrows. Meanwhile, the team exploring Magic & Religion (which I moved back down to yesterday) is working on objects to do with religious and seasonal festivals – easter eggs, christmas decorations, corn dollies and the like. Yesterday I found an adorable Christmas tree decoration made of silver cardboard in the shape of a mouse wearing a dress! And a Polish dough figure of a farmer surrounded by geese, representing the new summer (which you can see on our Tumblr page). I even had a go at making some salt dough figures a little while ago, inspired by the amazing dough animals we found in the collections. Mine weren’t quite as good as these, but it was fun to try out an old craft. It’s amazing the things you learn working in a museum!

Mutants and Mongrels

On Saturday I spent a sunny morning with the lovely folk of the London Bird Group (part of the LNHS) out at Walthamstow reservoirs, looking at female ducks.

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Why female ducks, specifically? Because they are much duller than the showy males, and are often overlooked. They are also sometimes harder to identify due to their drabness, especially from a distance.

The first ducks we saw were pochard. The males have grey bodies and very distinctive bright red heads, while the females are a much more muted grey-brown mottled colour. We also had the privilege to spot teal, goldeneye, goosander, gadwall (at a great distance!), tufted duck, and of course the ubiquitous mallards.

Except that there was something different about some of the mallards at Walthamstow…one of the first birds we saw was very dark brown, with white on its head and breast. This sparked a debate about whether it was a hybrid, or just an odd colour mutation. Later on we also saw another duck with this colouring, as well as one with the normal green head but an unusally dark brown body. I did a little Googling on the subject when I got home (as you do) and it turns out that, while mallards can and do hybridise with a whole range of other duck species, the birds we saw are actually examples of what are often referred to as ‘manky mallards’: the colourful result of wild mallards interbreeding with domestic ducks (which are the same species). This sort of thing seems to go on a lot, and it’s possible to see mallards with all sorts of interesting colouration due to genes introduced from the different breeds of domestics. We speculated that the dark brown ducks with the white bib that we saw were probably females, while the green-headed, brown-bodied bird was clearly a male.

The hybird/colour morph debate continued as we carried on walking and began observing geese. Both greylag and Canada geese can be seen at Walthamstow reservoirs, and there is clearly some interbreeding going on between these two species:

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The bird on the left is a standard Canada goose. His friend on the right, however, is brown, with orange legs and an orange-black bill. He has the dark neck of a Canada goose, but clearly owes much of his colouration to a greylag parent.

For comparison, these two chaps are greylags:

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But, again, there’s something slightly odd here. The one on the right has some white on the face and a white ring around the eye, which is absent on the normal goose to the left. It’s possible that this is a hybrid greylag x greater white-fronted goose, but then again it could just be an interesting colour morph! Without DNA from the birds it is very hard to tell which is the case.

We also saw other interestingly-coloured geese that were leucistic (reduced pigmentation caused by a recessive allele), including a Canada goose with speckles of white on its head and neck, and another with an entirely white head (but we only saw it from a distance, so it could also have been a hybrid!).

The walk may have begun as a guide to identifying much-ignored female ducks, but the reservoirs’ more unusual feathery residents added some extra interest to the day!

It’s, like, ten thousand spoons…

…OK, 10,000 might be a bit of an exaggeration, but we do have a LOT of spoons in our collection. And over the past several weeks I’ve seen most of them. We are currently reviewing the anthropology collections of the museum (which involves checking the documentation of the objects and photographing them), and doing so thematically – the first two themes that our teams are looking at are Magic and Food. I am currently on the team looking at food, and what did we find in Bay One, Shelf A? Spoons. Lots of spoons, from all over the world.

And I’ve been surprised at how interesting it has been…some of the spoons aren’t much to look at, but some of them look like this! We took many, many photos of this spoon, and still they don’t quite capture the intricacy of the carving or the glory of the whole object. These two little beauties from India are also some of my favourites. They are made of brass, with scorpion-shaped handles! They are both different as well – one has his legs bent under him so that he stands up, and the other has his tail raised to strike!

When we have time, we’ve been trying to put some of our favourite things on the museum’s new(ish) Tumblr page for all the world to see. It’s been quite popular so far, and it’s been fun to see the reaction to our objects.

I feel like I’ve used the word ‘spoon’ too many times in this post. But I’ve lost the ability to talk about anything else now – I am immersed in a world of spoons (at least until we finish the next couple of shelves and get on to knives…).

A World in White

Real snow is something of a rarity in London. So when it does come, it always seems to come as a surprise. It has been snowing steadily all day; small, fine flakes that don’t loook like much, but that, if given enough time, can transform the world into a blanket of white. I decided to go for a walk in the snow this afternoon, so I put on my trainers, walked out the door…and on discovering that I was standing in ankle-deep snow, went back inside and changed into my wellies.

I wandered across Peckham Rye Common, amused by all the giant snowmen that were in the process of being erected – and demolished – and into the park, to see how the birds were faring in this chilly weather. Quite well, as it turns out. The usual contingent of mallards, coots, moorhens, tufted ducks and Canada geese were well fed, and had been joined by a large number of black-headed gulls, a stately grey heron, and an opportunistic robin.

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While the birds on the pond are being taken care of by kindly locals with bags of grain and bread (although bread is actually not good for most birds), some other birds are clearly struggling…most sources will tell you that you would be very lucky to ever catch sight of a woodcock on the ground, but yesterday morning there was one in my tiny urban scrap of garden! I’m asuming that it came from Peckham Rye Park, as there is a wooded area there, but it must have been hungry to start foraging in a space as open and dangerous as a garden. Luckily for the woodcock, the cat didn’t even notice it was there, and it soon flew off again (EDIT: I’ve been informed by a bird expert that the woodcock may in fact have flown all the way from Russia before landing in my garden!).

I took lots of photos in the park. Here are just a few of them:

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Fun With Fluids: Days Three & Four

Yesterday was a slightly slower day than intended, but I did manage to finish preserving both the frog and lizard and get them into their final solution of 80% IMS, and then mounted the frog on his backplate. Which was an odd experience – I took textiles GCSE, but it did not prepare me for threading a frog! With a very large, curved needle and monofilament thread. He did look good when he was finished, despite still being a little crunchy – the rehydration process didn’t seem to have much effect on his appearance.

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At the end of the day I managed to prep the jar and glass backplate for the harbour crabs, so that I had everything ready this morning to crack on with mounting them. Tying them to the backplate was a fairly quick job, but then came the harder task of reattaching the stray claws and legs with glass needles. I first had to decide which crab which limb belonged to, and then exactly where each limb should go. It took quite a long time, but I got there in the end!

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There are still a few more limbs missing, but they weren’t in the jar with the specimens so must have been lost long ago. Once in their nice new jar, though, the crabs looked much happier.

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Sadly, by the time I’d finished mounting the crabs, and had sealed the jars of my finished specimens, I didn’t have time to finish the lizard. I had the jar prepped, and all ten holes drilled in the backplate, but I didn’t have time to mount it. One of our conservators has offered to finish it for me tomorrow, and I left her with the worst diagram of a lizard ever drawn to show her how I had planned to pose the lizard, which I hope will help her to sew him to the backplate in the right position. He’ll probably end up looking much better than if I’d done it!

Poor little Varanus waits patiently for a new jar

Poor little Varanus waits patiently for a new jar

There has been a huge amount to take in this week, as there are so many different processes involved in restoring dried-out specimens, and I’m now quite exchausted. But I am really pleased with the results of my specimens, and I’ve learned a whole host of new skills that I feel confident I could put to good use in the future if someone put a shrivelled specimen in front of me.

If you have wet-preserved specimens in your collection that you don’t know what to do with, or don’t think you can rescue, I’d highly recommend going on Simon’s fluid preservation course – I was amazed at how well all of the specimens we worked on this week came out. They all started as dry, sad-looking husks, and by the end of the week most of them looked ready to go on display!

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChameleon, octopus (named Little Chulhu) and sea slug, prepared by Gina

Know Your Enemy

Invasive species are a threat to our native wildlife. Some harbour disease, others compete with the locals for food and other resources, and still others predate on indigenous species.

The harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) originates in Asia. It was first recorded in south east England in 2004 (in the garden of a member of NatSCA!), and has since spread outward and upward to colonise the UK. In February of this year it was recorded in Shetland, completing its northerly journey in only 8 years. Harlequins are predators; they both out-compete native ladybirds for food, and also eat them if their usual prey – aphids and scale insects – becomes scarce. A recent study, which utilised public sightings of ladybirds reported to the UK Ladybird Survey, identified a dramatic decline in the populations of native ladybird species since the harlequin arrived, particularly the 2-spot ladybird (Adalia bipunctata), which had declined by 44% within five years of the harlequin reaching our shores.

So, you can imagine my joy when I discovered these little uglies on the nettles in my garden at the weekend (click on them for a better view):

Yep, harlequin larvae, pupae and adults. The full set. I instantly recognised the larvae as harlequins, as they are very distinctive with the orange stripes down their sides, and a brief internet search confirmed that the pupae and adults were also harlequins. The adults are harder to identify from a casual glance, as they are extremely variable in appearance. They are recognisable by their large size (although this is hard to judge without another ladybird sitting next to them for comparison!), and the patterning on the pronotum (the ‘neck’, if you like, between the head and wing cases). The pictures on this handy website are very useful for comparison with other species.

So, what do you think I should do with my little garden invaders? Should harlequins be exterminated one at a time, or is it now too little too late? How should invasive species be controlled (or even prevented from arriving in the first place)?

NatSCA Conference 2012 in Pictures

I’ve spent the last two days at the annual conference of the Natural Sciences Collections Association. It was, admittedly, something of a busman’s holiday for me, especially as it was partly hosted by the museum in which I work (the wonderful Horniman Museum), but it was a great couple of days spent learning useful things, talking to lovely people, and eating surprisingly good food…institutional catering is always somewhat variable, but both the Horniman and the Grant Museum put on an excellent spread!

The theme of the conference this year was ‘Use It or Lose It’, and many of the talks focused on public engagement, the importance of collections for research (and the importance of research on collections), and the use of museum objects for teaching. With the focus of the Museums Association having been on the active use of collections (through the Effective Collections project, which is just coming to a close) and the disposal of objects that are not used (see the MA’s Disposal Toolkit) over the last few years, these talks were all very timely and raised a lot of important points about how we use collections and why/how we value them.

In addition to talks, there were also lots of tours available during the conference, including a the chance to see the Crystal Palace Park dinosaurs in the company of the extremely knowledgeable Dr Joe Cain, head of the Department of Science and Technology Studies at UCL. It was a lovely sunny afternoon, we had ice cream, and Waterhouse-Hawkins’ dinosaur models are absolutely amazing. We also had the opportunity to see the Petrie Museum, and parts of the Wellcome Collection, both of which were extremely impressive. I’ll have to go back to the Wellcome sometime for a proper look around, and to see their new Brains exhibition.

I took a large number of photos during the conference, especially of the dinosaurs, so I will stop typing now and let you look at pretty things (NB: if you see yourself in a photo and would rather not, let me know and I’ll remove it!)…

Wild About Peckham

Since November, I’ve been living in Peckham. I’ve recently found time to explore more of the environment in which I find myself (whilst procrastinating over essay planning for my museum studies course), and have come to the conclusion that Peckham is not as bad as it looks! Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like Peckham; it’s just that I’m a country bumpkin with a fondness for peace and quiet, and there’s very little of either to be had around here!

Today I visited Peckham Rye Park, and discovered, to my immense (and pleasant) surprise, that for an urban park in a very urban area of London, it is not only HUGE (the park covers 51 acres adjoining the Rye Common), but also full of interesting wildlife! Well, birdlife. The only mammals I saw were pet dogs, and a squirrel. Which would have been VERY interesting if it had been a red one. But it wasn’t.

Peckham Rye takes its name from the Old English word for river (rea or rhee), and contains the only above-ground portion of the river Peck. Which now appears to be little more than a trickle, and certainly doesn’t much resemble a river! But it does feed several ponds and a lake in the park, which are home to a variety of water birds, including Canada geese, coots (I stood and watched a pair of coots putting the finishing touches to their very well-built nest for several minutes), moorhens, tufted ducks, and mallards (many of whom were making spirited, and occasionally succesful, attempts at raping the lady ducks). There are also a couple of white domestic ducks in the mix, and of course many pigeons. Who have apparently learned that stationary human = food, because I got mobbed while standing watching the antics of the ducks!

The park is also home to some less common species, including green and greater-spotted woodpeckers, nuthatches, spotted flycatchers, and kingfishers. None of which I saw today! But I did see a sparrowhawk, plenty of ring-necked parakeets (which are still an oddly jarring sight (and sound) in a very English park), and a song thrush. The song thrush is now on the Red List in the UK, because its numbers are in decline: between 1970 and 1995 there was a 50% reduction in population, rising to 70% on farmland. This was due to many factors, including intensive farming (which removed the hedgerows and ditches in which song thrushes nest), and land drainage (which reduced the numbers of earthworms and other invertebrates that song thrushes eat). So it was good to see one thriving in an urban park.

Peckham Rye Park actually makes an excellent haven for birdlife, as it offers a range of different habitats: there are grassland, wetland, and woodland environments available, allowing it to support a wide variety of species. The park is also well-established, having opened in 1894 on the former site of Homestall Farm, which was bought by the council in order to extend Peckham Rye Common to relieve the serious over-crowding of the Common that occured on Sundays and Bank Holidays! Having been a farm before it was a park, the woodland is composed of mature, native trees of mixed species, rather than being a purely ornamental Victorian creation. Which also makes a nice change.

The park is a nice haven for people as well as wildlife, and if you go far enough into it you can even just about escape the constant noise of traffic (but only just – the park is surrounded on three sides by busy main roads). Next time I visit, I will try to do so on a nicer day (it’s a bit wet today), and I will keep my eyes peeled for woodpeckers; I’ve never actually seen one, despite growing up in the Somerset countryside!