The importance of natural sciences

Jack Ashby, 01.07.2014
Comparing attitudes across the Atlantic
Last week Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales hosted Historic Collections, Future Resources, the 2014 meeting of the (largely North American) Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections.

It was run in partnership with the UK’s two natural history subject specialist networks – the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) and the Geological Curators’ Group, and so it was an opportunity to compare the state and philosophies of the sector on either side of the Atlantic and elsewhere.

There were two interlinked themes that ran through a lot of the sessions I attended: how natural history collections can better advocate for themselves, and how these collections are being used to tackle globally important scientific issues.

I sensed a shift in attitudes has taken place in the sector over the past year or so. In recent times it seemed that natural history staff responded to what were being perceived as disproportionate cuts to our museum specialism with anger and divisive evangelism. In Cardiff the atmosphere was more one of calmly demonstrating our worth and appeal to both the public and research communities.

I sensed that the UK sector was philosophically ahead in broadening the definition of “use” beyond academia, so that collections- or science- and audience-focussed professionals were closer to each other here.

Where the UK profession could grow further is in supporting what is being called “off-label use” of collections – a term borrowed from the pharmaceutical industry where scientists are finding ways of using our collections in ways they weren’t originally intended.

Historic natural history specimens are making extremely significant contributions to the study of emerging diseases, environmental change, food security and human migration.

Considering the advocacy theme, how do we better demonstrate these critical contributions of our collections? I’m left feeling that the sector needs to commit resources to developing models to successfully compete with blockbuster exhibitions for communicating the science that happens behind the scenes.

NatSCA presented a study they commissioned with the support of public funding from Arts Council England, which unequivocally demonstrated that natural sciences are the most favourite and most visited galleries in museums with mixed collections. The hope is that the findings will now be used by decision-makers when they consider where to allocate resources in museums.

However, one speaker (Luanne Meehitiya from Birmingham Museums Trust) made the point that there may be a real mismatch between how natural historians consider our collections – as irreplaceable scientific resources – and how the public often see them – still as weird cabinets of curiosities, and more “history” than “science”. We need to find ways of turning that around, and reflecting our back-of-house work in how the public see the museums.

The conference clearly demonstrated the public support of natural history collections and the world-changing/saving work being done in them. What is still ringing in my ears is the call to arms for us to find engaging, relevant ways of better demonstrating this.

Jack Ashby is the manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London, and on the committee of NatSCA