Positive action

Paolo Viscardi, 18.03.2013
Strategic issues for natural history collections
“We need to stop bloody moaning and do something positive.”

And so the 20th anniversary conference of the Natural Sciences Collections Association (Natsca) opened recently at the Yorkshire Museum with a talk that called for greater positive advocacy of natural science collections.

Natsca is the subject specialist network (SSN) for natural history collections. SSNs are a valuable resource and are seen as intrinsic to Arts Council England’s plans for the museum sector.

They provide a robust mechanism for communicating about advances in theory and practice, as well as supporting the development of staff – both specialists and those generalists with responsibilities for mixed collections.

The topic for this year’s Natsca conference was policy and practice, which focused on strategic issues and practical projects that have contributed towards policy and procedure formulation and testing.

Discussions ranged from legislation affecting asbestos and radioactive materials in collections, to the practicalities of choosing and implementing a method for collection reviews and the benefits and pitfalls of disposal.

The call for greater positive advocacy of natural science collections was well-received, despite the fact that in some instances it can be hard to be positive.

The buzzing of the grapevine revealed dark deeds in a university (involving a skip and a departmental collection with notable specimens) and mounting clouds over the Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales where cuts are looming, with the sciences bracing to take the brunt.

Nevertheless, there was a remarkably positive feeling to the meeting as a whole and some healthy discussion arose that continued well into the early hours of the morning.

One particular topic that saw a robust response was a Natural History Museum (NMH) call for a national strategy for collections. For decades the museum has focused on its global placement, so the audience was sceptical about the factors driving this change of focus.

But Rob Huxley from the NHM performed well on the spot and may have begun the slow work of winning over a surprisingly hostile crowd when he acknowledged that national museums often have lessons to learn from their smaller counterparts.

The full proceedings of the meeting will be published later this year in the new peer-reviewed Journal of Natural Science Collections (the first publication of the rebranded Natsca news which will be out this summer).

I would recommend taking a look if you want to find out how to non-destructively sample parchment for protein analysis, simplify your loan procedures or conduct a review of a quarter of a million objects in just one year.

Paolo Viscardi is a committee member of the Natural Sciences Collections Association