Crap in the attic?

Paul Smith, 27.11.2013
The future of natural history collections
A little over a year ago, at the Museums Association conference in Edinburgh, a well-attended session entitled The Elephant in the Room arrived intriguingly at two equal and opposite conclusions. 

The first was that natural history collections, and their specialist curators, are under threat and that relatively small amounts of investment would solve the problem for the foreseeable future. 

The amount needed to purchase a single moderately priced oil painting, for example, would rehouse the entire UK collections of entomological specimens held outside the national and university museums.  

The contrasting view from the floor was that natural history collections are no more at risk than any other collections in the current climate, it is just that natural history curators are more vocal about their fate and need to take more proactive responsibility for the future of their collections and profession.

The truth is probably a combination of the two, although there is some evidence that natural science collections have been disproportionately hit by staff losses.

But what is equally clear is that in a straitened financial climate, the solutions must lie in the hands of natural history museums and their staff.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that more effective networking is needed to enable the continued use of collections in small museums with no specialist staff. 

This was the focus of a follow-up session, Dead Zoos, at the recent conference in Liverpool where the importance of natural science collections in raising environmental awareness was emphasised, but also their role in enabling public engagement with contemporary science issues. 

Museums have a key role to play in providing access to balanced viewpoints on increasingly polarised debates such as fracking, GM crops, and badger culling.

However, without specialised natural sciences staff, how is this to be achieved?

One thing that we can be certain of is that the answer does not lie in agglomerating smaller collections under the roofs of the larger institutions. 

Quite apart from the resource implications, this would leave natural history deserts across large swathes of the country, with little or no access to well-interpreted natural science collections except in a few specialised centres.

In such a scenario, if young people cannot engage locally where will the next generation's interest in natural history and the environment come from?

The answer, therefore, must lie in more efficient regional networks to provide mutual support for natural sciences, whilst recognising that there is little point in saving the collections unless they are to be used. 

NatSCA (the Natural Sciences Collections Association) and museum development funds have important roles and responsibilities in this regard, but there is also a need for a strategic intervention from the larger regional museums with natural history expertise.

In England, Arts Council England Major Partner Museums are beginning to coordinate activity in their respective regions.

Manchester Museum held a one-day event in November to look at the curation and use of natural science collections, aimed at small museums without specialists, and Oxford ASPIRE convened a symposium, Crap in the Attic?, to examine how regional partnership might work and what inputs are needed both in terms of resource and expertise.

Both meetings revealed that the required support is not only in the obvious area of collection care and conservation, but also in the use of the collections for education, in development and fundraising, and in providing access to knowledge about legal frameworks and responsibilities, such as CITES. 

So what is needed? Firstly, a better understanding of regional collections is essential in terms of both their condition and utility.

The current Birmingham Museums Trust project to survey natural history collections in the West Midlands is a good example of the way forward in this area, providing a quantitative overview of the region that can be used to determine what practical assistance is required for the collections to ensure their continuing care and use. 

Beyond that, there is a need for those regional museums with expertise to establish networks of mutual support, working to help smaller museums help themselves in relation to natural history in a way that complements more general museum development programmes.

This can include collection care and conservation, but could equally apply to the development of exhibitions, education and public engagement programmes, and the provision of specialist advice and support for funding applications. 

Collectively, museums need to come together within regions to make strategic plans for the future of natural science collections and determine how, in partnership, we can engage audiences with contemporary natural science in museums of all scales.

Paul Smith is the director of Oxford University Museum of Natural History and chair of the Oxford ASPIRE museum consortium