Gina Allnatt is a curation and exhibition volunteer at Gallery Oldham

What natural science collections can tell us

Gina Allnatt, 01.12.2012
I was slightly alarmed by these lines in the Museums 2020 consultation document: “In spite of growing understanding that conservation is the management of change, the museum attitude to collections preservation still tends to be one of aiming to utterly minimise change to collections, and eliminate natural ageing and wear and tear, whatever the cost.

“Collections care often seems to resist the effects of external natural environment, rather than trying to adapt to it. As Darwin demonstrated, it is the most adaptable that survive and not those incapable of adaptation and change.”

During the 2020 discussions some people have commented that natural history museums in particular should be doing their bit to save the environment, and that such vast collections require a lot of energy to conserve and are therefore part of the problem.

Natural science collections and the work people do with them are already contributing to sustainable agendas.

Museums such as Manchester Museum and Gallery Oldham facilitate exhibitions and collections events that are often linked with environmental initiatives and local environmental groups such as the British Ecological Society.

Gallery Oldham has a green roof and a space from which school groups can birdwatch.

Manchester Museum’s Community Allotment Project directly links with collections-based events such as the Big Harvest Saturday, in which botanical specimens are used to illustrate how growing your own food is good for the environment.

Bolton Museum recently moved its natural sciences collections into sustainable storage.

Taxonomic research is tremendously important to the environment. One of the best ways scientists and researchers can gather information about the importance of habitat is through studying many specimens in museum collections.

Sometimes it is only through publishing data that people can be convinced that a particular rainforest, grassland or reservoir is worth saving. Geology specimens are used to study trends in climate change, evolution and biodiversity.

Preserving these specimens through collections care is not an environmental waste – it is necessity. If a 200-year-old collection can tell us something about how to save the environment tomorrow, it’s worth preserving and so are the people who care for it.

During my time as a Heritage Lottery Fund curatorial trainee, I had the opportunity to work with and learn from natural science curators, conservators, educators and scientists.

All of them are passionate about natural history and disseminating information about this to the masses. That’s not to say things should exist in a vacuum, it just means the policymakers and the people who work with the collections need to listen to each other and work together to promote these important collections.

That’s real adaptation.

Gina Allnatt is a curation and exhibition volunteer at Gallery Oldham