The setting was the historic and rather grand Leeds City Museum. Established in 1821, the museum holds over 1.5 million objects. Its natural history collections hold some incredible specimens such as a giant Moa, dodo bones, and reputedly (by the curator of natural sciences there) the largest Giant Deer antlers in the world, which are just a few of the captivating specimens.
Cleverly titled, The Museum Ecosystem, the theme examined how subject specialists were working closely together. The museum ecosystem is enormous. One department cannot survive without working together with other departments in the museum: together they are stronger. What’s more, the museum as a whole works with other museums and organisations across the country (and around the world). This ecosystem is a living, breathing network of opportunities for collections.
The two days were packed full of exciting talks demonstrating the hard work and collaborations happening in our sector. Some focused on the importance of collaborations between specialists within the natural sciences. One project, led by the National Museum Wales, and funded by the John Ellerman Foundation, recognised the disappearance of expertise within mollusc collections – there are only six mollusc experts in museums left in the UK. Six! They linked with six other museums holding type specimens. (A type specimen is the first described specimen for a new species.) Providing training for staff at these six museums built confidence in mollusc knowledge, as well as creating the first online database of UK mollusc type specimens.
There were several collaborations with schools and community groups, from nursery groups exploring gardens to community groups weaving objects using inspiration from natural history collections. Although they may sound simple, they created a lot of interest from the groups: the little ones were looking at the natural world around them and felt comfortable asking questions, whilst the community groups were seeing up close some fascinatingly detailed homes created by real creatures. These inspiring examples demonstrate the amazing range of uses and value of natural science collections.
There were also international collaborations resulting in numerous benefits for the partners involved. The Museum of Zoology, Cambridge developed ecology teacher training in Malaysia and Indonesia, providing teachers with teaching resources. This innovative project shows how much museum collections can excite no matter where they are in the world.
The Nottingham City Museums and Galleries worked with the Chinese Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleonthropology, to create the hugely successful Dinosaurs of China exhibition. This titanic project borrowed dinosaur material from China to display in Nottingham. Specimens included rare feathered dinosaurs, type specimens, and the largest dinosaur ever displayed in the UK. As well as showing that anything is possible with collaboration, this exhibition was hugely successful with visitors.
And sharing out collections has never been so immediate: Social media allows museums to show a much larger range of their collections to a global audience than ever before. Where once our collections were restricted to our own museums displays, with perhaps a loan here or there, today more people than ever before can see them. It also connect with more people from different areas of specialisms. And this has the potential to create so many new opportunities with other museums, other specialisms, the art community and so many other organisations. By actively using social media to promote specimens that people have never seen before (and that we may take for granted because we see them), generates global engagement and new opportunities.
By looking at how museums have worked in the past can help us to predict what will come in the future. This is what the Museums Association are doing with their new Collections: 2030 project. By working with museum staff around the UK they hope to find out where they want to be in 2030. This new project, will be looking at how collections are used and what we think they are for, and perhaps something that seems quite common sense, what needs to be in place to make collections effective.
Subject specialist networks (SSNs) themselves are working more closely together than ever before. And there are a lot of them. From NatSCA and the Geological Curators Group (GCG) for natural science collections, to the Museums Ethnographers Group (MEG) and Crime and Punishment Collections Network (CPCN) for human history collections, these groups are vital to the care of collections across the country
Natural science curators, for example, care for an incredible range of collections from magnificent minerals to specimens preserved in alcohol. SSNs provide advice and expertise on parts of the collection that the curator may not know much about (for example the hazards relating to minerals, or the expertise in identifying marine pickled specimens). There are plans to link more training sessions jointly with different SSNs, allowing more curators to gain more knowledge to safeguard collections for future generations.
Along with the talks and the tours, there was one of the most valuable parts of the conference: the networking. Conferences like this are an excellent opportunity to meet new colleagues, catch up with old ones, and share work and ideas that are happening in our own museums. Curators all over are working hard to make sure our collections are shared more than ever before. It was clear from the excitement in the breaks and the conference meal, that the museum ecosystem is healthy and alive.