The big plant
Thousands of pupils enjoyed getting their hands dirty on Wednesday 20th of October as part of the Spring Bulbs for Schools - climate change investigation.
Many were really excited to plant their 'baby' bulbs which they will nurture until next spring. Next week, the schools will begin to gather weather records and complete challenges set by Professor Plant to work towards their Super Scientist Certificates.
This project is not only an excellent opportunity for learning outside the classroom but also a great way for Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales to share scientific knowledge and resources with schools all across Wales.
5.4% of Welsh primary schools are taking part this year, that’s 2,681 pupils from 71 schools across Wales.
60% of the schools are more than 30 miles away from National Museum Cardiff, which is hosting the investigation.
42% of the schools are based in North Wales, 33.8% in South East Wales, 16.9% in West Wales and 8.4% from Mid Wales.
38% are in communities 1st areas and 40% are Welsh speaking or bilingual.
37% are in the 1st year of the project whilst 63% have been doing the project for two years or more.
I began my role here at Amgueddfa Cymru just over two weeks ago and it's been a busy start as I've set about meeting staff across all of our sites, as well as attending the National Waterfront Museum's fifth birthday celebrations. Everyone has been incredibly welcoming, and I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to lead such a highly regarded institution.
I've joined Amgueddfa Cymru at an exciting period. Developments are underway to create a National History Museum at St Fagans and the conversion of the first floor of National Museum Cardiff to become the National Museum of Art for Wales is due to be completed in July 2011. Over the coming months, I will give my full support to these projects as well as affirming Amgueddfa Cymru as a contemporary resource for Wales. The National Museums are here to serve the people of Wales and developing cultural partnerships is a way of delivering this vision successfully. This approach is of even greater importance in light of the country's current financial situation.
Last week, we launched the document Inspiring Wales at the Senedd. Learning is at the heart of Amgueddfa Cymru and this paper is a celebration of this work and our vision to become a world-class museum of learning. The booklet shows how, as well as having an important role to play as guardians of the nation's collections, equally important is our work in interpreting and communicating the collections to the people of Wales and its visitors.
Amgueddfa Cymru is unique among national museums in the British Isles in its spread of sites and their close connection with the communities and regions of which they are a part. No national museum in London can come near it in this.
Its collections are also exceptionally diverse in their range of disciplines – from social history to art, from natural sciences to industrial history. This enables the museum to appeal to an exceptionally broad audience, with a good gender balance – again, unlike some museums in London!
The opportunity to work in one of the great Celtic museums has a particular appeal for me. Having been born in Belfast and studied Archaeology and Irish History in Scotland, I am glad now to have the chance to learn more about Welsh culture and history.
Wales for Africa: crisis
We've convened a crisis meeting of the Forum's members in order to draw up a planned response to the Government's National Development Plan - the Plan with no chapter on housing. Members also looked at the Position Statement I'd drafted the week before, which we're placing in the Times of Zambia - a government paper, so we altered the tone a little bit!
I spent the rest of the week visiting members to carry out the baseline survey. The week was sort of topped and tailed by highlights. At the beginning we visited two women's co-operatives in rural areas, teaching women skills like brick-making and land rights issues. The week ended, however, with a visit I'll never forget. If I said I enjoyed it that would be inappropriate - nobody could enjoy seeing the appalling circumstances some people live in. We visited two compounds, one in Lusaka and one 200 miles north in Kitwe, to conduct focus groups with the residents' committees. In Lusaka, about 2,000 people live in the compound in homes that range from breezeblock constructions to shacks that are collapsing around them. They draw water from shared taps located around the compound. Everywhere is dirt and dust. Some people, usually women, set up their own business, ranging from a single table with a few vegetables to brick-built grocery shops - and loads of hairdressers. I was taken to see the school, which was spotless and being repainted as I was there. A gang of schoolchildren, in their navy blue uniforms, were chatting and giggling on their way from school, just like a crowd of Cardiff schoolkids. Everywhere I went I was followed by a growing crowd of small children. At first they mutter 'muzungu' (white person) but when I wave at them I get dazzling smiles and waves back. And then when I attempt to greet them - 'muli shani' - they burst into laughter.
The residents' committees in both Lusaka and Kitwe are simply inspirational. They're politicised, aware, committed; they spoke in dialect but I continuously heard the words 'advocacy', 'sensitised' and 'empower'. They have the will, the intelligence and the inner resources to achieve what's needed to lift these communities out of abject poverty, if only the infrastructure we take for granted was put in place for them.
Some good news, after our crisis meeting my colleague secured a meeting at the Ministry of Finance the next morning, and a committment to revisit the Housing Chapter to try, with the NGO's help, to make fit for reinstatement in the National Plan. It's a start.
Fish! Conserving fluid preserved specimens for display
For October and November 2010 we have opened a small exhibition in our main hall celebrating the diversity of fish found around the UK. These fish are all from our collections, with the oldest specimens going back to 1904.
To get these specimens usable for display we have had to do some conservation work. This has been as simple as cleaning the glass jar or Perspex display tank, to working on the specimen itself and changing the preservation fluid. How the fish has been preserved can affect its overall appearance and condition, but unfortunately whatever method we use the colour will be lost.
Many of the fish have been preserved in an alcohol solution, usually ethanol, which does result in shrinkage and the fish becoming very stiff. The preserving fluid can also become a very dark amber colour. This is due to materials such as lipids in the fish tissue being extracted out by the alcohol solution. However we know ethanol based preserving solutions work as the practice has been going on since the 1600’s! In more recent years we have found that it can also preserve DNA that is usable in modern molecular studies.
Another common preservative is formaldehyde, commonly called formalin. A diluted solution, usually of around 4% formaldehyde, has been used for over a century now. Formaldehyde causes chemical cross linking reactions in the biological tissues and this is termed ‘fixation’. Unfortunately formaldehyde does have problems, being pungent and potentially toxic to work with.
Some of the fish have also been preserved in a fluid called ‘Steedmans’. This is a mixture of propylene glycol (often used in anti freeze), a phenol (an aromatic organic chemical) and formaldehyde. This can preserve fish shape very well but there are concerns over its long term preservation properties.
For the main hall display all the preserving fluids were checked. All the specimens in formaldehyde and ‘Steedmans’ were moved to a safer alternative. This uses a chemical called DMDM Hydantoin which replaces the use of formaldehyde in everyday products such as shampoos and cosmetics and is much safer to work with.
Some of the specimens themselves needed some cleaning and tidying up. After years in a jar many had a build up of old proteins and fats on their surface. Other specimens had corrosion products on them from old metal tags that had been used for labels. Many of the specimens were also moved to more suitable glass jars.
The end result is an intriguing display highlighting specimens with fishy stories from the museums collections. The aim has been to make the specimens as accessible as possible so that visitors can get a close look at the preserved fish. The exhibition also represents the ongoing work that is required to care for the museums natural history collections for both now and the future.
Opening up the Collections
Final Natural History Open day – Wednesday 27th October 2010
Members of the public will be given an intimate insight into the museum’s natural history collections next week. As part of the International Year of Biodiversity, the departments of Biodiversity and Systematic Biology along with Geology have been holding open days throughout the year to showcase the work that they do.
Museum experts in a wide range of fields, from bugs to beetles, dandelions to diatoms can all be found in the main hall along with a crazy array of critters from the national collections. Visitors can also sign up for a wide variety of behind the scenes tours where they will be able to find out more about the incredible collections that the museum holds and the research that we do.
I will be running tours of the large shell collection, showcasing some of the 2 million shell specimens that we hold as well as explaining some of the work that is carried out by our researchers. Other tours will take you round the Welsh National Herbarium, the amazing vertebrate collections with their primate skeletons and stuffed animals, the insect collections with butterfly specimens over a hundred years old, and the vast array of pickled animals in jars in our marine lab.
This is to be the final open day for this year, so don’t miss your chance! Come and meet the experts and take the opportunity for a unique trip behind the scenes. Book your tour place on the day - numbers are limited to 10-12 people on each tour. Tours are suitable for ages 8 and over, but unfortunately are unsuitable for people with limited mobility because of the stairs involved.
Wales for Africa - on the road again
Just found out that next week I'm going to be part of the team (is 3 people a team?) carrying out a baseline survey on all ten of the Civic Forum's members as requested by the Forum's funder. I'd been told to earmark 2 days to help out with this; have just come from a meeting outlining 5 days, including Saturday, travelling all around Lusaka and outlying towns and villages. Bit of a surprise to me frankly but fantastic opportunity to meet more people - especially people who don't work for NGO's!
Wales for Africa, now we're communicating
Just met a journalist, who wants to do something with our story about the Government leaving housing out of the National Development Plan (which I still think must be an oversight?!).
He's taken our press release and he loved the open letter, and he's coming back on Saturday to do interviews. Result.
Yesterday we had our second toddler session in the gallery. We will be holding the sessions once a month and each month will look at a different theme - this month the theme was Autumn, and the one before looked at farm animals. The sessions are quite informal giving the little ones a chance to play and experience our different activities and to socialise with the other children. Another important part of the session is that it is bilingual, so the staff who are working (Ffion,Iola and myself this month) can speak in Welsh or English to the children, and the songs that Ffion led at the end were also in Welsh. It's a nice way for English speaking parents to begin to learn Welsh with their children.
So, what do we do? yesterday we had an art and craft table where the children could decorate pumpkin shapes or leaves, make leaf rubbings (although I find this is often a bit difficult for the under 3's!) or do some drawing. We also had a sensory tray filled with leaves, plastic bugs, fircones and dried lemon slices; coloured and scented playdough (yellow playdough was vanilla and the orange one cinammon and spices) with different cookie cutter shapes to play with; a sandpit and fircones (the sandpit was going to be our sensory tray and we were going to change it each month, but the children seemed to enjoy playing with the sand so much we didn't have the heart to change it! What I might do though is dye the sand at some point so it will be a little bit more exciting!); soft toys to play with and a quiet area with picture books. The picture books we had yesterday were 'Cwymp y dail' by Sian Lewis which is a Sali Mali book about Autumn, 'Cawl Pwmpen' by Helen Cooper - a nice autumnal book about pumpkin soup, 'Hibernation Station' by Michelle Meadows and Kurt Cyrus - an unbelievably cute story about animals hibernating, although perhaps a little too 'american' for some tastes (not mine!), 'The Tiny Seed' by Eric Carle - i love the illustrations in this, 'I am a Bunny' by Ole Risom and Richard Scarry - an adorable simple book about the seasons, and my find of the month, 'Autumn' by Gerda Muller - this was perfect for a bilingual session as it doesn't have any words (I didn't realise this when I ordered it) and consists of illustrations of the type of things that happen in the autumn - leaves falling off the trees, rainy weather, making leaf rubbings, making jam and hibernating animals. It's a lovely book to look through with a child as it lets them make up the story themselves.
We ended the session with a song about Autumn, and sent them all off with a leaf bag and a leaf spotting sheet in case they wanted to have a walk around the museum.
Next month our theme is buildings
Wales for Africa
Finally, finally feel like I've started work. I've spent hours in the back of a very hot car driving around a gridlocked Lusaka, a crash course (nearly literally) in NGO culture. But met some amazing people along the way though.
I wrote a press release and was very excited when the comms person from the organization we share offices with told me he'd take it to the journalist he was meeting that evening. Unfortunately, i hadn't counted for the dire network connection in our offices and lack of networked printer, so I couldn't get the press release to him, by hard copy or email. Not so exciting.
Then wrote a letter to the Minister for Finance and National Planning, an open letter we're placing in The Post and a letter to housing stakeholders inlcuding the World Bank. All part of our preparation for a crisis meeting. The Zambian government has published their Sixth National Development Plan, but left out the chapter on housing - madness if they want to deliver on their other priorities like health and education.
The Post is the paper with highest circulation figures, and very much holds the government to account. Unlike UK high-circulatin 'newspapers', The Post is crammed with political items, including a substantial international section. Not a celebrity in sight. How refreshing.
I think I'll be doing a lot of responsive stuff like this, as well as working on the longer-term strategy, but it's all useful as we talk a lot about voice, audience and tools.