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Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales

June 2013

Museum collections in Wales – Knowledge is Preservation

Posted by Christian Baars on 14 June 2013
J.H. Clark Herbarium, Newport Museum and Art Gallery.

More than 100 institutions in Wales have natural science collections in their care. Natural science includes all things connected to the natural world: bird skins, insects, minerals, shells, fossils, plants, fluid preserved specimens and even microorganisms such as diatoms. These collections contain an awful lot of knowledge of our present and past natural history, and one purpose of museums is to preserve this knowledge for posterity.

What is a museum?

Museums are guardians of knowledge, and collections are what makes museums special. Collections are what sets museums apart from other organisations, the absolute core of museum work. There has been a discussion for a while over the traditional concept of the museum as a collecting institution, and whether to broaden the definition of a museum to include institutions without collections, for example one-object museums (e.g., ship museums) or science centres. However, exhibitions, research and many education activities are not possible without specimens and objects from museum collections.

Hand in hand with collections goes the knowledge that is embodied in them. Knowledge of the objects, their collectors, their provenance, their age, their cultural and scientific associations, and simply where objects are stored. This is the information that makes a collection usable. In recent years, many museums have managed to update their storage records. In many cases records are available in digital form and are easily searchable. Having said that, every museum curator knows that records are far from complete even in large museums with fancy collections management systems.

Collections information

Butterfly collection, Newport Museum and Art Gallery.

The overwhelming majority of collections information is in the heads of the curators looking after these collections. This is especially the case for tacit knowledge – the ‘soft data’, information about collectors and their biographies and interests, stories and anecdotes about objects and collectors. The sort of thing that makes or breaks good exhibitions. Most of the time, these stories are never written down; instead, they are passed down the generations from curator to curator, and it takes years to learn all this.

It is easy to argue that a collection without information is worthless. If I cannot identify the objects in my collection, if I cannot find them, if I do not even know I have them, there is no point keeping the collection because it is, to all intents and purposes, worthless. Ultimately, this last point is the biggest danger – most curators are aware of stories of valuable collections ending up in a skip because the person making the decision did not have the right knowledge. And if we do not know what we are throwing out we have no idea what we are losing. Ultimately, society as a whole would become poorer culturally, historically and scientifically.

The specialist curator

Good curators then are not a luxury but a necessity. And a good curator needs to be a jack of all trades to be master of one: trained in a specialist subject, with experience of collections management, research, design, public speaking and storytelling, a communicator who understands the need for sharing knowledge with other museums and, crucially, the public. With people like that looking after museum collections our cultural and scientific heritage should be perfectly safe.

But here’s the thing: the number of natural history curators fell by one third in the past ten years (Museums Journal 113/04). The trend is similar – if somewhat less dramatic – in other subject disciplines. There is an increasing number of ‘orphaned’ collections, which have nobody to care for and protect them, let alone use them. In Wales the current situation is that out of more than 100 institutions with natural science collections, only a single one has any specialist curators left – the National Museum.

This makes it immensely more difficult for museums to use their collections. We do need to know where collections are and how they can be accessed. Local communities, schools, tourists and researchers want to see those collections and learn about them. The good news is that most of the collections are still there.

How collections reviews can help

Part of the fossil collection, Newport Museum and Art Gallery.

The ‘Linking Natural Science Collections in Wales’ project is now starting to assess the first collections in local museums. Specialist curators from Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales are soon going to review collections across Wales. The intention is to capture information about those collections in a single database. This does not replace the need for specialist curators, But local staff and volunteers will trained and much more able to utilise their collections. This will mean better educational materials, better exhibitions and a better experience for museum visitors. Most importantly, however, it means that these collections will be safely preserved for future generations.