Natural History Collections Review at Maidstone Museum
What was the Project aim(s)?
• Inform a Collections Review of the Museum’s insect and natural history library collections
• Determine the significance of the specimens, areas of duplication, and potentials for ethical disposal (particularly historically fire damaged specimens and duplicated specimens with little academic or public use/value)
• Improve the long-term preservation of the collections by transferring them to more suitable storage conditions
• Improve sustainability by managing the collections more effectively
• Identifying methods of increasing access to, and uses for the collections
What was the impact of the project?
1. Improved long-term preservation of the collections
2. Easier access for staff, researchers and public leading to a better understanding of the collections.
3. Information of gaps/deficiencies in documentation and information, as well as potential collections for disposal to reduce duplication
4. Potentially, a smaller and more effectively managed collection
5. Reduction in storage costs
1. A report highlighting the significance of individual specimens and collections with the general natural history insect and library collections
2. A schedule of specimens for potential disposal
3. A list of other organisations which could be offered material earmarked for disposal or for potential partnership working based on the collections.
What went well and what didn’t go well?
The project was a great opportunity to gain an external specialist’s perspective of the vast insect and library collections here at Maidstone Museum, working with 2 academics Dr Georges Dussart (Emeritus Professor from Canterbury Christchurch) and Dr Mike Nicholls (Semi-Retired senior lecturer at Christchurch & Greenwich), which proved to be a great connection in itself. Identifying how an external researcher may use the collections, and what would be useful and significant to them and in turn, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the collection itself and highlighting the historic curation and documentation which had taken place. It helped us look at the collection in a different way, identifying areas for action and where we needed to make partnerships to gain specialist knowledge in going forward with the documentation, care and access to the collections. It greatly helped in linking original paperwork back with their associated collections, increasing our contextual understanding of distinct individual’s collections, as well as posing some very pertinent questions relating to our collecting policy.
As part of the project, we have been able to move the insect collections to a new environmentally controlled storage area, improving their storage conditions, in a much more accessible space for staff, researchers and visitors on guided tours. The old storage area has since been converted to new staff offices on site at the museum to reduce on overheads from the old offices in an external building, as well as bringing staff closer to the collections, exhibitions and visitors we work with.
Just one negative, the project time was unfortunately too short. We would have liked to have covered more of the collection, particularly the books and research materials, for which their specialist knowledge of the most relevant and scientifically important research materials would have been very useful.
Be realistic with the timescale and size of the project. Do you want the consultant to create an overview position statement so that you can then look into strategically getting extra funding to act on the particulars highlighted? Or for them to concentrate on a very specific section if you are already certain of the issues which require action?
Schedule in enough staff time to support the consultants and make all the collections, information and existing knowledge relating to them accessible. This way, they won’t tell you what you already know, but have forgotten to tell them and the staff supporting them can pick up a lot of extra knowledge in the process too.
Make the most of the consultants’ specialist expertise. They may be able to give extra outcomes that you hadn’t planned for but which can be equally as important, such as, in the case of our project, researchers and specialists who may be interested in the collections, museums/institutions with similar collections and biographical information about collectors.
What are your plans for the future?
As well as the identification of rationalisation options for the museum, the collection specialists and the museum team discussed new and exciting ways in which access to the collection can be improved.
We hope to:
- Make it easier for researchers and amateur collectors to come and use the collections more fully.
- Liaise with local Higher Education institutions (University of Kent, Canterbury Christ Church University, University of Greenwich at Medway, Hadlow College of HE/FE) to encourage the use of the collections by undergraduates undertaking research for final year dissertations and postgraduates to capitalise on local resources. These could not only be biological but also biographical.
- Open the museum to workshops run by local experts. There could be ‘bio blitz’ classes on taxonomy, or biometry, or biodiversity, with the added benefit of improving the museum’s documentation and particularly digital records pertaining to the collections.
- Seek further specialist advice on the unaccessioned research library, retaining those books which are current or scientifically useful to staff and researchers, with the potential of transferring insignificant and duplicated materials to other educational or academic institutions, some material highlighted for transfer to Kent & Medway Biological Recording Centre.
- Instead of shrinking the natural history collections, make a strong case for expanding their use– for example recruiting natural history volunteers to assist with digitising the collection to raise the profile of the collections and make the records accessible to view online, potentially increasing the number of actual visits to use the collections through seeking partnerships such as Kent Field Club.
- Identifying other potential uses of the collections with the museum’s education team, try to get schools involved and highlight specimens for use in school sessions/workshops with National Curriculum links.
- Advertising and networking. Create the knowledge that the collections are there, and there to be used. It might be possible for example to get a marketing undergraduate from a university to work collaboratively with a science undergrad as a joint dissertation on networking and marketing the collections.
Overall Cost of Project