At this month’s meeting, the youth board were given a tour of the Zoology Stores by Henry McGhie, who is curating the forthcoming Climate Control exhibition which opens in May 2016.
Henry has a background in ecology and he told us some of his fieldwork stories, including falling inside a rotten tree when collecting barn owl pellets. Henry stressed the importance of taxidermy records preserved in museum stores, as this allows historical distributions of species to be studying and compared to modern distributions. This is very important today, as climate change is beginning to alter the distribution of species as habitats change.
We were shown a number of species whose distribution is changing as climates change, including the mountain hare, which are adapted to snowy climates by having a white coat in winter and have furry feet, which insulates the feet against the snow.
We were also shown some of the modern taxidermy collections kept in the stores for study. These taxidermy specimens are “laid out” rather than mounted in a dynamic pose like the taxidermy on the galleries. The specimens in the stores are grouped by species, often with many specimens for each species so that the diversity of forms of the species is preserved. This draw of starlings gives a good sample of starling specimens from a variety of habitats, which is important as the range of starlings is changing, for example there used to be many starlings in Piccadilly Gardens, whereas recently I haven’t seen any starlings in this urban area.
Manchester Museum ornithology collection includes specimens of a third of all bird species, including some extinct species such as the passenger pigeon, the last bird of this species died in 1914, having once had a population of billions in North America.
We also liked the draw of honeycreepers that Henry showed us. These birds are from Hawaii, and are all descendants of one bird which arrived on Hawaii, whose descendants evolved to perform particular roles in the ecosystem. When Charles Darwin visited Hawaii, he used the honeycreepers as an example of radiative evolution. However, when chickens were introduced to Hawaii, many honeycreepers were infected with avian malaria and many species became extinct, which some being severely reduced but eventually developing resistance to malaria. In cases like this, museum collections are very important, as DNA can be extracted from the toe pads of preserved specimens to study populations that have gone extinct or now have a very low genetic diversity.
We were also very impressed by one small, yet very important, bird. This bird was collected by Charles Darwin whilst he was travelling on the Beagle, where he discovered the diversity and interconnectedness of life which gave him the raw material for his theory of evolution. Museum collections give important links to previous scientists in the field, allowing modern researchers to continue to work on the questions asked by those who founded the field.
Henry stressed to us the importance of natural history museums having good quality specimens on display. This is because visitors will rarely encounter these animals in any other context, and in order to raise awareness of the threats to these species, the public needs to appreciate them. Therefore, museums have vital roles in both raising awareness and building an archive of species for further research. Henry told us that he believed that much of the UK environment is already affected and damaged by human activity, and that it is impossible to return it to a “wild” pre-human state. Rather, we should allow and assist nature to adapt to the new reality of a human affected environment, as well as reducing future damage as far as possible.
Henry also told us about the forthcoming Climate Control exhibition. The exhibition will be focusing on how the climate is changing and what effects this will have on nature and us, in Manchester. We were all very impressed by the designs for the exhibition which Henry showed us, especially by its dynamic and interested use of the exhibition space. We also liked how the exhibition would not be too negative, as it focuses on what we can do to prevent or reduce the effect of climate change in our local community. We felt that a lot of the discussion on climate change is based on blame and guilt, so a more proactive approach would mean that more people would be interested in the issue. Henry asked us for our thought on climate change and what we do to reduce its effects in our lives.
We are all greatly looking forward to the new exhibition and the events that will run along with it. Though the exhibition will form part of a new, more political dimension to the museum’s work, it is continuous with what the museum has been doing since the 19th century, keeping records of species and raising awareness of the importance of living in a world rich with diverse lifeforms.