Manchester Museum Out and About Over the Summer Part 2: Culture Shots

Culture Shots is an annual series of free events run by museums and galleries around Manchester, in which cultural institutions, including Manchester Museum and Whitworth Art Gallery, brought cultural objects and art relating to medicine and wellbeing into hospitals. This year the events were run from the 18th to the 22nd July, and were a really enjoyable and important way of helping reflect on healthcare and how it affects their life in a different and more holistic way than they might in a doctor’s office.

I was volunteering with the Museum’s object handling team in the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital’s waiting room on 19th July in the Inflatable Museum (which is sadly not a bouncy castle!) talking to members of the public, mostly patient waiting for or coming out of appointments. Out objects included some of the unprocessed minerals which can be used to make important medical devices, like gypsum which can be ground down to make plaster of Paris for plaster casts. My favourite objects were the insects, which included insects which can make us ill, the female mosquitos which spread malaria, as well as the insects which can be used to make us better, the larvae of the blue bottle and the green bottle fly are the maggots used to clean wounds and prevent amputation most commonly in diabetic patients, which one of the visitors told us was being used for this purpose in the hospital. Though it is the grosser side of medicine, I think it really helps you think about how we, and our health, are a part of living nature, and we can use nature’s solutions to treat illness, mental and physical.

We were also at the Whitworth, in which we talked to lots of visitors as well as many of the other cultural institutions and healthcare charities about the museum and our objects, as well as a little Bollywood dancing!

The whole week was very enjoyable to be part of, and helped me think about how the museum’s collections can be used to communicate ideas about health and wellbeing, as well as the enjoyment people gain from interacting with objects enhancing wellbeing on its own, which is one of core principles of museums all over the world.

– Laura

Manchester Museum Youth Board out and about over the summer

On the weekend of 30th and 31st July, the Manchester Museum held a stall in the craft marquee at the amazing Manchester Mega Mela which took place at Platt Fields Park. The  Mela is a celebration of South Asian Arts, Music and Culture which takes place every year, it’s incredibly popular attracting a large audience of all ages.  The Museums Youth board supported the event which included craft activities and gave us an opportunity to talk to visitors about the new courtyard development at the Museum.  We all held different roles, with half of us on the arts and crafts stall and half doing surveys and giving brief explanations on the new South Asian gallery that will be part of the courtyard development, opening in 2020.

Inspired by the Museum’s collection of South Asian animals, which included an Indian Leaf Butterfly and a Tiger skull, a lot of children loved making the butterfly wings and tiger ears.  Many members of the public we spoke to were happy to fill in the brief survey which asks for suggestions and opinions of the community in regards to the South Asian exhibition. This was extremely useful for giving us an insight into how to help make the new exhibition meaningful and enjoyable for the public.

Overall it was an entertaining yet tiring weekend experience, for both the Youth Board and the Museum staff and volunteers.

If you’d like to know more about the Courtyard project you can keep in touch through the courtyard blog. https://courtyardprojectmm.wordpress.com/

Please keep up to date with the youth board as we will be involved in more activities to share with you soon!

– Iqra

Becoming part of the Climate Control exhibition visitor team

This youth board we joined the visitor team in the Climate Control exhibition. The gallery was quite quiet at the time because it was around lunchtime, but this gave us time to really get to grips with the exhibition and look at the messages behind it. We enjoyed the experience of helping out and watching people react to the ideas presented, especially when a little girl sat down and started asking the polar bear questions!

Another interesting thing was reading some of the pledges visitors were putting up and watching them voting in the interactive space, because we got to see how the exhibition was affecting their views of climate change and how involved with the issue they felt. We also found that visitors were really enjoying the portable handling table, although it got moved when the exhibition was quieter. This was a new addition to the museum and felt like an important part of the climate control gallery. Being part of the team in the exhibition was interesting because it allowed us to experience a different side of the museum and get more involved with the museum visitors.

Climate Control Exhibition

So in today’s meeting we’ve had a look round the new temporary exhibition, Climate Control. The exhibition aims to encourage people to be more aware of the impact of climate change on the world around us, showing the drastic effects of climate change on the natural environment. But rather than remain all doom and gloom the exhibition then highlights how each of us can take small steps to combat these issues.

The space is divided into two halves, black and white, to represent the exhibition’s message : “We can’t change our past, but we can change our future”. The design is surprisingly effective and makes the exhibition feel more like a modern art space than a traditional room of objects. However it would have been nice to have perhaps seen a bit more of the collection in the ‘white’ side of the room.

One of the interesting stories from the exhibition is that of the peppered moths, from Manchester, whose appearance changed over the 19th century from a pale speckled colour to darker black in response to the increasing industrialisation. It demonstrates the effect that people can have on nature, but also how change and transformation can be possible. The exhibition continues in Living Worlds where the moth’s story is represented by a huge sculptural display hung from the ceiling. In the bays in this gallery there are also posters with things that people can do to do their bit in helping the environment.

Overall the exhibition was a reasonably positive take on what is really a pretty depressing topic, and the practical ideas to make a difference help you to take away something positive and know that you can do something to contribute.

 

– Izzy and Victoria

Take Me Back to Manchester Exhibition

You may be familiar with Manchester Museum’s elephant, called Maharajah, who lived at Belle Vue Zoo in Manchester in the 1870s. Maharajah walked, with his trainer Lorenzo, from Edinburgh Zoo to his new home in Manchester.

Oliver East retraced Maharajah’s walk last year, without an elephant, and his drawing of Maharajah’s walk are displayed around Maharajah’s skeleton in the Manchester Gallery.

We liked Oliver East’s illustrations, which show how strange it was for an elephant to walk through England in 1872, but we think it could have been made clearer with captions above the pictures to clearly show where Maharajah is in each picture.

Oliver East has written a graphic novel based on Maharajah’s walk entitled “Take Me Back to Manchester”, which is available in the museum shop.

Visit to Zoology Stores and Consulting on Climate Control

Hi Everyone!

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.

mountain hare

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.

starlings

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.

passenger pigeon

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.

honeycreepers

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.

darwin

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.

-Laura

Conservation Visit

In the December meeting, we were also shown around the Conservation Department by Irit Narkiss. Conservation of museum specimens is, as Irit told us, essentially trying to manage the effects of entropy. As over time, things will always become more disordered over time, conservation tries to prevent this as far as possible. However, you cannot fight against entropy, so conservators don’t try to make objects look like they have just been newly made. Instead they try to work with entropy to keep the object in a good condition, but also to make sure it still looks as old or as used as it is, as often the ways in which an object is worn or damaged is relevant to knowing about how the object was used.

By being in a public space, objects on display in a museum often get damaged and dirty.

Bone can become dirty easily, as if there is still a fatty residue in the bones then dirt can attach to the surface, and must be removed. We were shown a whale skull that had been brought off the displays to be cleaned, as you can see the bone is completely brown in parts!

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Therefore, this dirt needs to be removed. And what a better way of doing this than using a laser gun to laser off the dirt!

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Here, the youth board excitedly crowds into a small room with a giant Celtic cross to look at a dirt-removing laser gun. And you thought conservation was boring!

Another problem with objects on public display is insects. Clothes moths, which can arrive through an open window or door, can lay their eggs in the fur of taxidermied specimens, and the larvae can eat the base of each hair, causing the hair to fall out. The brown bear that arrived as part of the Siberia exhibition, and was last on display in the reception area, was colonised by clothes moths larvae, the adults of which would have flown in through the main entrance. To kill off these insects, smaller taxidermied specimens can be put in the freezer. But the bear is too big for a freezer, therefore it has to be put in a vaccum sealed bag to starve the larvae of oxygen and kill them this way. Luckily, the brown bear does not have any visible bald patches, so once the larvae are killed it will be able to go back on display!

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A bear in a bag!

Irit also kindly gave us an opportunity to brush up our Object Handling skills with some of the archaeological specimens. We were given specimens to examine and figure our what they were based on what we could see, like visitors would be encouraged to do. We were also reminded about how to handle to objects safely, without damaging the objects by crumbling the stone or metal being eroded by the acid in the sweat on visitors’ hands. It is often hard to remember that sort of damage that repeated handling can have on objects, and being aware of this is key to keeping the objects in the best condition to continue being handled.

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-Laura

 

Visit to the Entomology Stores

Hi Everyone!

During the December meeting, the Youth Board were kindly given a tour of the Entomology Store by the Curator of Arthropods, Dmitri Logunov, the first time that many of the members of the youth board had met Dmitri.

The Entomology collection includes dried and fluid (ethanol and formalin) preserved specimens of insects, as well as other arthropods such as spiders (Dmitri’s specialism is Siberian Jumping Spiders, eek!), crustaceans, scorpions and other, lesser known arthropods. Manchester’s collection is the third largest collection in the UK, with only the Natural History Museum, London and the Oxford Natural History Museum having larger collections, making Manchester’s the largest in the North of England, comprising nearly 3 million specimens. The collection is also very comprehensive, and has may specimens from the 19th century, including the famous Manchester Moth. The age and size of the collection means that the Entomology collection is of international significance, and scholars, especially arthropod taxonomists from all over the country and the world use the collection as part of their scientific research.

Such a large collection needs a good way of cataloging the specimens, so Dmitri explained the system of labelling the specimens that is used today, in order for later researchers to have as much information as possible on the specimens, as today’s collectors don’t know what information might be useful for researchers in the future, especially as insect populations change due to changes in climate.

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Each specimen placed into the collection today must be given a data label based on this template, it must list the locality at which the specimen was found and the habitat that the specimen was found on or around, which allows future researchers to see whether there have been changes in the habitat and distribution of species over time. The date collected, who collected the specimen and the species it has been identified as, as well as who identified it and when (as this may or may not be correct!) is also noted. Having such a comprehensively cataloged collection, with detailed data labels, allows researchers to more easily use specimens from Manchester Museum in their work.

Dmitri showed us several cases of beetles, including a case of these jewel beetles, the hard eltyra (wing cases) of which have been used as dectorative materials in many cultures, including mounted into jewelry sold today in the UK, which even the most entomophobic of us admired!

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Jewel Beetles

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The some of the wide variety of beetles in the collection

Dmitri also told us about some of the people who had helped to build the collection, starting from the Victorian period.

These include Albert Stewart Meek, who was financed by Walter Rothschild to carry out expeditions to New Guniea in the 1900s to collect bird and butterfly specimens, including the largest butterfly in the world, Alexandra Birdwing Butterflies, which at first were shot at to collect (which is not the way butterflies are collected today!) before he was able to collect larvae and breed them in captivity.

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Alexandra Birdwing Butterflies, males on the right, females on the left.

We were also very interested at how different male and female animals of the same species look, which is known as sexual dimorphism. In butterflies and moths, the females tend to be larger, especially with larger bodies as they lay eggs, and plainer and have filamentous antennae. Males tend to be smaller and brighter, to attract females, and have feathered antennae. For quite a few of the butterflies and moths, we thought that a case of one species had many different species in it, because of the differences in form between males and females. Interestingly, we were shown a case of butterflies with two hermaphrodite specimens in it, which have one male half and one female half of their bodies.

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Two hermaphroditic butterflies.

We were also shown the most famous specimen in the Entomology collection, which is kept in the stores due to its fragility, but members of the public can ask to see it. This is the Manchester Moth, a species of moth of which there is only three known specimens in the world, the specimen at Manchester, one at the Natural History Museum, London and one at an Australian Museum. All specimens of the Manchester Moth were collected by the amateur entomologist Robert Cribb from Kersal Moor in Salford in 1829. He collected 50 specimens of this moth, but as his collection was stored in his rented accommodation, much of it was burnt by his landlady when he was unable to pay rent.

Dmitri thought that it was likely that the Manchester Moth was not actually native to the UK and then became extinct in 1829, rather a number of specimens were brought into the country on imported timber from North America, and an colony was briefly established near an urban centre, where it was more likely to collected than in a forest in North American. I asked Dmitri whether this meant that the Manchester Moth could still exist in the wild, deep in a forest in North America, and he thinks that this might be the case, as closely related species of moth continue to be discovered.

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The Manchester Moth (after being singed)

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A reconstruction of the Manchester Moth in life (and Dmitri!)

These (expensive) Victorian cases with two glass panels allow both the front and back of the wings of these butterflies to be seen, as many butterflies have dark coloured outside of the wings when resting with their wings together, to avoid predators, but the brighter coloured side is displayed when their wings are extended in flight.

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The insects in this case are all either extinct or critically endangered, including the Giant Earwig from the island of St Helena, which used to be inhabited by many other comparatively large endemic animals, many of which were driven to extinction due to competition with invasive species brought onto the island by humans.

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We all learnt a lot about the importance to studying insects, and how museum collections are vital to gain an understanding of insect populations in the recent past, as well as appreciating the beauty of many of the world’s insects.

-Laura

The Student Forum

One of the things that we are planning for this year is a series of events known as The Student Forum (working title). The aim is to host talks, debates, tours and workshops in The Study for young people, specifically 16-18 year olds. We plan to cover a wide variety of areas, from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) to Humanities, Politics to Archaeology to Geology and everything in between. We will be getting guest speakers, such as MPs, museum curators and academics from the University, with a range of activities focused on specific areas relating to the Keynote speaker. Keep an eye on our blog for more news.

Elliot and Laura