Monthly Archives: September 2014

The real value of museum collections

I heard something disturbing last year while I was at an event held in a museum. Colleagues from other organisations and volunteers were talking to the public about specimens on tables. It was a bustling event, with over 400 people coming along to look at the specimens, talk to specialists, and get stuck into hands on activities. During the event a member of the museum staff (lets call them Jones) went around and told the people helping with the event not to have any drinks at the table. The helpers were cautioned that they should be particularly careful because of the paintings hanging on the walls. Jones even told these external people how much one painting was ‘worth’.

The museum and staff member are remaining anonymous, but this is a true story. There are several things which are wrong with this. Firstly, Jones assumes that volunteers and external helpers were not briefed before the event began with common sense health and safety, and how to work with care around museum collections. Secondly, Jones told volunteers and people who don’t work at the museum how much a painting is worth in money terms!! Incredible!! We do not go around telling people the market value of this or that object – that would be stupid and invite enormous security problems!! My biggest problem was that Jones was very serious in mentioning the ’value’ of the painting; they completely ignored the museum specimens on the table. By warning against damage of the paintings, and giving the cost of one, gave the paintings a greater ‘value’ than the specimens which were being used for the event.

My fantastic old apprentice, Hayleigh, leading an interactive session about skulls and bones with enthusiastic children.

My fantastic old apprentice, Hayleigh, leading an interactive session in the museum about skulls and bones with enthusiastic children.

Museum objects, be they a Picasso or a beetle, should not have a monetary value added to them. We do have to put ‘insurance values’ on objects when we lend them to other museums. This insurance value is the cost of replacing that loaned item if there was any damage. However, there is no way you can replace a Picasso (one painting painted by one man). There is also no way you can replace a beetle (one individual beetle, collected from one place at a certain time by one man). And this is my point. Money will not buy back that Picasso no more than it will buy back that individual beetle. A type specimen can’t be replaced and neither can an extinct animal. All objects that are in the museum collections are irreplaceable and literally priceless.

Giving a museum object a monetary value is wrong. It indicates that these objects are worth some money. And that is not good. They can be targeted by thieves, or worse, they can be sold by the very people who swore to look after them. There have been several examples of objects being sold in order to fill budget gaps, including art work and taxidermy. Why is this wrong? Because it is not ours to sell. Museum hold objects in trust for you, the people. We look after the collections, and care for them, but they are for everyone. It is wrong, because these objects end up in private hands where they will never been seen, or enjoyed again.

By saying an object is ‘worth’ X amount of money, as Jones did, raises the status of that object. Other collections are neglected, relegated to some dark corner, because all the focus is on the big sexy ‘expensive’ object. Of course, all museums have their sexy collections which they like to use; it might be a massive taxidermy specimen, or an object from a known collector. This is what the museum is known for, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But they are because they are iconic, not because they are ‘worth’ lots. These iconic objects are sexy because of their story, not because of the dollars they have over their heads. Giving an object a big price tag means other objects are forgotten about, along with the stories.

Interestingly, the monetary value placed on an object is based on the current market value. This doesn’t actually mean anything for several reasons. Firstly, there is no ‘market value’ for 70% of museum collections, so does that mean they are worth nothing? If an object is damaged or destroyed, as already mentioned, we cant go out and buy that exact same object. What happens when the market crashed; do we suddenly have an object that is ‘worth’ nothing?

A gorgeous, rare oil beetle (Melo violaceus) from the entomology collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. Would you give this specimen the same 'value' as a work of art?

A gorgeous, rare oil beetle (Melo violaceus) from the entomology collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. Would you give this specimen the same ‘value’ as a work of art?

I have pondered what the solution should be. How should the ‘value’ of museum objects be calculated? Surely, as a museum (a place where collections are held for the public), the value should reflect that? Perhaps we forget about pound coins, and think about what value the object has to Joe Blogs. So, what about we think about an objects value in terms of its potential for inspiration and pure joy?

To measure the value of an object, we can easily work out the ‘joy’ one may get from it. We can do simple experiments (talking to people with our objects, for example) and use the following equation to work out the real value:

Value = Smiles + Awe + Interaction + Excitement


Smiles is the length of time (in seconds) a smile is held for whilst talking to that person about that object.

Awe is the length of time (in seconds) the eyes open widely and the mouth drops.

Interaction is the number of interactive questions asked about the object.

Excitement is the number of excited responses (i.e. ‘wow’, ‘noooo’, ‘that’s amazing’, etc.)

Curators reading this may think ‘this is silly’ because actually they may secretly think ‘arggghh, what if my value isn’t high?’ Dont worry, the value will always be high. That’s the point. Whether you are holding a piece of ceramic, an old radio, or a hyena jaw, the value should always be the same. They all have the potential of being awesomely inspiring objects that fit with the above equation. All that object needs is a passionate, enthusiastic museum person to share the awesome stories to inspire the very people we are looking after them for.

(There is the obvious value in research with many specimens, and value for inspiring artists, storytellers, etc. This value can be reflected in the above equation quite easily: the person talking about the object includes it’s many different uses. Research on objects is awesome. Its 100 times more awesome if people know about it!)

When I started thinking about the real value of museum collections, of course I flirted with the thought that natural history collections are supremely valuable. They are popular amongst visitors (as shown by two separate studies: one evaluating London museums, and another evaluating museums with multidisciplinary displays). Events with stuffed birds, pickled creatures and fossils are always over booked. But, after this fleeting 2 second thought, it vanished. All collections in a museum are as valuable as each other. Departments within one museum should not be proving who has the most ‘expensive’ object, or debating who has the more important collection. We should actually all be working together. We have different collections, and sometimes different audiences. But this is a good thing: mixing up collections for displays and events highlights areas that people may not have seen before. It increases the inspiration people get, and automatically gives it value. A value that is more valuable than money.

We care a lot about what we look after. Curators of curtains love curtains (there is a real Curtain Museum). Curators at the Tank Museum love tanks. And yes, those curators at the [real] Museum of Broken Relationships are passionate about, well, the spoils from broken relationships.

Let curators show the true value of our collections.


Update: 1st Nov 2014

This post was picked up by the Museums Association after a Twitter discussion between myself and my good friend @MarkCarnall at UCL’s Grant Museum. We were asked to put across our views in a kind of ‘conversation’ style chat (I quite like ‘museum dance off’).

The conversation was published in the Museums Journal, and is also on the Museums Association website – here.


Filed under Museum, Museum Collections

Pom pom mammoths

Super fuzzy and super cute. A pom pom mammoth.

Super fuzzy and super cute. A pom pom mammoth.

Museums are home to millions of incredible specimens. From teeny tiny wasps that lay their eggs inside living caterpillars, to enormous fossils providing a glimpse of a world long past, our store rooms are packed with information about the beautiful natural world around us.

Curators across the world care for these collections so they are safe for future generations to use and enjoy. The bulk of the work a curator does is documentation (matching specimens to their information, and updating the database, and hunting for the right number). Some curators carry out conservation on the specimens (fixing them if they are broke using specialist training). We get to write about a few of our sexy specimens for displays or exhibitions. (I wrote about what museum curators do in more detail here.)

20 years ago this was fine. Curators, with their socks and sandals, could be squirrelled away in their offices or store rooms, and spend days looking at one specimen. Or months adding dreaded ‘temporary numbers’ on thousands of specimens (something which is taking years to rectify today). Hiding away working with a researcher, or by themselves, talking in technical jargon than no one else understands.

No more we say. No more! The museum curator of the 21st century wants to burst forth from the store rooms waving their socks in the air, free from the stigmas of old, and ready with a smile to talk about the collections to real people! The time of the Socks Under Sandals is over. A new Age has begun. A thousand years from now they will talk of this new sockless curator. The Age before will become a myth.

Farewell times of old. We take off those socks and wave them triumphantly. (Image from here)

Farewell times of old. We take off those socks and wave them triumphantly as if they are freed from the stereotype ‘museum curator’. (Incidental I do own a pair of sandals just like these in this photo. But I DO NOT own a pair of those rather short jean shorts. I hope no one owns a pair of them. (Image from here)

We look after all these specimens, but what for? What’s the use?

Us curators have researchers visiting our collections: Perhaps to test the DNA of a taxidermy peregrine falcon, or to chemically analyse mineral specimens to see if the chemistry can illuminate the locality (important for many museum collections, where, through the ravages of time, labels have been lost). A wonderful use of some of our taxidermy specimens for research at Plymouth Museum was to test if chickens could learn to spot a fox as a threat. A stuffed rabbit was used as the control. I am very much looking forward to the results to see whether chickens were afraid of a stuffed fox. Or did the stuffed rabbit freak them out?

Although there is unlimited potential for research that is not the only thing natural history collections are for. They have a role to play in society which we are beginning to understand more and more. They are relevant to their local audiences (and can even be relevant to national audiences too); local museums will hold collections collected locally so have real things that will mean something to the local people. They are used regularly by artists to study the incredible forms of nature. They are used out in schools to help support the national curriculum, and at universities to teach about taxonomy. Specimens have been used to increase wellbeing for elderly people.

We have hundreds of thousands of specimens. And we know a lot of rather geeky, but very quirky tales – about the collectors, or how this specimen was rescued from a skip, or how many different types of pickled worms we have… And, as a curator, we love finding these things out. I have heard my previous boss squeal rather loudly with delight when I spotted a rock in the collection had a tiny scrap of a label on it, which linked it to a collector. The quick high-pitched talking, excited flapping grew when we flicked through old photographs of the natural history gallery and that same rock was in one of the photographs, with a label. For 30 years this rock was just a rock, sat in a rather dark wooden drawer. In 30 seconds its future was changed forever.

The reason we get excited is because we can’t wait to tell someone: a rock is not just a rock, a beetle is not just a beetle; they have amazing stories which we want to share! The curators born in the 70s, 80s (and dare I show my age by saying even the 90s) were born with a passion about what they will be looking after.

(As a slight side-track, I have wonderful volunteers who help out with lots of different work. Some were not even born when Jurassic Park came out. Jurassic Park was released in 1993! 1993! Wasn’t that was only a few years ago?!! Why do they smile awkwardly when I crack a joke about MacGyver? Perhaps it is time I stopped saying ‘Go-Go-Gadget tweezers’.)

The more serious looking MacGyver. His classic brown leather jacket, and memorable hairstyle stood out against other TV characters. (Image from Wiki)

Here he is, the AWESOME MacGyver. He uses his wit and skill to thwart the bad guys. (Image from here)

I know a lot of natural history curators around the UK, and I know we all have awesome collections. Most of the collections will be different from museum to museum, but some of the specimens may be the same, as highlighted by ‘Natural History Museum Bingo’ developed tongue-in-cheek by my friends at UCL’s Grant Museum. And so what if some are the same? It is their stories that sets them apart. I have a couple of mammoth teeth and this is on the Natural History Museum Bingo. But what I have are a couple of mammoth teeth from real Woolly Mammoths that lived just outside Plymouth, only a few miles from where my visitors live. That is unique. And that is a link with my specimen to my visitors: it makes it real for them.

Collections can educate, inspire and amaze. With curators getting out and about and talking to people along with real specimens we are using our collections in new ways.  Collections can show the wonderful rich diversity of life around us. They can show us how our bodies work. Rocks and minerals show us what’s inside volcanoes. Pickled creatures show us what’s hidden beneath the waves. Collections open the wonderful curious world of the Victorian collector and their passion for collection the wonders around them.

Curators today know that there is no point of caring for all of these specimens if no one knows about them. Who cares if I have a woolly rhinoceros tooth found in Plymouth, or that a man who worked in a Plymouth book printers also collected 50,000 beetles to the museum? The answer is everyone I speak to will care! Because these collections (and the same for collections in other museums) have stories, and the stories of the collector, or the specimen itself, brings it to life. We want to let people know how amazing our collections are.

These 10 belemnites have an incredible tale to tell...

Just a group of fossil belemnites. They are ten a penny at Lyme Regis. But these 10 belemnites have an incredible tale to tell…find out more here.

To reach different audiences we can give talks or write an article or two. Some of us write blog posts about our collections, or about museum goings on, but mainly this is in our own time on the commute into work, or late at night. A wonderful way to engage with the public is by organising different events where we can bring out specimens, talk to people about them and have activities based on that theme. What better way to discover about the incredible world we live in, and our heritage, by seeing real specimens up close? And here is where the title of this post comes in.

I run a family friendly group Wild about Plymouth, set up by my very inspirational, and energetic, previous boss I mentioned earlier. Once a month I organise different family friendly natural history events in the city, open to everyone. We go rock pooling or enjoy a guided tour round a local nature reserve, getting families out and about enjoying their local environment. The key to the events is that they link to our collections: we bring along specimens that link to the event. With some events held in the museum there is an awesome opportunity to bring out dozens (sometimes hundreds) of specimens that are usually hidden. I, or a colleague from the University, will be there at each event and we talk to people about science. (Other museums run their own events and activities using their curators and specimens to share their wonderful stories.)

Evaluation over the years has shown that people like to talk to approachable, enthusiastic ‘experts’ – myself, colleagues, and brilliant volunteers talk to people about specimens without all the technical mumbo jumbo, but with freaky cool facts. We have tables with specimens, alongside tables with craft activities linked to the theme.

One of my favourite events was called ‘A cold World’. We had some specimens out which were collected from the Arctic including giant sea spiders and giant isopods.  We also had some beautiful ptarmigan taxidermy specimens to talk about changing coat colour in winter time. It sounds simple. It really is. The amazing thing is children and adults can talk to someone who knows about the specimens and doesn’t scare them away with the jargon. Plus, they get to see a real ptarmigan or real sea spider up close instead of on a computer screen.

Of course I brought out some of the big hitters; mammoth teeth, woolly rhinoceros teeth, hyena jaws and cave bear remains. All from the local area. Talking to people (of all ages, not just the young ones) is so much fun to see their faces when they find to what it is, or when they find out how old it is. Even more priceless, after discovering what it is, they are flabbergasted to learn these animals used to live just down the road from them! The activities were set for the theme, with making your own giant sea spiders (with straws and tape), cut out a mammoth, and make a pom pom mammoth.

As well as being fun for the little ones, they can take the things they make away with them. And hopefully when they see it they will remember seeing that mammoth tooth. That tooth from a mammoth that lived in Plymouth.

Curators are so lucky to see all these incredible things every day. We get to learn about them and find out their quirky tales. The pom pom mammoths show that we can engage with people in different ways, using our real specimens, and our passion for our collections. If we are not talking about our collections, what’s the point of them? They have amazing stories to tell, lets not keep them locked up in the store rooms any more!

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