When I first started working at the South Canterbury Museum, longer ago than I care to remember, I found that a reasonably large number of natural history specimens had been donated by the public since the Museum started collecting in 1941. These specimens included moa bones, marine fossils, geological samples, boxed birds in drawing room cabinets(including some rare or extinct New Zealand species), tropical butterflies, birds egg, game heads, a five metre-long python skin and a stuffed (in every sense of the word) crocodile.
My part-time or voluntary predecessors had not attempted to catalogue much of this treasure trove at all. Instead they had put their effort into documenting the archives, photographs and social history artefacts, aided by Chenhall’s classification system. In the time that I’ve been looking around museums, I’ve realised that many others are in the same boat; often holding substantial natural history collections but feeling that they lack the requisite knowledge or skill to do anything much with them. I can recall one museum leader stating that perhaps natural history was a topic best left to the larger institutions.
I see this as a great shame. Ok, so I’m personally inclined to venerate natural history specimens but so too, it seems, are our audiences. A South Canterbury Museum survey conducted a couple of years ago indicated that the natural history displays were among the most popular. Natural history topics form a significant part of our education programmes, both in the Museum and out in the field. There is a demand for what museums can offer.
In addition, we’ve seen another audience for the local specimens in our collection; specialists. We’ve had core samples extracted from our moa bones, tiny bird bones collected in the 1960s examined in detail, and data from local insect specimens recorded. I have learned of some surprising and scientifically significant collections held in smaller museums. I think that there is a role for many smaller museums to actively maintain and develop their natural history holdings. Our local community now knows that we are a place where things can be brought, questions asked and information obtained. Our natural history storeroom is now a very different place, thanks to our growing collections, support from larger museums (thanks, Canterbury!) and a lot of work by our volunteers, including a natural history collections manager who has now sadly returned to the UK.
Now I realise that not all museums have naturalists in their paid or voluntary ranks. But that should be no reason for neglecting the specimens in their care. Knowing what you’ve got, where it came from and how to look after it should be the same for photographs, christening gowns, bird bones or beetles. Maybe smaller museums could receive training on how to manage these natural assets, along with on-site visits from natural historians who can provide an indication of what is held and its significance, and help point people in the right direction on how to manage and make best use of what they have. Recent books, field guides and internet sites have made natural history knowledge so much easier to obtain. Plus, there’s a network of specialists in the larger museums who can provide advice. All those specimens in boxes out the back are assets that our museums, visitors and communities can really benefit from.
Philip Howe has been director of the South Canterbury Museum since 1989. During that time he has overseen considerable expansion of the Museum’s operations, building size, personnel size and level of support from the Timaru District Council. Philip has a strong interest in New Zealand’s natural history (an inordinate fondness for beetles) along with a passion for loud but not neccessarily good guitar playing, and attempts to be a responsible adult, effective parent and generally keep up with early 21st century life.
Photos courtesy of South Canterbury Museum.