Friday, 30 March 2012

An Open Letter to NatSCA - the Natural Sciences Collections Association

A Derby museum visitor scans a QR code to access data on local
rocks in a display produced by a skilled natural science curator. 
There has been an appalling loss of specialist natural science curators across the UK's provincial museums in the last few years. And extinction point seems to have been reached over the last year in many areas of Britain, thanks to a combination of government cuts and blinkered museum managers who value arts over sciences, and who have long seen natural history as a "cinderella subject", despite it still being the most popular of subjects amongst museum visitors.

I have blogged previously about my own treatment at the hands of Derby City Council. But recently Steven Falk,  former Senior Keeper of Natural History at Warwickshire Museum, wrote most eloquently in British Wildlife Magazine (Feb 2012) about his view of the decline in specialist staff with traditional natural science skills, and the contribution they make. Like me, he is now redundant, along with Paul Williams, Senior Keeper of Natural History at Sheffield Museums, who lost his job in March 2012. 

One curator recently wrote: "There are now more pandas living in Edinburgh than there are natural history curators employed in the whole of East Midlands, West Midlands and South Yorkshire put together." 

And so I wondered what NatSCA, the Natural Sciences Collections Association was doing about it. They say that their organisation "promotes the interests of natural science collections and the staff that work with them." So maybe a bit of lobbying here, a bit of publicising there? Well, I visited their website and could find nothing at all.

I had hoped they might have got around to collating, recording and publishing a list to reflect the rapid extinction of the skilled naturalist in UK's provincial and national museums.  If they have a list, they've certainly kept it quiet.  And so, in the week of their annual conference in London I feel it is appropriate to publish an open letter to their chairman, Paul Brown of The Natural History Museum, urging NatSCA to do more to highlight the near-destruction of a generation of natural science posts, and their replacement with a small handful of "collections assistants"  who know little or nothing about the objects left in their care when skilled curators are kicked out.
So here it is:

Subject: Open Letter to NatSCA: Use it and You'll Probably Still Lose it

Dear Paul 
I see the NatSCA conference is based at the Horniman this week.
Thirty years ago I was a volunteer at the Horniman Museum. For three months I cycled 12 miles a day, every day, to get work experience whilst looking for my first paid job as a natural science curator after leaving Leicester's Museum Studies course. Until just 12 months ago I had spent all the intervening years working as a natural historian in provincial museums in Kirkleees and Derbyshire. But then last March I was forced into redundancy and given 24 hours notice to leave the work I loved.
Up and down the country the government's cuts have been impacting savagely on natural history expertise, and on curators themselves. The West Midlands no longer has any natural history curators, and in the East Midlands they are rapidly going extinct. Paul Richards - a dedicated naturalist and curator is the latest to be forced out at Sheffield, and the losses continue. There is now only one natural science curator post at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham - job-shared by two people, one of whom comes back as a volunteer on her days off because she cares so much.
I was quite emotional when I read Steven Falk's brilliant letter in British Wildlife in Feb 2012, highlighting his demise as the last traditional Natural History curator in the West Midlands. His words and views seemed like my words and views.He pointed out how many natural history collections are now in the hands of archaeologists and social historians who have all been rebranded as collections access officers, and how museum managers in his area have long been unsympathetic to the importance and value of natural history collections. This has long been true in Derby where they are now calling for volunteers to help look after those collections, yet with nobody skilled to manage them.
So may I ask you to raise one simple question at the conference and AGM this week?  Could you ask what NatSCA is doing to record, collate and widely publicise these losses of curatorial expertise across the country? 
OK, make it two questions:
Could you ask what initiatives NatSCA will now take to publicise and promote awareness of these lost posts and lost skills?
I searched the NatSCA site. I looked for a list of national or provincial museums and posts that had been axed or remained unfilled over the last few years. I looked for a list of museums with collections but no qualified staff, or a list of museums where potential job losses are still a very real concern. But nothing. Absolutely nothing - not even on the Collections At Risk page.
So please take the chance this week to ask your fellow curators on NatSCA what they will do now. Will someone come forward to build a big, bright page on your website and call for information, gather details and publicise all these losses in UK museums? NatSCA needs to find its voice and to highlight the collections at risk as a result, and to make a contact point for staff to report past, present and future cuts to natural science curators.
I wish you well for your Conference and AGM. But do please consider that unless more is done to raise awareness of the loss of skilled staff with the ability to engage people, whether we use it or not, we will probably still lose it.  Someone needs to bring information on these losses together, and I see no-one more able than NatSCA to gather this data, to keep it up-to-date, and to shout about it to whoever will listen.
Yours sincerely
Nick Moyes
(former Senior Keeper of Natural Sciences, Derby Museum. 1985-2011)

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