Thursday, 8 September 2011

We Are Moving... a shiny new address at:

All old content has been imported and can be read there, and new posts will now appear on the Wordpress page. Blogger has been good to me, but it's time to move on to pastures new.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Sad Tale of Mrs Mallard

Once upon a time there was a mummy duck called Mrs Mallard. She lived on Canada Water, and she had seven babies. Two of them died very young, and Mrs Mallard was very sad.

She loved her babies and took very good care of them. Every evening she would take her youngsters on a trip away from the water, through the Tesco carpark, and into a nearby garden where they could all eat and enjoy a nice dip in the cool clean water of the bird bath.

But one night, something went wrong, and when Mrs Mallard came back the next evening she only brought four babies with her!

That night another disaster struck! The next day, and the next, Mrs Mallard frantically searched the garden and the whole neighbourhood for her little ones, but there was no sign of them anywhere!

All seemed lost, but a few days later Mrs Mallard was back on Canada Water, and she wasn't of her babies had survived, and was growing very quickly into a handsome young duckling!

Mrs Mallard was sad to have lost so many of her brood, but she was determined to make sure this last little babe made it.

Stay tuned to find out if they live happily ever after...

Friday, 15 July 2011

Value and Worth

It seems like ages since I wrote a post that was actually museum-related, so here's something I threw together from my answers to an activity for the Museum Studies distance-learning course I'm studying at the moment. The question was to discuss the main challenges facing museums today...

The main challenge facing museums today is obviously money: in a recession, museums are always one of the first things to be cut because they are considered non-essential services (I would beg to differ, but we all know my feelings on this), as participation is voluntray on the part of the public that the museum serves, and museums currently have no formal role in education. However, this part of their function is being increasingly emphasised these days, and there are now efforts to forge greater links between schools and museums, and to offer more formal education opportunities in the museum. This aims to give museums greater relevance in their communities, and to engage people in their collections from an early age. Which is good, but it does also mean that already cash-strapped museums are having to find the money to hire learning and education staff, and this often seems to come at the cost of collections staff (there I go again).

I may be trying to bite my tongue here to stop myself ranting on the subject (again), but it IS one of the major challenges facing museums at the moment: how do you improve education, and interpretation of collections, when you have no staff to do it? Expert collections staff are one of the most important assets of a museum, as they are the ones who present collections to the public, choose objects for display, and make them relevant. A collection with no-one to care for it loses any intrinsic value it had if it rots away to nothing in a store-room, and this is what we are allowing our collections to do. And by 'we' I mean society at large, and in particular a Government that does not seem to care that the nation's treasures are going to rack and ruin. Because museums (on the whole) are not profitable, and at the moment everything in the public sector revolves around money (or the lack of it). And you know things are getting bad money-wise when you have museums selling off parts of their collections to raise funds to improve storage for the rest of their objects, and museums that were expecting to have their budget reduced suddenly finding it cut completely, forcing them to close their doors.

I have to admit some sympathy for museum directors in the current's not a job I would want! They are under pressure to cut budgets, but also under pressure to deliver on their targets for documentation, to improve access to collection, to improve their learning programmes and links with schools, to entice in greater numbers of people, to generate an income, to make their exhibitions more relevant to the communities they serve, and to prove that they are delivering value for money. Museums are no longer simples worlds in which musty academics are king, using their collections to studiously advance the causes of science, and occasionally deigning to put together an exhibition to entertain the riffraff who keep cluttering up their museum*. They are run as businesses, carefully budgeted and managed, and they, like everything else that is publicly funded, must prove their worth as well as their value.

*If indeed they ever were this. But this is the common conception of how museums function behind the scenes.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Becoming A Twitcher: Part IV which I become an urban twitcher!

Since my move to London, I have had very little time for indulging my burgeoning interest in British birds. However, that doesn't mean that I haven't seen plenty of them! In fact, London is a veritable smorgasboard of bird-spotting opportunities.

I once again found myself surrounded by house sparrows while staying with some friends down in Hither Green for the first few weeks, as well as the rather more exotic ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameri) that have colonised the city in recent years. The birds have been recorded in London since 1855, and from an initially small population of escaped or released pet birds, have grown to a UK population of well over 30,000 individuals today. There has been something of an explosion in recent few years - the population is growing at an estimated rate of 30% per year, and exact current numbers are unknown (the next London survey is being conducted in October by Project Parakeet, a research group run by Imperial College London, and they are asking for volunteers to take part. In case you're interested).

Another invader to be seen in the Hither Green area is the Canada Goose. They are known to be aggressive birds, as well as greedy, and are not the most popular colonists of this country. However, I was willing to forgive the birds in Manor Park, because their chicks were incredibly cute!

I am now living in Canada Water, which, as the name suggests, provides plenty of opportunities for spotting water birds! On Canada Water itself (a small freshwater lake representing the remnants of a dock that was closed in the 1970s and redeveloped) there is an abundance of waterfowl, including mallards, tufted ducks, coots and moorhens. There is also currently a pair of mute swans raising a monster brood of eight cygnets! (All of which are visible in this picture, as well as a few nosy mallards! And the obligatory London pigeons in the foreground)

I've seen a lot of breeding birds lately ('tis the season, after all!). On Greenland Dock, just across the way from Canada Water, there are platforms set up for use by the local birds, and this year's residents included a coot and a great crested grebe (the pictures were taken a couple of weeks ago, and the birds have now left the nests. Apologies for the weird colour, but they were taken in the evening!).

Possibly the most interesting (least common, anyway!) find so far has been a cormorant, also on Greenland Dock. I don't think I've seen one in the wild before (if you can call Surrey Quays 'the wild'!). Here he (/she?) is, looking nice and regal, as only a diving bird can (it's because their legs are placed so far back on their bodies - it gives them a very upright stance)...

So, what have I learned in the last few weeks? That London is teeming with birds that aren't pigeons! Yes, it's teeming with them too, but there are plenty of other feathered wonders to behold if you look in the right place. Which seems to be anywhere and everywhere you look, as so many species have adapted to and colonised this weird, alien, urban environment.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Of Birds and Walruses

Once again I find myself apologising for being lax in my blogging, but I do have a good excuse this time: I recently moved to London in a bit of a hurry, and have been busy flat-hunting and settling into my new job as a Documentation Assistant at the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill. Which is a lovely museum (not that I've yet had time to actually go round all of it properly!); if you haven't been, you should.

It's lovely to once again be back working full-time in a museum; although, despite the fact that my role is on paper largely similar to what I was doing at Glasgow (it's all about digitising collections and editing records for use online), in reality the day-to-day work is quite different: at the Hunterian I was physically looking at the collections and creating new records, but the records already exist at the Horniman, so the job is simply a matter of proof-reading and editing them into the approved format for online publication. Which means that I get zero contact with the collections, but plenty of contact with my computer! But reading through the records is still a fascinating way of learning about the collections, even if I never get to see the objects in person, and the museum does have some fantastic objects...lots of beautiful rare and exotic bird mounts, an amazing anthropology collection including masks and puppets from all over the world, and a stunning near life-sized papier-mache model of Kali standing on Shiva (there is a story behind it, but I can't remember it offhand!), instruments of torture (including an Inquisition-style torture chair that may or may not be genuine), and a wonderfully fat overstuffed walrus! Which was prepared by a taxidermist who had never seen a walrus and didn't know that it was supposed to have folds of skin. The thing is ENORMOUS! And they are big creatures to start with.

Living in London is going to be a bit of an adjustment, but it is quite inspiring to be in a city that has such a huge amount of culture - there are so many museums that I need to go and see, and so many music venues, theatres, markets, cinemas...I will never be short of things to do at the weekends. I haven't had a chance to visit any other museums yet, but first on my list is the newly-rehoused Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL, which I'm going to later this week, and then I'm planning to see the other Hunterian Museum (at the Royal College of Surgeons). Followed, of course, by the British Museum (which I've shamefully never been to!) and the Natural History Museum (which I haven't been to in years).

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Becoming A Twitcher: Part III which I go on holiday to one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and come back with lots of pictures of birds.

And butterflies, and lizards. All of them boring and common, too! And yet they somehow seemed more interesting in Rome.

Gull (Larus sp.) nesting in Baths of Caracalla, Rome

Common lizard (Lacerta vivipara). Ostia

Another common lizard (Lacerta vivipara). Ostia

Common blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus). Ostia
Wall brown butterfly (Lasiommata megera). Ostia
Italian sparrow (Passer italiae). Ostia
Hooded crow (Corvus cornix). Ostia

Hooded crow (Corvus cornix). Forum of Augustus, Rome

There were lots of starlings and other common 'garden' birds hanging around too, which I didn't manage to photograph. I also saw some bats flitting around by the Colosseum, but didn't spot the kestrels that the sign in the park suggested I should see in Rome. To be honest, I was dubious anyway - the kestrel isn't something I'd usually think of as an urban bird.

And even though the birds I did photograph are all common as muck, they still provided a learning opportunity...for example, I had only ever seen one hooded crow (while in Scotland), and didn't know they were so common in Europe; they were everywhere both in the city and out at Ostia. Also, I hadn't realised that the sparrows in Italy were their own species. I had naively assumed that they were the same as the sparrows we find in Britain - they certainly look very much like tree sparrows at a casual glance (and my photo isn't exactly much help in identifying it, because it's taken from too far away!).

Obviously I didn't only take pictures of common wildlife. I do also have lots of photos of stunning Roman architecture and statuary, but since they're not biological in nature I'm not putting them up here...Oh, go on then, you've twisted my arm. You can have one.

Statue of Hercules. Temple of Hercules, Ostia.

What did I tell you? Stunning statuary.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Biodiversity Rocks! the sticker I was given at Bristol Zoo on Saturday says!

It is currently Biodiversity Week at Bristol Zoo, and I was there with the Bristol Museum posse to show people some native insects from our collections, while the biology curator led bug-hunting trips around the herbaceous border. The rain held off, which was good for insect-finding, and we saw lots of bees, flies, and a male common blue damselfly. I felt a little inadequate at times, as people asked me to try and ID insects they'd seen in their gardens from vague descriptions, and I was forced to admit I didn't have a clue (I'm a vertebrate zoologist! I'm pretty hopeless with all things spineless), but thankfully I had two knowledgeable insect people on hand to help out! I, of course, kept getting distracted by birds (that being my latest obsession and all). And not just the ones in cages...Bristol Zoo is swarming with wild native species, and they are all very bold around people - the picnicers on the lawn were constantly being eyed up by jackdaws and robins, who came very close and waited around for morsels to be dropped in their direction. I talked to some people about moths, the kids that the curator took around the border actually caught some insects (which is a minor miracle given how some of them were randomly running round waving their nets!), and a good day was had by all.

I even had some free time to wander round the zoo, which has changed considerably since I was a kid. They've reduced the number of big cat species they keep to expand the lion enclosure to a good size, the monkey and bird houses have been completely renovated, and conditions all round seem to have improved. I was quite impressed. And I got to feed some lorikeets, which was pretty amazing.

Sadly, Saturday's little adventure probably marks the end of my voluntary work with Bristol Museum, as I have been offered a documentation job in London and will be moving soon. Which probably means that the foreign bird mount project will never get finished - they won't curate themselves, you know! But the London job is only temporary until April next year, so I may yet be back! They can't get rid of me that easily :)