Category Archives: Musty-Dustiness

What are museums even for?

I’ve been working in and for natural history museums for nearly 30 years. Most people I meet don’t understand what a museum is for. Worryingly, some of the people who run them don’t seem to either. The telling phrase, always uttered with an air of incredulity, is this: “Only 5% (or a similar tiny fraction) of the collection is on display!” The implication is the museum is somehow failing, and should display More Stuff.

Well, they used to display More Stuff; a century ago a typical museum had thousands of objects packed into cases with cryptic labels and no context, and people complained: they were dull and stuffy and never changed. Museums now spend quite a bit of their budget and staff time developing new exhibits, with well-written signage and videos and interactive games. But it’s hard to satisfy everyone, because of a basic fact most people don’t know. Museums are not for exhibitions.

Te Papa has 150,000 pickled fish. How many would you like on display? Definitely not 5% of the collection; most are pretty unattractive, and of interest only to a fish researcher. Which is fine, because that’s who they’re for. A museum’s collections are for research, not display. It’s nice that some of the collection is interesting and educational, but that’s not why it’s there. The best analogy of a museum is an archive or research library. In the National Library in Wellington, you can see the Treaty of Waitangi, the 1893 suffrage petition, and He Whakaputanga, the 1835 Declaration of Independence, but the National Library’s business is not putting on blockbuster exhibitions. Its librarians concern themselves with public enquiries, academics and researchers, and most importantly preserving the publications of New Zealand for posterity.

Libraries are charged with making the treasures they hold as accessible as possible to the public, but if they tried to put every book and pamphlet, or even 5% of them, into a little perspex case with an informative label, they wouldn’t be able to do anything else. So why do we expect this of museums? Like a document archive, a museum’s first job is to act as a storehouse and protect its collections. A feather cloak will moulder and decay if you keep it under the bed. A moa bone on the mantelpiece will be cracked and broken within a generation. A museum with climate-controlled storage and acid-free packaging can at least make sure this stuff is available to future generations. Delicate insect specimens collected by Joseph Banks on Cook’s voyage in 1769 are still carefully preserved and intact in London and Copenhagen, and curators strive to make sure things acquired today will last for 200 years.

A museum has to collect; if it relied on donations, it will end up with nothing but the old, the unwanted, and the durable, dropped off on the way to the dump. Museums end up with lots of ironmongery, typewriters, and childhood shell collections—but a good museum curator will be out there after the Women’s March on Washington, collecting discarded placards and pink pussyhats. Museum collecting has been (wrongly) blamed for driving species extinct, but much of what we know about huia comes from the small proportion of specimens that ended up in museums, not shot for their tail feathers and dumped.

And finally, a museum has to do research. Museum collections are invaluable for learning about human history, evolution, biodiversity decline, and climate change. New species are constantly being discovered in museum collections, and this sort of taxonomic research can only be done with the massive comparative collections museums have built up over centuries. All museums have, or should have, a permanent staff of researchers, historians, and scientists. They’re called curators, and their numbers are, sadly, declining. When a moa skull came up for auction on Trade Me, I suggested the best place for it was a museum. Commenters were livid: museums already have plenty of moa bones, and they never put them on display. But museums aren’t for displays; moa bones are irreplaceable, and need to be somewhere they can be looked after for centuries, not flogged off online for a quick buck.

Museums look after our natural and cultural heritage. They’re archives of objects, libraries of shells and shoes, research institutes devoted to the study of things. Millions of things. We sometimes forget what they do, because our experience is what we see on a rainy Sunday afternoon. But museums are much more than that.

(A version of this appeared in New Zealand Geographic 158, July–August 2019)

A digital strategy for a small museum

These recommendations were developed after meeting with Otautau Museum, Southland, on April 24, 2019, but they’re applicable to any small heritage institution with limited staff and budget. The examples here are for an imaginary museum, the Staveley Historical Museum, with a director, part-time registrar, and various volunteers who write labels, blog, register objects, host school groups, and give tours.

Mission statement

A museum needs to have a clear mission statement that includes a responsibility to make its collections as accessible as possible to its stakeholders. In many cases the stakeholders will be the owners of the collection (likely the community) and those who fund it (national funding bodies or regional government). If collections have already been paid for by the public, they should be made public and usable for whatever purpose the stakeholders desire. The museum’s job is to safeguard the physical objects, not the images and information.

Website

It is vital the museum has a web presence. Most stakeholders and interested parties will not be able to physically visit a regional museum. The constituency of even a small museum is global. Even a single web page is sufficient to outline the museum’s history, holdings, copyright policy, and of course location and contact information.

The best solution for a small museum is a hosting service such as squarespace.com, which costs $220–$300 per year, and often offers email and domain name services as part of a bundle. It’s also possible to use a cheaper web host and install a free website service like wordpress.org, but this requires more IT skill. Whatever solution is chosen, the site should be easily editable, with staff and volunteers able to be assigned logins and editing privileges over different sections as needed.

Domain

The museum needs to register a domain name such as staveleymuseum.nz. A .com or .co.nz extension implies the museum is a business; a .org might be more appropriate, but .nz domains are best. Domain name registration is about $40/year if not covered by a hosting service.

Email

Professional organisations need multiple email addresses; at least director@staveleymuseum.nz and info@staveleymuseum.nz. Email addresses are often offered as part of a hosting bundle, and can redirect to other addresses such as gmail. It’s important that email is archived and available to future staffers, and thus that professional and personal email accounts are kept separate.

Copyright policy

In a nutshell, under New Zealand copyright law any creative work is copyrighted for 50 years after the death of its creator. Anyone who commissions a creative work owns its copyright, unless other arrangements were made. With a few exceptions, there is no “fair use” provision in NZ law: anyone wanting to use a copyrighted work for any purpose needs to get permission. A variety of Creative Commons licenses offer an alternative to this all-rights-reserved copyright, allowing a copyright holder to make works freely available on a “pre-approved” basis under certain conditions (such as always giving credit when they’re used).

The ability to share and use works in the collection, especially photographs, is a critical part of a museum’s mission, so everybody involved, from the entire board who set policy to the front of house staff who deal with visitor photography. The museum should have clear copyright policies, stated on their website for a) works they’ve created and b) works in the collection.

If a museum is publicly-funded, graphics and photographs (which I’m calling “works”) that it creates should be made available under a free open license, such as Creative Commons Attribution, for anyone to use for any purpose. The public have paid for these works, so they should be allowed to have them. Having a collection of images of the museum and its people freely available online also makes it as easy as possible for media and visitors to talk about and share the museum experience.

Works in the collection will fall into three basic categories.

  1. Works with “no known copyright” (the NZ equivalent of “public domain”): mostly photographs taken pre-1944, or where the created died more than 50 years ago. These are no longer copyrighted to anyone, certainly not the museum. The museum cannot license them under any conditions, because you have to own a copyright to license something. Just scanning a photograph does not create a new copyrighted work – although this hasn’t been tested under NZ law, it’s the assumption the large heritage organisations here make. Therefore works in this category should be made available freely under a “no known copyright” license, which in Creative Commons terms is CC0 or public domain. Anyone can use them for any purpose. The museum can indicate they would like to be credited as the source of course.
  2. Works where the museum was given the copyright as well as the work. This is uncommon, as both museums and donors often don’t realise that giving someone a physical copy of a work, such as a print or negatives, is not the same as signing over the copyright. If possible, talk through these conditions with donors, pointing out that if copyright is not assigned the museum will have to negotiate with representatives of the donor for the next 50 years or more every time a photo is used. One of the requirements of a collection being given to a publicly-funded institution to preserve in perpetuity is that the public have access to and use of collection images, so these works should be released under an open licence, such as CC Attribution or CC Attribution Share-Alike. (If donors are not happy with this, they’re of course welcome to set up and staff a private museum to look after their image collection!)
  3. Works that are still in copyright. The problem here is that often the copyright holder is unclear. Copyrights usually pass to the beneficiary of a will when the copyright holder dies, or are purchased along with other assets when a business goes bankrupt. For the next 50 years, someone still has to approve use of those images, but it can be almost impossible to know who. The museum needs to do its best to track down copyright holders, and ideally arrange a copyright donation, but if this attempt is fruitless the works are considered “orphaned”. It is perfectly possible for a museum to share and use orphaned works with a clear statement that the copyright holder is unknown and they welcome information on who it might be; if the owner come forward, they can negotiate licensing terms or donation, but this will be quite rare, and in the meantime the work will be available to the public. A good copyright policy for a museum is “open by default”: all its works will be made as freely available as possible, and the museum credited where possible, unless other conditions apply. For example, the copyright might belong to someone else, the donor imposed conditions of access, or the photos might be culturally sensitive and require permission from the relevant iwi or whanau.

Collections online

A small museum with an “open by default” policy has a responsibility to make images of its collections available online to its stakeholders, and it’s wise to post as much information online as possible to cater for potential visitors or interested parties in NZ and overseas. There is a common misconception that collections online deter visitors. The opposite is true: people will come to see a real object that they’ve only seen pictures of online, and widely-distributed collection images will attract visitors who might never have known of the museum’s existence.

Collection photographs should be as high a quality as possible, and usable in print, websites, education, and the media. Scale bars and colour swatches should be kept to one side, to be cropped out as required. Backgrounds should be white or light-coloured, and smooth and even in tone. Lighting should be excellent: cheap LED lights are easily available on Ali Express, as are backdrops, diffusion boxes (sold for photographing jewellery), tripods, and camera remotes. A DSLR camera with good depth of field is ideal, but even high-end compact cameras can give excellent results if set to a small aperture with long exposure times, good lighting, and a remote shutter. Decent camera equipment and in training for staff and volunteers is money well spent.

There are several tools available to make online galleries of collections. When these are being chosen, the following criteria are important:

  1. Cost: The service should ideally be free. Time spent manually creating records is also a cost.
  2. Licensing: It should be possible to state a default open licence such as CC-BY, and adjust the licence for public domain or photos used with permission. The service should never add its own license to the work.
  3. Downloads: Downloading images at a number of different resolutions should be easy.
  4. Integration with collection management system: When a new object is photographed and registered, it should automatically be available online if its record shows a compatible license.
  5. Unlimited number of objects displayable.
  6. Easily-tailored fields that display appropriate collection information equally well for pinned insects and farm machinery.

Commons

Wikimedia Commons is the free, openly-licensed image library that supports Wikipedia pages. It’s also an excellent tool for sharing image collections online, used by museums large and small. It meets five of the six criteria above, but does not automatically integrate with a CMS; image uploads can be performed in bulk by exporting collection records as a spreadsheet and using an upload tool like Pattypan.

The great advantage of Commons is discoverability. Not only can images used on Wikipedia pages, they’ll be preferentially indexed in Google image searches and in the previews that accompany most standard Google searches.

One thing to note: Commons is hosted in the USA, so uses US rather than NZ copyright law. The main differences are that in the US copyright lasts for 70 years after death, not 50, and that images from 1923 or before are in the public domain. This means a museum might own a photo taken in 1933 that’s not copyrighted in NZ, but still in copyright overseas. If the museum owned that copyright, it could release it into Commons under an open license; if someone else did, and it was less that 70 years after their death, the museum would have to organise a copyright release, or just skip the image.

Wikipedia

It makes a lot of sense for a small museum to be engaging with Wikipedia and creating or improving articles. Wikipedia is a hugely influential image source – the fifth-most-visited website and near the top of most Google searches. Any can edit a Wikipedia article, and the sheer number of collaborating volunteer editors keeps articles quite accurate and speeds up fact-checking and error-correction.

Rather than adding basic factual information to the museum’s own website, staff should be improving the Wikipedia coverage instead, and adding the museum’s historical photos and collection images via Wikimedia Commons. Any work done here is a far better time investment, and will reach vastly more people; a good Wikipedia article can be read by 1000 or more people a day, far more than might visit the museum in person or read its publications.

Good articles for Staveley Museum to improve would be Staveley, New Zealand, other regional settlements like Mount Somers, Springburn, and Ruapuna, the historic building Ross Cottage, historic photos for the lime kilns article, and fossil species from the local limestone. One thing the museum could not do is create or improve an article about itself – that has to be left to other editors because of conflict of interest rules.

Wikidata, Wikisource

These are also projects relevant to small museums but will be dealt with in future posts.

Why engage with Wikipedia?

Moa bone over 1000 years old conveniently labelled with 1938 typography

I’m currently a Wikipedian in Residence at Auckland Museum, and have spent the last few weeks explaining to people why museums and other heritage organisations in New Zealand need to take Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons seriously.

Mission

Part of every museum’s mission is to maximise audience access to its information and share its collections with its community. (There’s nothing in most museum mission statements about driving traffic to the website!) So a museum should be looking at the most effective, efficient means to do that, whether it’s on their own website or someone else’s.

Impact

Wikipedia is the fifth-most-visited website in the world. Popular articles will get thousands or tens of thousands of unique readers a day. Wikipedia exists in nearly 300 languages and is a major information source for anyone visiting NZ, even tourists from Iceland. Its content is used by Google and Siri and AI projects; edits appear in Google search results in a few minutes.

It dwarfs every museum’s web presence. (Plus it’s far easier to find information on Wikipedia than most museum websites.) So there’s a powerful incentive for a museum to engage. But for the carrot there’s a stick: if an institution ignores Wikipedia, other institutions won’t, and their information and collections will become the iconic images representing New Zealand worldwide.

Efficiency

Improving Wikipedia is very cheap; it’s far more cost-effective than a museum writing its own content from scratch, in terms of impact per hour of staff time, and much of the heavy lifting will be done by volunteers, for free. The hosting costs are zero and mistakes can be corrected instantly. The content is regularly improved, corrected, and updated, and has a far greater life expectancy than a museum’s own web content, some of which is deleted after just a few years (or the institution has a website makeover and breaks all its URLs, which is much the same thing). Wikipedia has been around for 17 years, and its content is durable, backed up, and is shared and duplicated widely.

Prattkeeping in the Moa Gallery

Wikipedia content is freely available under an open license to be repurposed and used in a museum’s Collections Online database, as links from its website, and in-gallery digital content – no need to reinvent the wheel.

So there’s a good case for diverting some of the writing and web content effort already going on into Wikipedia, either directly or by supporting a group of community volunteer editors. The institution can recruit people to happily share its stories and images, who – I’ll mention it again – will do all this work for free.

Audiences

Wikipedia’s articles top Google rankings, and their text is shown as a preview on Google searches. So Wikipedia is where museum audiences are getting their information: to ignore Wikipedia is to ignore them. A museum’s audience is global, and this is a great way to engage with them: volunteers from all over the world are keen to help if you meet them halfway, by making authoritative information openly available able to be referenced.

Citing its publications and research in Wikipedia allows the museum to connect with specialists and researchers, and by working with Wikimedia projects a museum moves from being a one-way authority feeding out knowledge to engaging with multiple audiences and building new relationships.

Brand of trustworthy authority

Content in Wikipedia is trusted; a museum having its images and research prominently displayed there likewise makes it a trusted source of knowledge. Museums are used to having that respect and authority automatically, so realising that things have changed can take some getting used to.

Wikipedia is global. By engaging with it a New Zealand museum can overcome geography and position itself as an organisation of international importance, part of a global network of open knowledge institutions.

Website and collections online visibility

Blosyropus spinosus, Auckland Museum AMNZ49737, CC-BY 4.0

A museum should get its images into Wikipedia. If captions are written correctly, images can link to the museum’s Wikipedia page, which includes a website link; and anyone clicking though to the image in Commons can go directly to the Collections Online record. Although this isn’t the goal, it will increase website traffic, which will keep the people who care about that sort of thing happy.

Wikipedia images will be shared and reused, because they have to be released under an open license, usually Creative Commons with the Attribution proviso (CC BY). The “BY” means the museum will be credited every time the image is used. Encouraging widespread free use of the museum’s images and content, most effectively via Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons, increases the museum’s visibility and creates enthusiastic brand ambassadors. It’s true: there are editors like Ambrosia10 who tirelessly promote Auckland Museum because of its generosity in using a CC BY license.

Openness as a strategy

The objections to CC BY licenses tend to come from institutions who’ve historically charged for people to reproduce their images.

First, it’s important to note that this is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Using Wikimedia Commons allows museums plenty of control: they can release lower resolution images for sharing, clearly state what people can and can’t do with them, and give the exact wording, including a link, to use when crediting the institution.

Collecting box to raise money for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Auckland Museum 1965.78.863, CC BY 4.0

Also, locking away collections costs. Charging for access to content often doesn’t make much money when the administration costs are subtracted. An institution that wants to restrict the reuse of its images has to be prepared to hound copyright violators, or its terms and conditions are a joke. Threatening letters from its lawyers is both expensive and not a particularly good look for a publicly-funded institution.

The hidden, and often forgotten, cost of closed content is turning away the community who just want to use the collections. The collections they own and pay the museum to look after. Museums have a bad record of copyfraud: taking publicly-owned out-of-copyright resources, slapping a copyright symbol on them, and selling the result back to the community as a postcard or book.

Open CC0 or CC BY collection access is the way institutions are going worldwide: the Reichsmuseum, the Met overseas, Auckland Museum and Landcare in New Zealand.

Conclusion

Some institutions see a Wikipedian as a someone to help the marketing department fix the institution’s Wiki page. But that’s not really taking Wikipedia seriously. Wikipedia, not its website, is the face of a museum. But it’s also the way people can find its collections, and benefit from its expertise. In New Zealand, museums are well behind in taking advantage of this, and over the next year I hope I can help some of them catch up.

Museum Myopia

The Museums Australasia conference, MA 16, is happening right now in Auckland, and I’m not there, although three of my colleagues are. It’s a typical large museum/gallery conference, with inspiring keynote speakers and parallel streams, and participants from museums large and small in both Australia and New Zealand.

IMG_1908What’s odd is that a major part of the museum sector in both countries has been excluded. In today’s session I counted 54 speakers. Every single talk was on cultural history, art, indigenous culture: the humanities. There were no presentations at all by scientists or about natural history.

That’s surprising, because natural history collections and research are a major part of museums in New Zealand and Australia. These institutions hold millions of specimens and dozens of curators, collection managers, and researchers. Many of them were founded as natural history or geology collections, by directors who were scientists and believed that understanding the natural world was part of a museum’s core mission. Today, with climate change and an ongoing biodiversity crisis, the research they do and the collections they hold are more important than ever.

Why were there no scientists presenting at MA 16 today? Anyone would think museums didn’t do natural history.

No doubt there are plenty of reasons the organisers could offer. Scientists don’t go to these sorts of conferences. Humanities people like to hear from other humanities people. Scientists only want to talk about science. Scientists don’t put themselves forward to speak or run plenaries (perhaps they’re shy). Scientists aren’t interdisciplinary enough; they should act more like humanities people. If these sound familiar, they’re the same excuses rolled out to explain why there aren’t women speaking at a conference.

IMG_2665

Some of this is obliviousness and insularity. Some of it, though, is the asymmetry identified by C. P. Snow in The Two Cultures. It’s the idea that a grounding in the humanities is sufficient to be a well-rounded “cultured” person, but that understanding science is an esoteric unnecessary specialisation. This manifests in the museum sector as someone curating an exhibit on, say, insects (almost always characterised as “bugs” [sic]) despite having no background in entomology or even science. But hey, how hard could it be? Natural history exhibits are for children, aren’t they?

Slide03Slide04Imagine if someone with a geology degree, perhaps an MSc in the stratigraphy of Devonian trilobites from Canada, was hired to curate a show on Victorian wedding ceremonies or Aboriginal artworks. There’d be an uproar; and rightly so. Not having any background in such a nuanced and complex field means the exhibition could end up wildly oversimplified, or even full of awful mistakes. But the reverse happens all the time: museum professionals with Arts degrees are curating galleries (or managing collections) of snails, birds, and butterflies. This seems to be perfectly acceptable.

It looks like one of the five concurrent sessions on Wednesday has a couple of science speakers, but that’s about it. It’s really not good enough. The conversations at MA 16 today were about the battle between colonial and indigenous presentations of stories, about which group of people should have their worldview acknowledged. And yet this scope is so shortsighted, and so humanocentric, encompassing just a few thousand years. The story of the universe is physics, geology, life; people are such a very small part of that, yet we seem to think the conversation is all about us.

A Day in the Life of a Natural History Curator

I’ve been working at a smallish provincial museum for two years now, one of a dozen staff. People outside the museum profession (or hoping to enter it) sometimes wonder what a curator’s job entails, so here’s an account of a typical day.


06:00 Up, thanks to my ruthless internal clock. Check Twitter, news, and emails while still in my dressing gown. Sometimes I reply, but people who are obviously clearing their In tray at 07:30 are depressing.

08:20 Bike to work, only five minutes away. The joys of living in a small city.

08:30 More battling against the tide of emails. Once I adhered to the doctrine of Inbox Zero. No longer.

IMG_7656We’re sending out some mounted birds and moa bones as a short-term display elsewhere, responding to a loan request. I’ve made a shortlist of the specimens we could use, most of which need to be properly registered, photographed, and condition-reported. Two of them are huia, which are extinct and quite valuable. One of us will have to accompany the loan and install them in secure museum cases so there’s never a moment when they’re unsupervised. Then I check the cases everything’s supposed to go in and discover there’s no way the birds and bones I’ve sorted out will fit. Back to the drawing board.

10:30 Phone call: someone has turned up at the front desk with a mysterious insect. Now that it’s summer, I’m getting identifications of this sort about once a day, usually garden bugs, spiders, fossils, or things discovered on the beach. The visitor presents me with a small brightly-coloured insect wrapped in plastic, and he wants to know if it eats kiwifruit vines. I promise to get back to him. I remember seeing something like this in a Facebook group devoted to bug identification, find it, and double check in Andrew Crowe’s book to confirm. It’s a lichen bag moth, an Australian import. The larvae spend their lives in a bag they make themselves, eating lichen (not kiwifruit), and eventually hatch out as adults that live just a few hours – long enough to mate. The females are flightless and look a bit like brightly-coloured beetles. While calling the visitor back, I reflexively clean up the moth’s Wikipedia page and add a reference. Then I pin it for the collection, and log the “visitor interaction” in a Filemaker database for our stats.

Moa bone over 1000 years old conveniently labelled with 1938 typography

Moa bone over 1000 years old conveniently labelled with 1938 typography

12:00 Just before lunch I meet up with the organiser of the Whanganui Science Forum. There’s a talk at the museum next week by a visiting Massey professor, on poisons in the environment, and I need to publicise it via Twitter and Facebook; I maintain the Museum’s Twitter account, help with the Facebook page, and sporadically feed Instagram with odd museum-related objects.

During lunchtime I have to take my new bike round for a checkup, as the pedals keep falling apart. While they switch out new pedals I try lunch at the Indian place round the corner, and find out why you don’t order the Indian Pizza lunch special.

13:00 Finished checking a case full of bones from the Makirikiri moa excavation of the 1930s, when the Museum recovered thousands of moa bones from a farm swamp a few miles upriver. Part of my job is to register, photograph, and display the entire collection in visible storage in its own dedicated gallery. I discovered that some suspicious-looking bones I was about to register were in fact from a horse, which must have fallen or been dumped in the swamp some time after the moa met their demise. To be sure, I checked them against Google image search, which is an excellent anatomy manual, and the mounted horse skeleton we happen to have on display at the moment.

Prattkeeping in the Moa Gallery

Prattkeeping in the Moa Gallery

15:00 A meeting at the Department of Conservation offices for Friends of Gordon Park, a community conservation group looking after a local forest remnant. I want to do a collaborative research project with an Auckland researcher on the occurrence of Mecodema beetles in the remaining fragments of forest around Whanganui. Chatting with DOC about collecting permits on reserves gives bad news; the permit-processing backlog is currently four months, so I doubt I’ll be doing any collecting before next spring. Ah well. Perhaps I can find some forest on private land that won’t need a permit.

Tweets over the course of the day: celebrating Hector Day, a discussion with the Cawthron Institute on whether river restoration is so great if it’s just for nasty introduced trout, the awful comments posted on the newly-available TVNZ documentary Ghosts of Gondwana, a possible title for the new Indiana Jones movie (Indiana Jones and the Interminable Festschrift), the flag referendum, and the unbearable sogginess of Indian Pizza.

16:15 Flip through some other projects: another loan request, valuing the moa collection for insurance purposes, drafts of new Collection and Documentation policies for the natural history collection, and more emails.

17:30 Biked home in the rain, checking at the PO box to see if Monday’s Film Society movie had arrived yet (no; so much for overnight delivery). I’m on the committee of the Film Society, and handle the projection; movies screen IMG_2110at the Museum’s lecture theatre, downstairs from my office, which makes setup convenient.

19:30 After dinner, I bake granola, and correspond with Nicola Toki about this week’s Critter of the Week segment on the radio. Nicola picks a different endangered and uncharismatic species to talk about each week, and I make sure the Wikipedia page is spruced up and informative. Sometimes this involves writing a new article from scratch, but this week’s critter is the longfin eel, which is great, because the Wikipedia page for longfins is pretty good and only needs a little tidying up. I suggested Izatha caustopa, Chevron skink, and Pimelea actea as future Critters for Nicola. I add a news-story reference to the Hutton’s Shearwater page, and some nice photos supplied by DOC to the Powelliphanta article.

21:00 It’s Hector Day – Sir James Hector’s birthday – which reminds me I was supposed to write a review of Simon Nathan’s new Hector biography months ago. Refresh my memory by going through the Te Ara bio. Took the book off the shelf, flick through, make a couple of edits to his Wikipedia page instead.

21:45 Remember, at the last minute, that tomorrow I’m rostered on to supply the staff Thursday afternoon tea, so hurriedly whip up a tray of fly cemetaries. While they’re baking, Twitter and more emails. And so, eventually, to bed.


That’s my day: a mixture of curation, collection management, outreach, identification, exhibition, volunteer work, with research, reading the literature, and collecting mostly happening in my spare time. Pretty typical for a small museum with a limited budget. But if you’re ever in Whanganui, be sure to come and say hi. My office is right in the moa gallery, so you can tap on the window and I’ll wave back, in much the same way museum specimens don’t.

Dead Language, Living Names

latinbird.png Latin for Birdwatchers
Roger Lederer and Carol Burr
Allen & Unwin, 2014
9781760110642

Recently I helped fill a display case at the Museum with native birds of the Whanganui area, and we were preparing labels, which is not as easy as you’d think. For example, which of several English names should you use (Waxeye, Silvereye, or White-eye)? Māori names also vary from place to place – Bellbirds are both korimako and makomako. But when I mentioned including the Latin name on each label, I could sense the resistance from the non-scientists on the team, and stopped to ponder where that came from.

Why use names in an obscure language like Latin? Centuries ago, Latin was the universal language of scholarship, spoken by natural historians and philosophers across Europe no matter what their mother tongue was. Animals and plants would be referred to by a short description in Latin, but you would never know if you and someone from a distant country were both talking about exactly the same bird or tree. In 1735 the Swede Carl von Linné – known in Latin as Carolus Linnaeus – invented a system of binomial naming, in which everything got a precise name with just two parts, a genus and a species (like Homo sapiens). By sticking to those Latin binomials, everybody could be sure they were talking about the same thing.

Harrier Hawk

The Harrier Hawk is in the genus Circus, which refers to a Roman circus or racecourse (not one with clowns), and describes the way these birds circle endlessly looking for prey. | GaryNZ / Flickr

Nearly 300 years later, Latin names are still useful. Ninox novaeseelandiae got its scientific name back in 1788; in New Zealand it’s called a Morepork or ruru, but in Australia the same species is a Boobook Owl. A White Heron or kōtuku in Aotearoa is an Eastern Great Egret in Australia, but Ardea modesta in both places. A widespread bird or fish can have a dozen different common names but only one Latin name.

Scientific names are always written in italics, by the way, and the genus – the first part – always starts with a capital letter, while the species never does. The Wanganui Chronicle is one of the few newspapers that gets this right, but even so I’ve blogged a fairly-exhaustive Latin names style guide for journalists.

This book by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr, which I’ve been dipping into for the last few weeks, sounds like the most boring in the world: Latin for Birdwatchers. But it’s actually fascinating for someone who loves birds but might not have taken Latin in school to unpack familiar names and see how they make sense. The Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) is a little bird (todus) with a big bill (Greek ramphos). There are seven different species all called Bellbirds, but the New Zealand one, Anthornis melanura, has its habits and distinctive features captured in its name: a flower-bird (anthus ornis) with a black (melas) tail (ours). Fantails belong to the genus Rhipidura: literally, fan (Greek rhipis) tail (oura). The New Zealand species is Rhipidura fuliginosa, or “sooty fantail” from the Latin fuligo or soot, because a small percentage of New Zealand fantails (especially in the South Island) are coal black.

Latin names aren’t just handy labels: they’re classifications, and designed to tell a story about the ancestry and relatedness of species. The common Blackbird (Turdus melura) is in the same genus as – and thus a close cousin of – the Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), but also the American Robin (Turdus migratorius). American Robins are named after the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) but are actually a type of thrush, as you can see from the name.

kereru300

The kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) is especially well-named: a hemiphage is a “half-eater”, a description of the way this bird can swallow fruit as large as karaka berries, which then pass through its body half-digested and are deposited somewhere else to germinate and grow. | digitaltrails / Flickr

New Zealand Robins or toutouwai aren’t robins either, but close cousins of Tomtits or miromiro: both are in the genus Petroica. Our robin, Petroica longipes, is named for its habit of perching on the forest floor (petra, rock, and oikos, home) and its big feet (longus, long, and pes, foot).

Latin names aren’t perfect, of course. You can find at least five different renderings of “New Zealand” in Latin: novaezelandiae, novaezealandiae, novaeseelandiae, novae-zealandiae, and novae-zelandiae. Because names are classifications as well as labels, they can change as we get a better understanding of a group’s evolutionary history. Recently the many species of the popular native shrub Hebe were reclassified into the genus Veronica, and nurseries had to rewrite all their catalogues. And sometimes Latin names just don’t make any sense: the Vermiculated Fishing Owl is in the genus Scotopelia, which means “pigeon of darkness” (what?). But for all their flaws, Latin names are full of stories, charmingly brought out by this book’s many sidebars and anecdotes; these, plus the abundant 19th century illustrations, would make it a great gift for a bird lover.

(A version of this appeared in the Wanganui Chronicle, 14 Feb 2015)

Making a Better Conference

Next week I’m going to a two-day professional meeting, a chance for all my peers to get together and compare notes, discuss burning questions in our field, network and arrange collaborations for the coming year, and so forth.

At least in theory. whale1 In practice, it’s:

  1. Two solid days of PowerPoint presentations, most just ten minutes long
  2. Forty-five minutes for lunch, two 15-minute tea breaks, and a generous 10-minute “stretch break/discussion time” each day, rather like primary school kids get to stop them fidgeting
  3. No informal get-togethers, poster session, dinner, or excursions at all
  4. A few “panel discussions” but with only one participant listed

I’m getting a bit weary of this model of conference organisation: packing as many unrelated one-way infodumps into the day as possible so everybody can get credit from their institution for presenting. In most cases they’re not sharing any actual new research or findings, it’s just a status update. Despite most of the presenters being curators of visual arts, I predict there will be lots of bullet-pointed text.

I’ll be talking about our moa project for ten minutes, just enough time to mention the 3D-scanning Kickstarter we’ll be doing but not enough time to answer more than one question about it. I’m at the end of a block of ten-minute talks which will inevitably go over time, so will have to choose between dropping the questions or stealing people’s tea break. (Telling people to keep to time in these things is useless; it requires the MC to actually cut people off before they’ve finished, which never happens, does it?)

Please, can we just toss this entire mode of professional interaction in the bin and set it on fire? whale2 2 I know it’s easy to come up with suggestions, and good ideas tend to fall apart when subjected to the brutal realities of conference planning. Nevertheless, here are some possibilities:

  • Six-minutes-forty-seconds pechakucha talks would be one way to keep people to time. And you actually have to rehearse for a pechakucha, which would be a nice change. Yes, it’s a bit more stressful, but (horrible statement coming up) people who don’t feel confident enough to give a pechakucha shouldn’t be giving public talks, or rather should be sharing their ideas in some other way.
  • An unconference with no scheduled talks and spontaneously-assembled sessions would be a better alternative for this small group. Everyone says what they want to share, the schedule is put together with Post-It notes or on a Google-doc spreadsheet, and people gravitate to what interests them. Everybody participates.
  • Having a particular goal: in my area, it might be thrashing out a joint statement on the trade in moa bones, collectively developed from discussions as a Google document, with everybody signing their names at the end. For others, it might be developing the initial concept for an app, or brainstorming an object list for a collaborative exhibition, or adding to a tips/trick list for Vernon, our database software. The idea is to produce something tangible at the end.
  • Panel discussions that are actual discussions, where people argue with each other, rather than deliver mini-lectures in parallel. The chairperson should be actively stopping people, inviting contributions from the audience (comments, votes, thrown objects), intervening with questions of their own, and grilling panel members. Even the conventions of a formal debate would be an improvement: yes/no to a stated proposition, time allocated for rebuttal.
  • Half the conference time—no less—devoted to networking, with empty rooms and projectors available for meetings and spontaneous workshops.
  • Adventurous use of Twitter: questions taken from the projected twitterstream, sessions formed in response to questions using the hashtag, Twitter handles first and largest on conference badges.
  • No conference pack stuffed with junky fliers and jellybeans, no comb-bound conference book. The programme should be a dynamic website, viewable on a mobile device (and loaner tablets should be available for people without sufficiently-smart phones).
  • Sketchnoting for every session, by volunteers or even a professional, collected together as a PDF and sent to all the attendees as a memento.
My sketchnotes from Hans-Martin Hinz's talk at ICOM in Auckland.

My sketchnotes from Hans-Matin Hinz’s talk at ICOM in Auckland.

These ideas wouldn’t solve all the problems of the traditional conference format, but in a small meeting, where collaboration is more important than formal presentations, they’d make for a more valuable use of everybody’s time.

How to Use a Blackboard

Thomas Henry Huxley at the blackboard Some old-school teachers shared their wisdom with me, that this dying art might be preserved.

  • Divide the board into sections.
  • Hold the chalk horizontally, so as to avoid squeaking.
  • Use the same colours for headings and subheadings each time.
  • Underline with a squiggly line rather than a straight line (because nobody can draw a straight line).
  • Reserve a section for first appearance of terms and new vocabulary.
  • The blackboard duster makes a useful missile.
  • Chalk, though, is light and tends to veer about when thrown; it might bounce off a desk and fly up a student’s nostril. Theoretically.
  • Erase section by section, so slow scribblers can catch up on copying what you wrote ten minutes ago.
  • Learn the Jedi trick of writing whilst keeping your eyes fixed on the class.
  • Have blackboard monitors or helpers, because kids love erasing and clapping out dusters.
  • Completely colour in a brand-new blackboard with the side of a piece of chalk, then erase normally to “prime” it for use.

Fun fact: chalk is not actually made from chalk rock (calcium carbonate), but from calcium sulfate in its dihydrate form, gypsum. So now you know.


Thanks to Maureen Bell (University of Wollongong) and Alan Hoskin & Gregor Ronald (UCTL, University of Canterbury).