Meetings & Conferences Semantics and Ontologies

UKON 2016: Great North Museum

These are my notes for Dan Gordon’s talk at the UK Ontology Network Meeting on 14 April, 2016.

Dan Gordon is the Keeper of Biology at the Great North Museum. He has about one million objects in his collection, ranging from taxidermy to microscope slides. One problem they face at the museum is that there are 52 million records in the museum, and classification of those objects is very challenging.

The Great North Museum
Source: 14 April 2016

In the Biology Collection, in some ways he starts off better than with the other collections, as there are already many classification systems available (e.g. taxonomic classification). Taxonomy is easier for larger animals, and harder for insects and plants which can be either (or both) small and highly diverse.

There are 40,000 plant specimens in his collection. When new research comes in, rather than re-classifying and moving all of the specimens, he leaves them in their existing system (there are loads of obsolete systems!). One example is a lichen, where you have two completely different organisms living symbiotically (algae and fungus) – here you have two completely different phylogenies, and the position in the system is constantly being revised. Therefore the best way for him to organize things is… Alphabetically!

Another example is dynamos. There are many in the collection, and often relate to different academic discipline, and therefore tend to get organized along those lines. In terms of trying to classify them, their historical use is very important. They store some un-ground lenses for lighthouse lamps, and these are very important for the history of lighthouses and industry in general. There is a system for classifying this kind of industrial object which isn’t univerally used, called the SHICS system, which works a bit like the Dewey decimal system.

There are SHIC numbers for wedding dresses, marriages etc. However they have a dress to store which was worn for a wedding during WWI. Therefore its primary importance is relating to WWI, so in theory you could assign many different SHIC numbers to note its different roles. However, many people tend to choose what they believe is the most important role and assign a number just for that. This tends towards an “incomplete” number of axes of importance.

What about the art collection? There’s Flat Art, 3D Art, etc. In the physical store, everything that’s framed is on racks, and unframed things are in drawers – that’s the primary classification 🙂 . After that, title and artist are important classifications. But what about things like pots, where there are designers, makers, and manufacturers? There are several layers to the cataloguing which are not obvious when you initially get starting classifying.

Please note that this post is merely my notes on the presentation. I may have made mistakes: these notes are not guaranteed to be correct. Unless explicitly stated, they represent neither my opinions nor the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can assume to be mine and not the speaker’s. I’m happy to correct any errors you may spot – just let me know!


The Great North Museum: encouraging collaboration, teaching and outreach

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This week I attended a great two-hour session run by the brand-spanking new Great North Museum (GNM) designed to encourage collaboration between Newcastle University researchers and the GNM. In addition, ideas for using this type of collaboration in the form of outreach to the community (e.g. schoolkids) was welcome. There have already been some useful research collaborations between the university and the museum, and they want to encourage even more.

The GNM was formed from a number of museums (e.g. the Hancock, and the Hatton Gallery) and under the auspices of many different groups including Newcastle University (a full list is available). It opened its doors last week, over the school holidays. I work in the university building that sits just across the street from the GNM: Hancock building, and every time I looked there was a queue stretching down to the road. You can see an example of this on Simon’s Twitpic (pictured above). It has received more than 67,000 visitors in its first week. Congratulations! I have to say that the museum is really impressive from the outside, and looks great on the inside. I haven’t given myself the full tour yet, but I will be doing so soon.

While at the event today, I learned some interesting things about the contents of the GNM, and I thought it might be of general interest. The GNM has over 500,000 items in its collection, of which there is only space for 3,500 to be displayed, even with the revamp of the museums. They have a taxidermist on-site, as they still get roadkill and the occasional other type of animal to prepare for the collection.

Their collection covers a wide array of natural history and archaeology, and includes:

  • birds and bird eggs, including a Great Auk egg
  • an extensive collection of molluscs, including 1000s of type specimens
  • sea slug specimens and figures
  • insects, most of which are stored in their original victorian cabinets
  • an osteology collection which includes moa, great hawks and dodos
  • game heads
  • botany specimens and drawings, including an extensive herbarium with lichens and north-eastern seaweed
  • paleozoology, including a carboniferous tetrapod (crocodile-like amphibian), with predominately local geology with lots of type material, some of which is on display – recent improvements in display cases’ environments now allow this
  • paleobotany including a big fossilized tree trunk, a bunch of specimens from the 1830s and 100s of thin sections of fossils
  • minerals
  • ethnography material, including some original items from Captain Cook
  • Egyptology
  • extensive Roman archaelogy from Hadrian’s Wall
  • prehistoric archaeology
  • Anglo-saxon and medieval collections
  • Greek and Etruscan art and archaeology
  • fine art in the Hatton collections and original Bewick prints and blocks
  • a large archive which includes letters from people like Mary Anning, Richard Owen and Charles Darwin

The oldest item in the archaeology collection is a 11,000-year-old paleolithic flint blade found in the region. There is also a prehistoric gallery at the GNM, and the Hadrian’s Wall gallery is the largest at the GNM. The museum also houses the Shefton collection of about 1,000 Greek and Etruscan items.

In terms of collaboration and outreach, a couple of points came across clearly amongst the case studies and discussions:

  1. The museum can be used to teach biodiversity and conservationism
  2. Using the items in the museum, re-creations of important research can be done (and are being done). For instance, it was museum collections of bird eggs that helped researchers figure out that eggshells were thinning due to DDT ingestion by birds
  3. Collaboration between researchers at the university and the museum can lead to truly interesting work being done. Showcasing university research in the museum, engaging with schools and the wider community, and performing research with the help of the museum are the sorts of things that were discussed.

I like having a museum on my (work) doorstep, and hope to find some way to work with it. Enjoy your visit!