Posted by: henrymcghie | September 26, 2014

Nature in museums: curiosity and wonder

Nature's Library Cabinet Curiosities

Arthur Gordon has written about the ‘return to wonder': that reawakening childlike joy and wonder at the everyday is a powerful tonic to apathy, disenchantment and powerlessness. Rachel Carson, one of the leading environmental thinkers of the 20th century, believed the same thing, explored in ‘The Sense of Wonder’. She wrote how “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full or wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later year…the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

― Rachel CarsonThe Sense of Wonder

If museums can awaken a childlike joy and wonder, then surely natural history collections and displays have a role to play in this. Our museums are filled with amazing things and hundreds of thousands of people come to our museum to wonder at them each year. Some of the objects and specimens are hundreds of years old, and it’s great shame that we don’t know more about what people thought of each of them over time. How many millions of people must have looked at the skeleton of a Sperm Whale which has hung in the same place since 1898? The world doesn’t stand still, and just because specimens have had a long history, the way people think about them doesn’t necessarily do the same. That’s one of the reasons why we have to redevelop our exhibitions and galleries. Natural objects have a very powerful attraction for many people: they remind us that we are part of something bigger, something mysterious, and something that we barely understand. No matter how much we know about Walruses, for example (taking the example of the Walrus skull in the picture above), we can scarcely imagine what a Walrus’s world must be like: the internal forces that draw it to migrate, what it feels like under the Arctic sun hauled out in a herd on the edge of a remote island, how it communicates and understands the world of other Walruses through underground clicks and whistles, how it finds food and thrives in the cold Arctic waters.

The photo above shows the ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’, one of the displays in our Nature’s Library gallery. We are trying to find ways to connect people with nature through our collections. Promoting wonder and curiosity seem a good place to start. To quote Rachel Carson again:

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
― Rachel CarsonThe Sense of Wonder

I’d be interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on this.


Hello- As part of a programme of support for natural history museums in the North West of England, I’ve produced some notes on messages that are effective in communicating nature, and that promote people to get involved in nature. These are based on some pieces of work that have been very influential to me and which have a real bearing on museums. These include work on values towards nature by Stephen Kellert of Yale University, advice from London-based communications organisations Futerra on messages to support action, Common Cause’s work on values and frames in relation to nature, and work on Nature Connectedness, notably by the University of Derby Nature Connectedness Research Group. I hope you find them useful- feel free to make use of them, and spread the word.

Best wishes, Henry

Advocacy toolkit 2 Effective nature messages


Posted by: henrymcghie | August 13, 2014

Advocating for natural history in museums- some tools to help

8659869529_80825dea8dOne of the things I’m involved in at the moment is a programme to support museums with natural history collections in the North West of England. Museum curators will be meeting periodically to share ideas, and generally to support one another. By working together we can bring new ideas to our museums, making the best use of collections, providing great services for the public and for wider society, and making a difference through our work. We will be producing a toolkit of materials to help people advocate for the power and value of natural history collections. The first part of the toolkit is now ready for use- feel free to share it and use it. i’d be really interested to hear if people find this useful, or what they would find useful.

Advocacy toolkit 1 General notes on advocacy

Posted by: henrymcghie | July 29, 2014

Mysterious Birds of Paradise

bird of paradiseI’ve been enjoying myself this morning, looking at some of the Museum’s mysterious bird specimens. One name I hadn’t come across before is for a Bird of Paradise, named ‘Diphyllodes guilielmi tertii’. This is actually a hybrid between two species, the Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise and the King Bird-of-Paradise; the hybrid origin of this bird was only realised in the 1920s. The form goes by the charming name of ‘the Exquisite Little King’ or the King of Holland’s Bird-of-Paradise’. The Manchester Museum specimen has the King’s red colouration, but the yellow cape of the Magnificent Bird-of-Paradise, as well as its green metallic breast plate of feathers. These hybrids are rare occurrences: there were only 25 known in museums, now there are 26. The bird has been in the collection here since 1902. The feathers on the bird’s back are especially amazing, looking like they are made from very thin pieces of glass.

Posted by: henrymcghie | June 23, 2014

University of Derby study on nature connectedness



one of my collaborators, Ryan Lumber, a PhD student at the University of Derby, is looking for volunteers to take part in a survey about attitudes to nature. Participants have to be 18 or over, and there is a chance to enter a £50 voucher prize draw. The survey takes 30 minutes to complete. More details can be found at:


Posted by: henrymcghie | June 17, 2014

Nature’s Beauty and an Ecology of Mind

Originally posted on Finding Nature:

A couple of recent research papers have considered the role of nature’s beauty in nature connectedness and the associated benefits of well-being and pro-social behaviour. The first looked at how a connection to nature is related to well-being. In two studies the authors found that the positive relationship between a connection with nature and satisfaction with life was only significant for those people attuned and engaged with nature’s beauty. Or in other words, people who experience positive emotion when seeing beauty in nature have higher well-being.

The second research article focused on another benefit of nature – pro-social, or helping behaviours such as empathy and generosity. Once again these positives were found to be linked to nature’s beauty. First, in those people disposed to perceive beauty in nature, and then people exposed to beautiful images of nature and finally people exposed to more beautiful plants in a room.

Nature's Beauty

Nature’s Beauty

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Hello, I’m organising a two-day meeting, to be held at Manchester Museum on 18-19 June 2015. The meeting is titled ‘Refloating the Ark: Connecting the public and scientists with natural history museums’. This will explore how natural history museums can contribute towards environmental sustainability, by engaging effectively with the public and the scientific research community.

Call for presentations

I am looking for suggestions for presentations and workshops relating to the themes outlined below. Any format of session will be considered. Sessions should be 20–30 minutes in length; panel discussions and workshops may be longer. Presentations may draw on case studies, critical evaluations, innovations and projects from any sector. Suggestions from organisations of any size and groups of organisations are welcomed.


This meeting is underwritten by the belief that natural history museums can make a real difference, both to people’s lives and to the conservation of species, habitats and the wider environment. The intention of the meeting is to support high-quality public engagement with nature and environmental sustainability through museums, and to promote the use of natural history collections for scientific research and environmental monitoring. It is aimed at museum workers, environmental educators, conservationists, scientific researchers, amateur naturalists, funders and the biological recording community.


Day 1: Engaging the public with environmental sustainability in natural history museums

At a time when many species and habitats are at risk, there are widespread concerns about how people make sense of and engage with the environment and environmental issues.  There is relatively little information available on how museums can contribute to this situation.

  • How can natural history museums effectively connect audiences with nature and environmental issues, and what can they learn from other sectors?
  • How can natural history museums promote pro-environmental behaviour and what responsibilities do they have to do so?
  • How can natural history museums and collections support citizen science and lifelong learning about nature?
  • What parts can art, science and literature play in museums to promote environmental awareness and pro-environmental behaviour?


Day 2: Connecting natural history collections with scientific research

Many natural history collections are disconnected from scientific research, meaning that collections that could usefully contribute to species and habitat conservation are ‘beneath the radar’.

  • How can museums increase the visibility of collections on a shoestring?
  • What future do collections have as scientific infrastructure?
  • How can museums tap into experts—both amateur and professional?
  • How can museums connect with biological recording and environmental monitoring (lessons and opportunities)?
  • How can partnerships support museums to increase the use of their collections?
  • How can museums benefit from research funding—and where is it?

A wrap-up session at the end of each day will explore the subject of ‘Natural history museums: where do we want to head to next?’ in terms of the themes of the two days.

Please send an outline/summary of your proposal, including which themes it connects with, an outline of content and a suggested format to Henry McGhie at by 1st October 2014. Please get in touch if you have any questions.



I was on holiday in Orkney recently, so was really surprised to find bird bones from Orkney in the Museum collection- today- among the collection of the late Derek Yalden. Derek had many interests, one of which the development of the bird and mammal fauna of Britain. He had an enormous skeleton collection, including some material from archaeological sites; this collection was donated to the Museum in 2013 and is now part of the zoology collections. Among this is a box of material from Skara Brae, a Neolithic village, and from the Knap of Howar on Papa Westray.

Skara Brae and nearby monuments are a World Heritage Site, described by Historic Scotland in the following terms:

“The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation.”

Among the bones in the Museum are those of many birds still found in Orkney: Short-eared Owl (which flies by day), Skua, Puffin and Gannet. There are also others that have gone from Orkney- several bones of eagles (probably White-tailed Eagle), extinguished as a British bird in the early 20th century before being reintroduced in the late 20th century.

These kinds of collection help my imagination run away with itself, about what kinds of relationships people had with birds, how they thought of their seasonal appearances and disappearances, and what stories they told about them. Fierce-eyed owls, ferocious Skuas and skydiving Gannets are impressive to look at today, and probably were to people thousands of years ago.



Posted by: henrymcghie | June 9, 2014

Fed by the Forest, Life Makes Sense

Originally posted on Finding Nature:

This is a new blog and there are things to catch-up with, so this post is about two related research papers I tweeted earlier in the year. A more appropriate title would have been, ‘Meaning in Life and Connection to Nature’, but I felt that was a rather challenging title for a first post!

As it’s the first post let’s try to quickly cover some basics. As you’re already reading this, it’s likely you know about the state of nature and need for people to have a greater connection to nature, as being connected to the natural world is associated with greater pro-environmental behaviour and our own well-being. Nature connectedness is good for nature and good for you!

So how do we get people more connected, or reconnected to nature? That’s the main focus of my research just now, looking at the interventions and activities that can engage people with nature…

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Posted by: henrymcghie | June 9, 2014

Nature access versus nature connection

Originally posted on Finding Nature:

Urban environments shape and define us more and more. From a past embedded in the natural world, our innate design skills, driven by an imaginative mind, have allowed us to settle and farm the land. Then, further advances saw people leave the fields and villages for a contrasting life in towns and cities where most of us now live. This growing disconnection from nature can be linked to the wider state of nature and research has also shown a health gap between people living in rural and urban locations. It has been suggested that the reason for this difference is down to environmental factors such as pollution and unhealthy behaviours. However, recent studies have found a strong link between health and the availability and access to green spaces.

It seems that access to more urban parks is a priority. However, a recent research paper by Lin and colleagues suggests that…

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