Posted by: henrymcghie | May 21, 2016

‘Climate Control’ events for May

_E3Q8492 lo

Our Climate Control exhibitions are now open, accompanied by LOTS to do. The exhibitions explore the idea that we can’t change the past but we can change the future, give people lots of opportunities to share what matters to them, and to find out 10 ways to make a difference. There’ll be lots more to follow on this, but for now the main thing to let you know is the events that are coming up over the next week or so.

Big Saturday: Rainforest

Saturday 28 May


A day bursting with hands-on craft and art activities for all the family. Find out what life is like in the Rainforest. Discover the incredible diversity of life as you see some of the insects and animals from the Museum’s collection. You can also find out more about some of the Museum’s live animals. Meet experts and discover more about the Vivarium’s conservation work.

The Urban Naturalist

Sunday 29 May


Friendly, practical workshops run by leading naturalists. From wild food-foraging and composting to bird song and insect identification, explore biodiversity on our doorstep. Identification of our native amphibians and an introduction to surveying. Most people think they can identify a common frog…but would you be sure it’s not a common toad? Do you know the difference between a smooth newt and palmate newt and would you confidently be able to identify a great crested newt? This workshop will explain how to identify the five amphibian species which are common in the North West. It will also include a brief overview of the lifecycle of each species, their habitat requirements and how to survey for them. If you know where to look for amphibians they are fairly easy to see, so if you’d like to find these spectacular animals for yourself this event is for you. The workshop will be led by David Orchard who has worked with the conservation of amphibians locally for over 20 years. The Urban Naturalist is part of Museum Meets, The Manchester Museum’s year round programme for adults.

Book online at or phone 0161 275 2648, free, adults


Marvellous Moths

Monday 30 May – Friday 3 June


Be inspired by the story of Manchester’s peppered moth in the Museum’s newly opened Climate Control exhibition, and explore the idea that we can’t change the past but we can change the future.  Join us to create a growing art installation of peppered moths.

Drop-in, free, all ages

Family Friendly Film Screening of Ice Age

Friday 3 June


Enjoy a family friendly film screening of Ice Age to celebrate two of our current exhibitions – Humans in Ancient Britain: Rediscovering Neanderthals and Climate Control. Book online at or phone 0161 275 2648, free, adults


Climate Control Film Festival

Sunday 5 June, Sunday 3 July, Sunday 7 August and Sunday 4 September

Climate has been represented in many different ways in films – join Manchester Museum and the Centre for History Science, Technology and Medicine for a festival of climate control films ranging from the Grapes of Wrath, the Day After Tomorrow, to Frozen and the Island President.

Book online at or phone 0161 275 2648, free, adults


Manchester and the Peppered Moth

Saturday 11 June


Genetics expert Laurence Cook and Head of Collections Henry McGhie will talk about the evolution of the Peppered Moth and its strong links to Manchester’s history and development. Part of the Museum’s Climate Control Season.

Book online at or phone 0161 275 2648, free, adults

Posted by: henrymcghie | April 30, 2016

Dear diary

With just over a week to go until the opening of Climate Control, most of the week was spent making many, many, many (and a few more ‘many’s) preparations for this. Here are just a few.

We are very lucky to be having Dame Vivienne Westwood to open the exhibitions, along with the Universty’s President Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell. Ahead of the launch and private view on 10th May, Vivienne is going to talk with students on the topic of ‘Intellectuals Unite’. We put the tickets to attend on Event Brite and these were snapped up within two hours. We’ll review the numbers next week, and open up any remaining spaces for people to attend. Through the week I’ve worked a lot with our Marketing Officer, Alia Ullah, on press releases, lots of plans for a great launch event, and much more besides.

We have used Climate Control to build some great partnerships and relationships. Central to these is a partnership with Manchester Climate Change Agency and Tyndall Manchester, to help contribute to the aims of Manchester A Certain Future, the city’s strategy and action plan around climate change. We have been working with the amazing Arup on an animation as a taster for our exhibitions and ongoing engagement programme around climate change. The animation is looking great and will hopefully be ready for the launch. We met programmers at Arup who, like us, had got really quite obsessed with details about the features of the buildings in the animation. We’ve worked hard to make sure the information it contains is correct, drawing on historical statistics of population and carbon dioxide production.

Our exhibitions will be brought to life by volunteers and visitor services assistants. I met with a group of keen volunteers on Tuesday, to go through the aims of the exhibitions. We are interested in disrupting the narrative of hopelessness, and focusing our attentions on what people want to do and can do in their day to day lives, if they want to. This isn’t about us telling people what they should do, but giving them opportunities to share what matters to them. This is really important as we see the Museum as being one of those unusual spaces in society where people can connect with the bigger picture, and with other people. I am very far past the point of museums being about people simply looking at objects in cases, and that will be reflected in the exhibitions. More to follow on these.

On Thursday, I took part in a tour with assessors from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council for a competition on Excellence With Impact, looking at how the University has embedded impact through its activities. We are one of 10 finalists. With only a short time for a tour, we squeezed in just a few of the ways that we’ve embedded academic engagement opportunities into the Museum. These include Honorary Academic Curator and Student Curator schemes I set up a few years ago, which aim to build and recognise relationships between academic, students and the Museum. We looked at our galleries, which we have redeveloped since 2010 to better connect with our ambitions of promoting understanding between cultures and working towards a sustainable world. I spoke about the latter as we walked through Living Worlds, still my favourite gallery. We saw second year BSc Biology students giving their short ‘lightning talks’ in the Study. (A few months ago we briefed students on our projects around climate change and conservation and they researched objects in the Museum and linked them to the topics. This is one of a number of ways we have involved students in our programmes, and the talks looked absolutely fascinating. Rachel Webster, our brilliant Curator of Botany, took on most of the organising of this whole scheme.) After a whistlestop tour of the Vivarium and the space that will be our new brilliant temporary exhibition gallery, we met with students in the Rutherford Room, where Ernest Rutherford worked on atomic structure in the early 1900s.

I was also very happy to have the opportunity to meet with Dr. Hartwig Fischer, the new Director of the British Museum. He visited us on Monday to see what we do and to talk about our ongoing relationships with the BM.

Posted by: henrymcghie | April 17, 2016

Dear diary

Most of the last week was spent on various aspects of our ‘Climate Control’ exhibitions and events, which open at Manchester Museum on the 11th May. These are our main contribution to Manchester’s time as European City of Science. Climate change was a perfect topic for us: everyone has heard something about it, its complicated, it crosses science and society, and relates to each of us and to all of us. Climate change can seem so abstract, so massive, that it can be difficult to relate to. When we’re told that ice sheets are melting and we should switch off the light, the problem and suggested solution seem so different that it’s hard to believe it’s worth trying. The challenge I’ve been working on is how to turn all this into a positive, and find creative ways to connect people with the subject in meaningful ways. On Monday I met with our volunteer co-ordinator to plan objects for a handling table. On Tuesday I had a Skype call with an academic at Nottingham University, Georgina Endfield, as we’ve been putting together a project that captures people’s memories of extreme weather based on sending out postcards. We’ll be having a ‘Climate Exchange’ where the public can have short, focussed discussions on climate change in the broad sense, and I’ve been drumming up interest in this among academics, enthusiasts and students. On Thursday we had a project team meeting, to monitor progress and work through any outstanding challenges, of which there are always some, but to which solutions can usually be worked out. I met with our buyer and assistant buyer to help with developing some items for the shop linked to the exhibitions. On Friday I met with Manchester Climate Change Agency and the Manchester Youth Council at the Town Hall, to make plans for an event linking the Youth Council Assembly with the city’s ‘zero carbon by 2050’ commitment. In among all that there were a million other things and many more emails, to help make the whole thing as good as it can be.


The idea of Yin and Yang, of cause and effect, is important in our exhibitions. The black of coal and oil, and white of snow and ice make for a good contrast.

Posted by: henrymcghie | April 16, 2016

Do Manchester’s parks matter to you?

Manchester has some great parks, providing people with a space to relax or exercise, to spend time with friends or get away from people, to walk the dog, listen to birds, feed the ducks, lots of things. Parks in towns and cities are enormously popular: people made 778 million visits to urban parks in 2014 (according to the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment).

Manchester City Council are currently asking people to tell them what they value about Manchester’s parks. There is a short online survey here. Manchester has launched a new strategy for its development, based around making the city welcoming, attractive, a great place to live in, to work in, and to grow old in. Nature and greenspaces are recognised as being important in this mix: they more people who tell the council the same thing, the more it helps make the case for our parks and greenspaces.


Heaton Park, by Mike Peel

The largest park in Manchester is Heaton Park, in north Manchester, covering 600 acres. There are lots of things to do: golf, a petting zoo, events at the old farm building, various monuments and buildings to see.   There are a string of parks along Oxford Road, including the Whitworth Park, Platt Fields Park and Birchfields Park. These are great green spaces, where you can even see parakeets flying around. Peel Park in Salford, by the Irwell, was one of the first public parks in England, opened in 1846, as was Queens Park in Harpurhey.

Posted by: henrymcghie | April 15, 2016

Voyage to a Russian ghost town in the Arctic

As part of my visit to Spitzbergen last October, we had a trip to Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian mining community about four hours’ sail from Longyearbyen. The scenery was amazing, with the jagged mountains that give Spitzbergen its name on either side of the fjord. The weather was cold (it is the Arctic), with a biting wind. We sailed alongside some coloured cliffs, with the usual repeating fractal shape that you find in the mountains there. On a flatter almost green (there isn’t much green) piece of tundra we saw a herd of the dwarf Reindeer endemic to Svalbard. Some good seabirds flew alongside the boat: an Arctic Skua, a Glaucous Gull, and lots of very dark plumaged (although not quite entirely blue) Fulmars, as well as lots of Kittiwakes.

coloured  cliffs.jpeg

Coloured cliffs on the voyage to Pyramiden

Sailing onward, we stopped in front of the enormous Nordenskjold Glacier. The glacier had a strange blue colour, not at all natural looking, and more like the colour of some kind of kitchen cleaner. It was also very noisy, creaking and groaning, but what was strange was that there wasn’t much disturbance in the sea.

me and glacier.jpeg

It’s me and a glacier

We were all amazed when the captain shouted ‘Polar Bear’. I don’t think any of us quite believed him at first, but sure enough, there was a Polar Bear lying down on the ice, and not very far away. I tried to take a photo of it with my phone, but it didn’t come out (it was directly above the big blue hole at the water’s edge in the photograph below). It didn’t look at all white, in fact it was quite yellow; not quite as yellow as a ferret, but not far off.  It wandered about a bit, and we saw it for at least half an hour. We were very lucky to see the bear, and the captain told us that only about 20% of visitors to Svalbard see one. There are quite a few of them in the islands, with a population of about 1,000 or more, but most of Svalbard is extremely remote.


Nordenskjold Glacier (there’s a Polar Bear above the blue hole)

After the ‘ultimate’ Arctic experiences, my heart sank a little as we approached Pyramiden, which looked like any other heavily industrial plant, with the exception that it was high in the Arctic. The black of the coal was in stark contrast with the various white, greys, blues and greens of the ice and snow, especially against the Nordenskjold Glacier.

pyramiden workings.jpeg

Abandoned Russian mine workings at Pyramiden, note the glacier in the background

The mine was opened by Sweden in 1910 and sold to the Soviet Union in 1927. A largely self-supporting community of around 1,000 people lived at the site, and we saw buildings where they had pigs and chickens. Mining ceased in 1998 and the community was swiftly moved out. Pyramiden has since become a tourist destination, and is an extremely strange and disconcerting place. There is a fascinating narrative that it was abandoned virtually overnight and that the site is untouched, although we could see that this view needed some qualification as you could see people moving things around to stage photographs. On the whole, it was a very strange and voyeuristic experience, as we walked through the empty sports centre and a dark concert hall. The narrative was one of loss, of a way of life that was gone forever, although many of the people who lived there are presumably still living. Pyramiden was like a little piece of communist Russia deposited in the high Arctic, with soviet blocks of flats, a community centre and leisure centre, and the most northerly bust of Lenin in the world.

pyramiden monument.jpeg

Pyramiden monument- note the guide in Russian military uniform


Lenin statue looking out towards the Nordenskjold Glacier

Pyramiden was like many industrial heritage sites, in that the site’s apparent cleanliness belies what life must have been like when the site was active. Black coal and coal dust could be seen in places, but far greater quantities would have been visible when the mine was active. Nature is starting to reclaim the site, and we were shown a window that had been broken by a Polar Bear in the winter. A Purple Sandpiper fed at the edge of a pool while the guide told us the story of the site. We saw a beautiful Arctic Fox, called a Polar Fox by Norwegians, but I felt sad that it had a black mark on its back from crawling under the blackened pipes, and that people wanted to get as close as they possibly could to take photographs of it.

arctic fox.jpeg

Polar Fox at Pyramiden

On one block, there were clear signs that nature was reclaiming the site: a thick layer of guano on stairs below ledges where seabirds (presumably Kittiwakes) were nesting on the deserted buildings.

pyramiden bird muck.jpeg

Thick layer of bird droppings beneath seabird nests, Pyramiden

Pyramiden made a very strong impact on me, making me question some of my own beliefs about the Arctic. The contrast between the wonderful wild places surrounding Pyramiden, and the abandoned eyesore of the site itself, reminded me of the feeling when you go for a walk in the hills in Britain and find a fire circle that someone has left before you, except the feeling was magnified many times. What the Arctic is ‘for’ will become increasingly contested as it becomes more accessible, but I was extremely grateful to have had the  experience to think about what a range of different Arctic narratives might be.



Posted by: henrymcghie | April 10, 2016

Dear diary

I had a very varied week, spending Monday at Martin Mere with first year BSc zoology students from the University of Manchester. This was part of a field course where they visit local wildlife sites to develop scientific skills. Martin Mere is a Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust site near Ormskirk in Lancashire. The mere was the largest lake in England (although very shallow) before it was drained in the 18th century. It is a major reserve for a variety of Whooper Swans and Pinkfoot Geese (from Iceland), as well as many species of ducks. In the summer the shallow lakes, reed beds and adjacent farmland are home to many Black-headed Gulls, Marsh Harriers, Lapwings and Snipe. We had a presentation from a member of staff on the history of the site, and how it was drained in the 18th century, before being restored to some extent towards the end of the 20th century.

We showed the students how to identify birds, then had a practice at this in the hides. We walked through the terrific world wildfowl collection, seeing many interesting species. I love the Hooded Mergansers (colourful American ducks), and these were in full display. Students spent the afternoon on projects, making behavioural observations of Chilean and Greater Flamingos, Tree Sparrows (they were a bit hard to see) and the mergansers. The students will contribute to the Museum’s thematic collecting project by sending me photos and thoughts on the themes of migration and water, which connected very well with Martin Mere.

Tuesday and Wednesday were spent in a workshop at London Zoo led by the Public Interest Research Centre, as part of the Framing Nature project. This was excellent, and helped us explore the stories that we tell about nature in our organisations, assumptions we hold, and the importance of using language and imagery that helps inspire people, rather than depress them.

Thursday and Friday were more typical, involving lots of work on Climate Control, which is shaping up to be fantastic. We are into the production phase of this now, with technicians making plinths and cases for the specimens that will go on display. We have commissioned a great sphere of artificial Peppered Moths to hang in our Living Worlds gallery, and fine-tuned some of the details of the moths this week. We have now pretty well signed off the marketing posters for the exhibition, again based on the story of the Peppered Moth.

I wrote an article for the Museums Journal on my views on what museums ‘should’ be doing about climate change, and wrote another piece for the Museums and Climate Change network, which I’ve signed the Museum up to.

As a result of Climate Control, I’m exploring the idea of a project around Manchester and Salford’s nature. I had thought of revisiting the collections we have from the river Irwell, which separates Manchester and Salford, as the basis of the project. I had to rethink this as it turns out we have almost nothing from the river, presumably because it was so terribly polluted in the 19th and 20th centuries before being cleaned up. I’m interested in finding partners who can contribute images and stories about the river, which we’ll archive. The idea came from reading a book called ‘The Dark River’ by Cyril Bracegirdle (what a great name!), a history of the Irwell.

Posted by: henrymcghie | April 9, 2016

Eskimo Curlew: A Sad Anniversary and a Warning to Heed

I was talking with a colleague about ‘The Last of the Curlews’, an animation that it turns out we both saw in the mid 1970s when we were about 8-9 years old. The film had a tremendous effect on both of us- it would be interesting to hear from other people with the same experience. I saw comments on YouTube (you used to be able to watch it there), and it turns out there are a group of people, of which I’m one, who must have seen it at the same time and the same age. This was powerful stuff, and the experience has always stayed with me.

Prairie Birder

“At sunset, September 4, 1963, a lone Eskimo curlew, flying at the head of a flock of shore birds, was shot down by a hunter on the coast of Barbados….

“On finding that the victim was not the familiar whimbrel, the hunters gave the large, buff-gray bird with a long, curving bill to Capt. Maurice B. Hutt…who…placed the bird in his deepfreeze.” It was discovered some 17 months later by James Bond (M.W. Bond 1965:314, 316).
(From the US Geological Survey/Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center website)

*  *  *  *

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the last confirmed live sighting of an Eskimo Curlew. The last Eskimo Curlew on record, a single bird, was seen and fatally shot in Barbados on September 4, 1963. The last confirmed live sighting in Canada is even older, in 1932, in Labrador. According to a BSC newsletter from last month, “It…

View original post 2,153 more words

Wildlife is on the frontline of climate change. This blog features news and views from the RSPB – Europe’s largest conservation organisation – on the latest in climate science and politics.

Source: What can we do about climate change? – Climate change – Our work – The RSPB Community

Last year we evaluated the impact of 30 Days Wild for The Wildlife Trusts. The results were excellent and the resulting journal paper has just been published – so you can read the full 5000 words h…

Source: 30 Days Wild: How Connection to Nature Brings Happiness and Health

Posted by: henrymcghie | April 5, 2016

A visit to the Arctic

I was very privileged to be invited to take part in a workshop in Spitzbergen last October. The workshop was organised by Tromso Museum and Tromso University (funded by the Norwegian Research Council), to explore ideas of how the Arctic is related to ideas of gender. My contribution was based on work I’d done for researching a book on 19th century bird collectors and ornithologists. Virtually all of these were men, as shooting was a manly activity (ie. one mainly done by men). We were an interdisciplinary group, which made for very rewarding discussion, even if it wasn’t always easy to find common language and approaches. Spitzbergen was the star of the experience. I flew from the UK and stayed overnight in Tromso, gateway to the Norwegian Arctic. A quick walk around Tromso early in the morning found lots (c.1,000) of Common Eider in large rafts among the surf in the fjord in front of the hotel. There was a particularly fine statue of Roald Amundsen there too, looking very distinguished. Other birds I saw included Hooded Crows, which fed on the shore on sea urchins; I saw Great Tits and a White Wagtail. The next day I flew to Spitzbergen, about three hours’ flight. This was about the roughest landing I’ve ever had: people were crossing themselves, as we were hurled about by the updrafts. The landscape was completely amazing, if very strange. No green to be seen. Strangely shaped mountains, like a pyramid with a good chunk of the point removed, to give a flat table-top shape. The other extraordinary thing was that there was a repeating fractal shape in the mountains: they were self-similar, meaning that they looked the same close up as they did at a distance. This wasn’t entirely tied to the bedding of the rock, but I don’t know what caused it. Longyearbyen, where we stayed, was set up as a mining town in the early 20th century. Coal was still extracted and used to power the town’s heating plant. We weren’t allowed to venture from the town, as there are Polar Bears all over the islands. The town was small, about 500-1000 people, who are not supposed to be born or to die on the islands, but to move to the mainland. We stayed in abandoned coal miners’ cabins. There weren’t many birds around, but some Purple Sandpipers were still around, as were some Barnacle, which were very tame and fed near us, and Pink-footed Geese which flew overhead. I saw a beautiful Arctic Fox running along near houses early one morning; apparently many of the locals feed them.


longyearbyen cliffs.jpeg

View from the cabins where we stayed, showing a fractal image in the mountain

longyearbyen cliffs 2.jpeg

Another view from the cabins, after the snow

polar bear in shop.jpeg

There were lots of warnings about Polar Bears


svalbard museum.jpeg

Svalbard Museum had a fantastic exhibition that had a lot of free space around it

Older Posts »



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 449 other followers