Posted by: henrymcghie | February 9, 2013

Museums, taxidermy, sustainability, well-being, and a Short-eared Owl

Hello- I’ve written a couple of things about museums recently that I wanted to share with you, and we have a number of events coming up soon too. Our approach boils down to a couple of things:

-Lots of people are interested in natural history in museums.

-Natural history in museums can often seem old-fashioned and not connected to issues today.

-Sustainability can seem depressing and boring.

-People need information and support, not more depressing mass-media stories of the environment, which is presented as a series of issues.

In Manchester Museum, we’ve been working on capitalising on the interest in natural history and trying to help visitors find activities that would interest them to follow up on. We use natural history displays to grab visitors’ attention, notably the Living Worlds gallery, which encourages people to reflect on their own attitudes to nature. This is complemented by events and programmes that encourage people to get involved with nature and sustainability, in whatever way they might be interested in. We’ve been focusing on encouraging people to see the value of small actions. This approach has been very successful for us, and for sustainability, and I hope it continues to be so.

This last year, we’ve been running a wildlife recording course with the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit as part of the HLF-funded Grey to Green project. This trains volunteers to become wildlife recorders, who submit records of plants and animals they’ve seen to a database. This information helps ecologists understand how the distribution of plants and animals is changing, and to ensure that development takes account of the presence of rare species. We’ve had a fantastic allotment in front of the Museum, looked after by volunteers and co-ordinated by Anna Bunney, Curator of Public Programmes. We’ll be opening the Nature’s Library gallery at the end of April, where visitors can explore the diversity of the natural world through a selection of specimens from the Museum’s enormous natural history collection.

We currently have a display of woven plant fibres strung round a tree in front of the Museum, produced by local people who took part in events that used nature to promote health and well-being. These are accompanied by poems produced on large leaf-shaped signs. We are nearly finished a fantastic project called ‘Nature and Me’, funded by the HLF. Two artist-practitioners (Kate Day and Naomi Kendrick) worked with 42 local people with a wide range of attitudes to nature. The views and ideas of participants were translated into short films by students at Stockport College. I’ve seen the films and they are absolutely fantastic, and some are very inspiring. These will be made publicly available soon.

At the heart of all this is promoting the value of nature to people. We articulated this when we were developing Living Worlds that, whether people value nature for it’s own sake or for the benefit it can bring to their personal well-being, nature has so much to offer.


ps. I was out birdwatching today on the Wirral at Parkgate, looking over the saltmarshes. I got out of the car and there was a beautiful Short-eared Owl sitting right in front of me on a post. It was preening a lot, as it had got wet in the rain. The haze cleared and it looked very golden, with an almost luminous white face, and very piercing yellow eyes. Then it flew around over the saltmarsh hunting, very, very beautiful on long, stiff wings. There was a Peregrine sitting on a stump not far off: an enormous one, with a very dark head and quite brownish on the cheeks and chest, probably not a fully adult bird. There was another one much further off, a fully adult bird, with a very white chest.



  1. I wish you good luck with your PROMOTION OF THE VALUE OF NATURE, Henry. Personally, I think the main key is EDUCATION. Mainly, the education a person receives as a child (parents and teachers have a lot to say on this topic), and that is where that PROMOTION should be directed mainly. It´s a difficult task but very important one. And everyone should work on it as best as they can. Kindest regards!!

    • Hello Jose Carlos. Thank you for taking the time to reply. I completely agree with you that people’s connections with nature are greatly influenced by their experiences as a child. When we did the ‘Nature and Me’ films project, one thing that was clear was that most people who had a strong connection with nature as adults had the same connection when they were children. As far as education goes, I agree again that it’s very important, but I have a nagging concern that there are lots of people who know lots of things about nature and sustainability, but either don’t feel able to do anything about them, or don’t think it’s worth bothering. Maybe knowing things isn’t enough. Maybe people need to feel that they can make a difference- that there’s a point to trying. Maybe the educational aspect could focus on the things that people can actually do, rather than about things they have no control of.

      Very best wishes,

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