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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
“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)
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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…
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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.
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…
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.
We have a great exhibition opening at Manchester Museum (part of the University of Manchester) on Friday. Take me back to Manchester is an exhibition of illustrations by Oliver East, a Manchester-based artist. Last April, Oliver recreated the walk of Maharajah, an Asian Elephant, and his keeper Lorenzo Lawrence from Edinburgh to Manchester in 1872, when Maharajah moved to live in the famous Belle Vue Zoo in Gorton. After the walk, Oliver spent months drawing a full-length comic combining Maharajah’s story with Oliver’s own recollections of his experiences walking 200-odd miles in all weathers and environments. The exhibition has been specially prepared for the Museum, and Oliver has been busy preparing the illustrations for the last few weeks. His illustrations will be shown within the Victorian display cases that surround Maharajah’s skeleton in our Manchester Gallery. Oliver’s comic is now on sale, and looks great.
‘Take me back to Manchester’ was co-commissioned by Manchester Museum and the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Oliver presented some of his work at the festival last October
- Art and Design
- National Curriculum
- Natural history
- Nature and Me
- Rocks and Minerals