Learning from the past; improving the present and planning for a more diverse and inclusive future…

This month we’re celebrating Black History Month by profiling the stories of people of African and Caribbean heritage who have contributed to natural history.  

On our website, we’re telling extraordinary stories from the past such as the tale of seventeenth century Surinamese freedman,  Graman Kwasi. A healer, naturalist, and spy he described a medicinal plant to ward off fever and parasites that is still used today.  

We will also feature unique tales of  twenty-first century Black-led endeavours in natural history, including climate change researchers and curators.  Nadine Gabriel is the Museum’s assistant curator of fossil mammals, with a first-class honours in MSci Geology under her belt, Nadine is a lover of field trips, who helps look after the Museum’s 250,000 fossil mammal specimens. 

We’re also running a learning programme exploring the achievements and stories of scientists and contributors of African and Caribbean heritage to our collections, and a new Nature Live Online with Principal Curator Miranda Lowe about the hidden figures in the Natural History Museum’s historic record.   Visit nhm.ac.uk to find out more. 

Last month I interviewed lawyer and human rights champion Shami Chakrabarti for the second of our Diverse Voices staff webinars. These events offer a chance for colleagues to hear from influential change-makers outside NHM who have actively promoted Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and championed social justice. 

Shami took a range of questions from human rights to social media and I was particularly interested by what she had to say about the important societal role of museums in a time of economic and social crisis.  

And today, in our third Diverse Voices, we heard from Director of the V&A East, Gus Casely-Hayford in conversation with NHM Director-designate, Doug Gurr 

We continue to strive to make sure that everyone who works at and visits the NHM feels valued and included. That’s why we’ve made changes to our current staff survey so we can get a fuller picture including how gender and non-gender identity and socio-economic background are represented at NHM. 

The replies to the questionnaire are confidential and go directly to the external provider of the survey so no member of staff is identified personally. 

On 10 October our Director of HR Alison Lodge will be interviewing me and my Executive Board colleagues on the theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day which is ‘mental health for all’. The interview will be livestreamed to colleagues. 

We’ve been updating our website to ensure it’s as accessible as possible. Among the 25 changes we’ve added an icon and accessible label to links that open in a new window, so that all users know what to expect when they click; made sure all the buttons in our navigation menu are labelled so that screen reader users can easily navigate it and ensured alternative text is present for images that need description, and removed decorative images that don’t need to be described. There’s always more to do to keep our digital experiences as accessible as possible, and we will continue to improve. For more information, please read our website accessibility statement

Also, in our determination to optimise onsite inclusion, in October, Dawnosaurs, our programme for neuro-diverse audiences, is holding its first Museum early opening event at South Kensington since lockdown. Such is the popularity of the programme, that within 36 hours of the 900 tickets going live, all were booked out.  

And finally, it is with sadness that I wish to pay tribute to one extremely special man, Pardeep Singh Rai, who very sadly recently died.  Pardeep played an important role in supporting the NHM to evaluate its best practice and innovation for partially sighted and blind audiences.  He was passionate about museums and always ready to provide positive support and a constructive critical voice to access and inclusion programmes. Most recently, his involvement in the Urban Nature Project was invaluable, and before that for the exhibition Life in the Dark. He was also always on the other end of the phone to provide informed and relevant advice to support our inclusive exhibition design process.  

Our best wishes go out to his friends and family as we recognise and celebrate the important and valuable contribution Pardeep so generously and joyfully made to the Natural History Museum.  

Darwin’s Cargoes |Digital Collections Programme

A guest blog by Prof Adrian Lister

HMS Beagle took Charles Darwin on his famous voyage of discovery from 1831-1836. Darwin collected thousands of specimens, many of which survive in the collections of the Museum, but how did these specimens make their way to the UK from remote locations around the world?

In this blog, marking Darwin’s first fossil discovery on 22nd September 1832, Prof Adrian Lister retraces the journey of Darwin’s Cargoes. Continue reading “Darwin’s Cargoes |Digital Collections Programme”

Reopening, Reviewing and Recruiting – keeping up the pace on Diversity and Inclusion

Since my last blog on 13 July we have continued to make progress on diversity and inclusion actions.  

It was with great excitement that we were able to reopen the museum to the public on Wednesday 5 August.  To add to the occasion, we worked with Nova which provides support for many of the communities in our borough who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and invited some local families ahead of the opening for a series of special visits.  Early in the morning of opening day, Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, came to visit and enjoyed talking with the families and happily posed for selfies with the children.  And, we were also thrilled to hear the Mayor refer to the NHM as ‘the nation’s gem’ saying how we had ‘worked our socks off’ to open the Museum. 

As a museum committed to inclusiveness and diversity, we will continue to ensure that everyone is welcome and have organised dedicated slots for local community groups to come in over the summer holidays for a special visit. 

The Review of Names and Representation across our buildings and website is making good progress.  Angela Saini, British science journalist and author of Superior and The Return of Race Science has joined the steering group to give an external perspective.  The Review aims to report findings and early recommendations to our Executive Board towards the end of the summer.  Ready for opening, we placed notices in some of our gallery spaces and on the website to let visitors know about this work. 

We have begun changing how we recruit, select and develop the careers of people who work for NHM.  We will advertise roles internally only, wherever possible, giving more opportunities for career development and promotions.   We will also review job descriptions and person specifications for every new role recruited to ensure they are inclusive, and so we do not have any unnecessary barriers to applying. This might include, for example, removing the requirement for having a degree in roles which do not strictly need this qualification.  

Over the Autumn we will introduce Inclusive Leadership training for all senior managers as well as other learning and development initiatives for all staff.   Specifically, Gendered Intelligence will be coming back to run sessions for senior managers. We will be providing an intranet page for all staff with resources to help educate themselves in diversity and inclusion matters. E-learning courses and reading materials will be available for everyone to use. 

We are pleased that our Gender Pay Gap report for 19/20 shows a considerable reduction in the median gender pay gap from 13.1% to 6% in 2020.  This is a result of actions to address the gender imbalance in the more senior positions in the Museum. Our recently created Management Board has an equal gender split and we have been working hard to encourage flexible working in our more senior roles wherever possible. Maintaining a gender balance will be an important part of our workforce diversity and inclusion action plan. 

We’re planning to improve our data collection to give us better information about our staff profile. This will help us to promote diversity internally and ensure our processes and fair and inclusive. It will also help us understand our ethnicity pay gap and how best to address it. 

Earlier this month we held the first of our Diverse Voices events for colleagues with Director Mike Dixon in conversation with one of our recently appointed Trustees, Harris Bokhari. Harris is a well-known Diversity champion who recently wrote about the barriers to museums and galleries minority groups can experience. We were delighted that he was able to share his experience with us and we look forward to meeting Shami Chakrabarti, Human Rights lawyer, former Director of Liberty, former Chancellor of Essex University and former Shadow Attorney General as our next guest speaker. 

And finally, it is a delight to end with congratulations to Alex Bond, NHM senior curator in charge of birds, who was awarded the Royal Society’s Athena Prize with Beth Montague-Hellen for developing the LGBTQ+STEM initiative to boost the visibility of, and create a network for, LGBTQ+ people working in STEM fields, including establishing the first online directory of LGBTQ+ STEM professionals and the annual LGBTQ+ STEMinar conference.   And I leave the last word to Alex:  LGBTQ+ employees are often subject to discrimination and unwelcoming work environments. To combat this, we have empowered individual STEM professionals by giving them the resources to improve diversity and inclusion at their own institutions, whilst giving them confidence to be their full selves professionally.

Thanks for taking part in the Plant Club BioBlitz! | Citizen Science

A big thank you to everyone who took part in the Plant Club BioBlitz! Over two weeks we made 725 observations of 313 species across the UK. We had observations from car parks in Portsmouth, pavements in Leeds and London, people’s gardens, and even clifftops in Cornwall and the Outer Hebrides. You can view all our observations on iNaturalist.

Continue reading “Thanks for taking part in the Plant Club BioBlitz! | Citizen Science”

Recreating Wildlife Photographer of the Year online – part 2 – key site features

With the platform and CSS approach covered in Part 1 (Link), I’ll go into detail about some of the key technical features and functionality we built out for the site (www.nhm.ac.uk/wpy). We’ll cover the core image gallery solution with it’s API filtering and Flickr style image layout. Then jump into the lazy loading and next gen image format topics, before finally covering the page routing architecture of this API-driven site.

Continue reading “Recreating Wildlife Photographer of the Year online – part 2 – key site features”

Discover plants near you with the Plant Club BioBlitz!

Sometimes plants can be easy to miss. But when we take time to look a little closer, we see how exciting and important they really are!  

As part of the Museum’s Family Festival, the Citizen Science Team invite you to join the Plant Club virtual BioBlitz, to take a closer look at plants and discover which grow near you. Look closely at the shapes and textures of leaves and flowers and use the resources on our BioBlitz webpage to help you to tell different plants apart. 

Continue reading “Discover plants near you with the Plant Club BioBlitz!”

Recreating Wildlife Photographer of the Year online – part 1 – Introduction and technical approach

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/wpy

Introduction

I’ve been involved with the Wildlife Photographer of the Year brand for as long as I’ve been at the Natural History Museum, which let’s just say is a long time. I’m still very proud and privileged to work on such important and inspirational content.

This series of posts is about the recent re-platform of our ageing WPY microsite. I’ll start by setting the scene for how the project came about and then dive into some of the technical decisions. Later on I’ll talk about some of the site’s key features and what we’ve learnt with the tech and working towards a more modern API-driven web architecture. It’s been great having something so rewarding to work and focus on during these strange and difficult times in lock-down. 

Continue reading “Recreating Wildlife Photographer of the Year online – part 1 – Introduction and technical approach”

Museum collections used to show our oceans are more acidic than 140 years ago| Curator of Micropaleontology

This pre-lockdown publication from the Micropaleontology team at the Museum has received a lot of press and social media attention. CT scans of the calcareous shells of microscopic plankton called Foraminifera have shown that modern examples can be considerably thinner than their equivalents recovered by the ground breaking Challenger Expedition of the 1870s. We argue this thinning is due to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and subsequently more acidic oceans.

Read on to find out about the methods used and why this discovery is so significant for the future of our oceans and planet.

CT scans Foraminifera
CT scans of microscopic planktonic Foraminifera showing differences in wall thickness; historical specimens are on the bottom row and the warm colours indicate considerably thicker shells.

Continue reading “Museum collections used to show our oceans are more acidic than 140 years ago| Curator of Micropaleontology”

Banks in Britain: the British plant collections of Joseph Banks | Botanical Collections

The private herbarium of the eminent eighteenth-century naturalist and explorer Sir Joseph Banks became one of the founding collections of the Natural History Museum’s herbarium following his death 200 years ago this year, in 1820.

The legacy of Banks’s voyages overseas – and particularly the Endeavour voyage with James Cook – has been well documented. This post, by Fred Rumsey, looks at the British specimens Banks collected, or was gifted, and considers the significance of those collections today.

Continue reading “Banks in Britain: the British plant collections of Joseph Banks | Botanical Collections”

What we are doing to tackle racism and promote diversity and inclusion

I joined the NHM two years ago, passionate about the natural world and all its diversity, yet fearful for its future as a result of the catastrophic loss of species and their habitats due to human action. And the past two years have not been a disappointment. I have found a passionate community at the NHM highly committed to protecting and promoting diversity in nature – it’s at the heart of our vision of a world where people and planet thrive.

Yet, the vastly increased awareness raised through the Black Lives Matter movement following the brutal murder of George Floyd has highlighted the stark inequalities across our society. It’s been a wake-up call that we haven’t been focussed enough on diversity for people at our Museum. If we are truly ‘for people and planet’ then we need to be.

And that this has happened when we are in the midst of a global pandemic which is widening further the inequality gap, drives home the point even more starkly.

Museums are places for society to come together, reflect, debate and discuss, but they can only be so if they are inclusive of the society within which they sit. We have a lot of work to do in diversifying our workforce, audiences, and the way we understand and talk about our collection until that is true.

Continue reading “What we are doing to tackle racism and promote diversity and inclusion”