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.  

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.

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”

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”

The pandemic is a pivotal moment to raise awareness of biodiversity loss

Biodiversity loss is low on the public agenda, but the pandemic could help us reassess our relationship with the natural world,  writes Clare Matterson, the Museum’s Director of Engagement.

A newfound appreciation for weeds in the cracks of city pavements, enjoying melodious birdsong in place of the booming traffic and marvelling at quiet clear blue skies have become daily lockdown news.

Amidst the tragedy of Covid-19, nature has thrived and as we have slowed down in lockdown its variety has caught our eye.

Today is International Day For Biological Diversity, created by the United Nations 27 years ago to raise awareness of biodiversity issues and celebrate that variety.

Since then scientists have warned us about the catastrophic loss of species and their habitat because of our actions.

We need that variety of life on earth for food, medicines and clean water, never mind a spiritual boost in tough times.

Continue reading “The pandemic is a pivotal moment to raise awareness of biodiversity loss”

Highlights from City Nature Challenge 2020 | Citizen Science

Speckled wood butterfly

What were your highlights from the City Nature Challenge this year? Although I missed taking part in a public BioBlitz at the Natural History Museum, I enjoyed my own mini BioBlitz in my little London garden – making 99 observations and managing to identify 80 different species. My favourite find was a tiny Bethylid wasp which was the first one I have ever seen. These wasps are just a few millimetres long and are known as ‘flat wasps’ because of their squashed appearance. They are parasitoids of beetle larvae or moth caterpillars.

Bethylidae wasp
The Bethylid wasp I found, too tiny to do justice with my camera. Photograph by VJ Burton.

Continue reading “Highlights from City Nature Challenge 2020 | Citizen Science”

Creating a new promotional banner component for the launch of the Anthropocene hub

A homepage takeover component, created for the launch of the Anthropocene hub

The Museum’s new strategy to 2031 has been announced, with a call to arms to take action against the current environmental crisis facing our planet.

In the lead up to the announcement, the Connect product team in the Digital Media department were tasked with a brief: to deliver an impactful “takeover” of the Museum’s homepage which grabbed the attention of the user while not only conveying a sense that urgent action was needed, but delivering a message of hope for the planet’s future, not despair.

Continue reading “Creating a new promotional banner component for the launch of the Anthropocene hub”

Fossil ice found in Earth’s starting material |Curator of Petrology

High-resolution SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) investigations, along with high-resolution CT imaging of a 4.6 billion-year-old meteorite have revealed “fossilised” ice, showing for the first time direct evidence that when early asteroids formed they incorporated frozen water into their matrix.  This has allowed Dr Epifanio Vaccaro, Curator of Petrology at the Natural History Museum, along with colleagues in Japan, to create a model of how the asteroids grew and the planets formed, including our own planet Earth.

earth2-globe-browse
Picture of Earth credit NASA

The presence of ice in some asteroids it has been known for a long time, this has been hinted at by the observed alterations caused by the water to the minerals making up the asteroids known as aqueous alterations. However, the direct evidence of the presence of ice was never been observed before. The discovery was made by Dr Epifanio Vaccaro, Curator of Petrology at the Museum, along with a team of Japanese researchers.

Continue reading to find out more about this important discovery.

Continue reading “Fossil ice found in Earth’s starting material |Curator of Petrology”

Scaling Up Digitisation | Digital Collections Programme

A guest blog by Robyn Crowther

1) scale insects
Digitised microscope slides from the Museum’s Coccoidea collection

The Digital Collections Programme is digitising the Museum’s scale insect collection. This collection is estimated to contain 100,000 microscope slides, making it the biggest slide digitisation project we’ve undertaken so far. Continue reading “Scaling Up Digitisation | Digital Collections Programme”