It’s easy to think that you can only engage with nature by going outside, or at least looking out the window. But as a former museum man, I’m very keen to encourage the connection between the wildlife you can experience outside, and the learning you can gain with a trip to a museum.
As I was in Derby at the weekend, and as they have recently redeveloped their nature gallery, this seems a good way to combine the two points.
I should start by saying I last visited Derby Museum around five years ago, and pretty much hated it. The displays were hideously old-fashioned and a number of really bad habits had crept into their practice that meant a really bad experience for visitors. So I’m delighted to say the whole place, not just the nature gallery, now feels clean, clear, and professionally operated. There has obviously been a lot of hard work by all the staff. But let’s focus on nature.
Photos throughout were taken on mobile phone, so apologies for blur and shake!
On the way to the gallery you encounter a clever fundraising scheme, ‘buy a bird’. A small donation gets the names you want under a randomly selected little bird.
The gallery draws the eye and feels fresh. If I were feeling hideously critical, I’d say the sense of structure through the space is lacking, but I actually quite like the sense of discovery that comes from having things a little more open. But broadly, you can see rocks and fossils at this end, mammals, birds and insects to the far end.
I’ve spoken before on the Five Ways to Wellbeing, and it’s great to see Derby making use of this idea with cards in the gallery to take away. This helps that connection between outside and in.
They also have really detailed booklets of extra information accompanying the displays, which can then be bought in the shop if you want.
Sometimes modern galleries can be too sparse, but there is no such fear here with a great array of specimens either out in cases, or cleverly mounted in drawers under the main cases.
There is a good mix of material, from the familiar to the more obscure. It’s also good to see Derby taking a leaf from Leeds’ book and mounting their hippo bones (from the time hippos wandered England 100,000 years ago.
There are also some interesting oddities, like the ‘fossil’ bird nest in the centre of this image.
It’s not a true fossil, it’s a souvenir created by ‘petrifactors’ in the 19th Century, people who placed commonplace objects under water that contained high concentrations of dissolved minerals. The minerals then form around the object over a few months, and can be sold to museums and tourists.
Another trap museums can fall into is to hide anything that isn’t an obvious ‘display specimen’ away. But here we see a range of items that museums sometimes back away from, such as eggs and skins. We should be clear however, egg collections are historic and no responsible modern collector would encourage this practice.
It’s also good to see plenty of insects out, and displays like these give the tiniest insight into the astonishing variation in this section of the animal kingdom.
Botany isn’t quite so well served, though a few herbarium specimens are found in some of the drawers.
In the shop, they have drawn out the theme and developed their own merchandise with their volunteers, which is a smart bit of practice.
What I hope is that galleries like this create enthusiasm, especially in families. Such a well-packed gallery should do this and get people interested in what they can see. It would be worth exploring some links to specific local sites (for example The Sanctuary), maybe even tap into the collections to draw that out. But considering where they were a few years back, this is a tremendous platform on which to build.
It’s also worth remembering, before I finish, that the nature stuff doesn’t begin and end with the nature gallery. These were all in the ceramics gallery:
I’d also recommend you read Elle Kirk’s blog about the same gallery as she goes into some really interesting stuff.
A few more specimens: