John Ellerman Foundation Project (SWANS Project)

South West Area Natural Sciences Collections Project

swans_v4-3-web-versionSouth West Museum Development Programme (SWMDP) is working in partnership with Bristol Museum, Galleries and Archives (BMGA) following their recent successful application for funding from the John Ellerman Foundation. Bristol Museums Development Trust, secured £85,425 to unlock the potential of natural science curators and natural science collections of regional and international significance within the museum over a period of 18 months with the project finishing in May 2017. The benefits of this funding will extend beyond BMGA and the core project partners to have a wider impact on museum professionals and volunteers working with natural sciences collections across the south west region. The John Ellerman funding will provide vital new opportunities by increasing the skills, knowledge, public engagement, research and recognition of the value of natural science collections held across the region.

BMGA will work with in partnership with Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute, the University of Bristol Geology Collection and Royal Cornwall Museum; all of whom host the remaining natural sciences curators in the region. The partnership will explore new digital platforms, map natural science skills across the region, develop a regional network for skills sharing and co-developing regional projects and improve specialist knowledge in challenging areas such as the legal and ethical positions on collecting specimens.

SWMDP is working with around 25 museums and heritage organisations beyond the partnership. We have undertaken research with museums across the region to learn more about the natural sciences collections in the south west and engagement with these collections.  This research also sought to identify key skills in the region and establish skills gaps. Findings from the research have formed the foundation of a strategic plan of prioritised training and resources to enable regional natural sciences curators and non-specialists with responsibility for natural sciences collections to preserve and share collections as well increase knowledge and skills.

If you hold a natural sciences collection and would like to know more information about the project and how you and your organisation can benefit by participating, please do get in touch at [email protected]

*Please note that this project is open to participants in the south west regardless of Accreditation status or Local Authority Agreement.

**Image: Carcass preparation workshop. Specimens donated by the public. In accordance with policy BMAG will only accept specimens killed by accident such as road kill or a window hit.



Research Highlights and full SWaNS Report
  • The most popular natural sciences specimens held in museums and heritage organisations in the south west were fossils with 88.9% of responding organisations holding this type of collection. Other types of specimens which featured highly included botany at 70.4% and pinned insects and taxidermy jointly at 63.0%.
  • 44.4% stated that their natural sciences collections are not used and remain in storage; however for 48.1% these collections formed an important part of education sessions and outreach programmes.
  • Of cause for concern is 48.0% of respondents were unsure or stated that their natural sciences collections were ‘at risk’.
  • Only 37.0% of respondents indicated that they have a ‘basic understanding of natural sciences collections’, however 89.9% of those completing the survey feel that they feel confident that they can work with natural sciences collections despite lack of experience, formal training or qualifications.
  • Key training areas of need include preventative conservation, collections care – storage and display. The least defined need was determined as ‘Copyright and images’.

To read the full report please see: SWaNS Regional Report 2016

Regional Training Programme

Introduction to working with Natural Sciences Collections’. This session was delivered twice in the region during April 2016.

A NATSca ‘Law and Ethics in Natural Sciences’ seminar was held on 15 June 2016.

In-depth sessions on working with Natural Sciences collections, focusing on different aspects as expressed by the sector. These sessions were delivered in early Spring 2017.

  • 17 January 2017, Natural Sciences Collections: Pests and Environment, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol
  • 21 February 2017, Handling, Packing and Storage of Natural Sciences Collections, Council House (Civic Centre), Plymouth
  • 14 March 2017, Cleaning of Natural Sciences Collections, South West Heritage Trust, Taunton
  • 29 March 2017, Displaying Natural Sciences Specimens and Collections, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter
  • 27 April 2017, Working with Entomology Collections, Torquay Museum, Torquay
Project Partner Activity: Developing the Region’s Natural Sciences Curators

As part of the project the core natural sciences curators in the region will benefit from learning new skills already identified as ‘lost’ from the region due to general personnel movement, progression and cuts to the sector. External experts will train the natural history curators (the project partners) in preparing biological and geological specimens. New skills acquired will be shared with the wider museum and heritage community through a regional training programme, toolkits and e-resources to support non-specialists working with natural sciences collections in the south west.

Specifically they will learn how to prepare carcasses (most commonly road-kill). This type of biological specimen is still regularly donated to museums and the skill is valued by Higher Education, artists and science clubs. For geological specimens, the focus will be on fossil preparation making use of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and the University of Bristol’s on site preparation labs that are no longer in use due to lack of skills. In order to sustain these skills their additional functions in public engagement or income generation will be part of this training.

Furthermore as part of the project, the curators have met to discuss concerns with their collections and the best method of identifying the loss of other knowledge and skills in the region to support the further development of the south west’s natural sciences curators and natural sciences collections. Dr Rob Huxley, formally of the Natural History Museum led the group in the summer of 2015 in this process using a European initiative known as the EU Collections Competencies Project (EUColComp) to help assess the skills gaps and identify where strengths and weaknesses lay across the group. The results of this skills audit, once known, will be used to benefit the wider sector through a process of formal and informal skills sharing via the creation of a regional network established as part of the project.

Project Partner Activity: Digitisation Project

Through retrospective documentation, Bristol Museum Galleries and Archives (BMGA) is working towards making its collections information and associated multimedia, fully accessible online. Continued work by curators and volunteers to catalogue specimens is generating a huge amount of data which once recorded is instantly available through the public search interface. The next step in the Ellerman project is to export the data to the local record centre, Bristol Regional and Environmental Record Centre (BRERC) with the aim being that the local data will be stored by BRERC but the non-regional information will be forwarded to the National Biodiversity Network (NBN). This allows full accessibility for any institution in the UK that needs to see this data. BMAG also has international data and this too can be exported to programmes such as the Global Biodiversity information Facility (GBIF) providing global access to our data. BMGA have begun to develop a procedure for exporting structured data in a way that can be used by BRERC by developing database reports based on their requirements. It is hoped that by improving the database interface BMGA can capture a better quality of data at the first point of entry, and by updating their taxonomic database based on these issues they can gradually improve the flow of information between the EMu collections management system and BRERC’s biological records. The work carried out so far has been necessary and eventually the data will be in a format that is accepted world-wide. Once the work flow has been developed BMGA will extend this into a generic format that can be adapted for other south west institutions. Data sharing is a key objective of the Ellerman project and through training and seminars, regional institutions will be introduced to the work of their local record centres so data exchange can begin.

SWaNS Project Lead

Isla Gladstone

Senior Curator for Natural Sciences, Bristol Museums

[email protected]

I lead the natural sciences team at Bristol Museums. Together we care for and make accessible an estimated 1.2 million specimens of fossils, rocks, minerals,  taxidermy, skeletons and bones, eggs, shells, plants, insects, spirit specimens, and supporting historic archives, libraries and maps. My role involves developing strategy, partnerships and external funding opportunities, managing the team and collections, delivering a major exhibition and events programme, and supporting research and visitor access to collections.

I am also the lead for the Ellerman Funded SWANS project. Working with South West Museums Development and the region’s remaining specialist natural science curators, I developed the project idea. At a time of sector cutbacks and loss of specialism but also a revival in understanding of significance of natural science collections, it is key that we have come together to share expertise and try to develop new ways to support people working with these collections across our region.

Originally from Devon and having started my museum career as Curatorial Assistant at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro, I have been working back in the South West region (Bristol) since 2013 after periods of curatorial work in London and Yorkshire. I am a general natural scientist with curatorial experience across all subjects, and a special interest in palaeontology.


Victoria Purewal (2015-16)

Acting Senior Curator of Natural Science, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

[email protected]

My background and education was originally in ecology; however when I started work at the National Museum, Cardiff I specialised in natural science conservation, although I also worked with archives, prints and drawings and the wax model collection. My focus was mainly plant specimen conservation and I also studied wood taxonomy. My Master’s was in Conservation Science and my doctorate on The identification of historic biocides applied to herbarium collections.

I am currently working at Bristol Museum as the Senior curator of natural science. My role is to coordinate the SWANS project, funded by the John Ellerman Foundation and to aid in the general running of the natural science department. I am also currently the conservation representative and acting events programmer for the Natural Science Collections Association (NatSCA).

Available to provide advice and support on botanical collection care and general conservation.

*For enquiries please note you may at times experience a delay in response, however the curators will get back to you as soon as possible. 

SWaNS Project Natural Science Curators

J B Hanson

Jonathan Bruce Hanson

Acting Practicals and Collections Manager, Bristol University, School of Earth Sciences Collection

[email protected]

As my job title hints, I have a dual role here in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. I am in charge of coordinating and assisting with undergraduate taught practicals, as well as curating and organising the 100,000 specimen-strong Geology collection. Our collection covers a wide range of mineralogical, petrological and palaeontology specimens, including an impressive amount of type specimens for researchers. I am also involved in organising and leading outreach activities to schools and public gatherings, and we are happy to assist local geology groups and museums in any way we can.

With a background in volcanology and petrology that involved a strong focus on fieldwork (my doctorate thesis was on conduit erosion during Plinian eruptions), I have always been fascinated by the geologic evolution of the Earth and what rocks can tell us about it. In my current position, I thoroughly enjoy having my horizons broadened on a daily basis by the many different aspects of Earths’ fascinating history.

Available to provide advice and support on geology, possible research opportunities, outreach, education and teaching.


D Hutchinson

Deborah Hutchinson

Geology Curator, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

[email protected]

I look after the designated geology collections at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. We hold approximately 500,000 specimens of fossils, rocks and minerals with approximately 700 specimens in the type and figured collections. We also hold collections of maps, photographs, slides, historic books and archives. I manage an amazing group of talented volunteers who undertake varied projects working on the collections, deliver collections public engagement, deliver talks and tours to local specialist groups and the public. I respond to public enquiries and facilitate specimen access for academic researchers. Along with overall curatorial management of the collections I am a designated RPS (radiation Protection Supervisor).

Available to provide advice and support on geology collections management, radioactive geological material, geology digitisation, geological outreach and volunteer management.


H MorgenrothHolly Morgenroth

Collections Officer, Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM), Exeter

By degree I am a marine biologist (BSc in Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology). However, I am unable to dive and get incredibly sea sick so decided so changed career path to one based firmly on dry land.  I have an MSc in Museum Studies and have worked in the museum sector ever since.

I’ve worked at RAMM since 2010 as Assistant Curator of Natural History, Curator of Natural History and now Collections Officer. My role includes coordinating collections management across all of RAMM’s collections, making grant applications, answering enquiries and facilitating collections access. I also develop temporary exhibitions and manage projects such as the HMS Challenger project . My particular area of interest is care of zoological specimens particularly wet collections (aka ‘pickles’ or ‘spirits’).

I am also an active member of the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) and have served on the committee as treasurer for the past 3 years.


M WilliamsMatt Williams

Collections Manager, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution

[email protected]

Specialism and job description: My background is as a palaeontologist, particularly specialising in early Jurassic palaeoecology, and I have been fortunate enough to work with a collection that allows me to use these skill in a research capacity on occasions (Charles Moore’s fossil collection at the BRLSI is fascinating and understudied). However, for the most part my role requires me to be a curatorial jack-of-all-trades. I am the sole employee responsible for a collection that includes palaeontological, mineralogical, botanical, and zoological specimens, as well ethological and archaeological artefacts and an extensive historic library and archive. I work with a team of volunteers to ensure this collection is well cared for and documented, to provide annual thematic exhibitions, web content, and access to researchers.

I also work directly with researchers and for the last seven years have been working on an extraordinary collection of Lower Jurassic fossils from Ilminster, Somerset (the Strawberry Bank Lagerstätte).

Available to provide advice and support on fossils, exhibition production, managing mixed collections and research collaborations.


B GriffinBonnie Griffin

Curator for Natural History, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

[email protected]

I’ve been working as a curator at Bristol since 2013 with previous experience as an educator at Bristol Zoo Gardens and as a project manager at Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow for a project engaging people with their natural heritage across the city.

I have no specialisms but can help with basic collections care, working with the media, working with volunteers, events organising and engagement, and teaching in a museum context.

Available to provide advice and support on general collections care, working with the media and university lecturing.


Jan Freedman 2Jan Freedman

Curator of Natural History, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

[email protected]

I have been working in museums for over ten years. After volunteering at the Natural History Museum, London, and then Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, I became Assistant Keeper of Natural History at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery in 2006.

I am now Curator of Natural History, and care for all the geological, botanical and zoological collections. My specialism is in Ice Age fossils, but I have picked up skills in other areas, such are spirit conservation. I am passionate about communicating about science and natural history collections.

Available to provide advice and support on pleistolene (Ice Age) fossils, spirit preserved specimens, geology collections and science education.


R RowsonRhian Rowson

Natural Sciences Curator, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

[email protected]

I am a naturalist with a passion for insects, especially solitary bees and wasps. I curate, conserve and make available over 650,000 specimens from our growing scientific collection, including the fluid preserved, herbarium and insect collections.

I create and deliver varied natural history public events for all age groups. I answer invertebrate enquiries including an identification service, and train the general public, students, volunteers and naturalists on field recording and curation of insects.

Available to provide advice and support on any insect or invertebrates.


*For enquiries please note you may at times experience a delay in response, however the curators will get back to you as soon as possible.