by Steven Garland

The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections held their latest international conference from 22nd to 27th June in Cardiff. It was organised jointly with the UK groups NatScA and GCG and hosted by the National Museum of Wales.

The first day consisted of site visits including to Big Pit, the innovative South Wales coalfield Geo-heritage trail (with Welsh whisky distillery thrown in!), National Botanic Gardens, Parc Slip nature reserve and the Glamorgan Heritage Coast. It was a great icebreaker day in sweltering Welsh summer weather! I attended the National Botanic Garden and we were guided around by an Bruce Langridge, who used to work for Oldham Museums. The visit looked at the learning programmes that made use of the collections and surrounding parkland.

The SPNHC Conference always has a packed programme and this was no exception, with a wide mixture of events including:
• Keynote speeches relating to the sector
• Panel sessions where you can contribute to discussions and debates about topical issues
• Practical training sessions, largely targeting collection management and conservation
• Presentations about historical collections and collectors
• Democamp sessions, where you can see demonstrations of the latest techniques, presentation about cutting-edge research and have opportunities to see (and sometimes use) new equipment
• poster sessions covering subjects that couldn’t be included in the main programme
• social events with an opportunity to build truly international networks, and to enjoy local food and drink

This year there were several exciting contributions looking at the ways that natural history collections are contributing to research on environmental change. The SPNHC President (and eminent export from the UK) Chris Norris gave a rousing presentation about the emerging value of natural science collections in world issues, especially those such as health. Many emerging diseases are presenting major concern (since then Ebola has made the headlines) and most are zoonoses (i.e. those that can be transmitted from animals to humans) resulting from environmental destruction bringing people into closer contact with previously remote or isolated species. Finding the source of a new disease quickly could potentially save the world – and historic collections can be the quickest way of doing this – faster than trying to isolate it from wild creatures in their natural habitat. What value would you put on a collection that literally saved the world – $billions potentially?

Repeatedly we heard about the use of exciting new studies using the latest scientific techniques, especially around DNA and chemical analysis. Matthew Collins summarised several fascinating pieces of research. A study on the DNA of bacteria on the teeth of 800 year old nuns had demonstrated the total lack of antibiotic resistance. Studies of lactose residues on pottery finds had produced a detailed map of the spread of dairy farming across Europe. He also spoke about several lines of amazing research using the innumerable parchments held in UK archives which provided dated samples of millions of sheep over hundreds of years.
There were concerns expressed though that current collecting is weak and unstructured and cuts to such activities could leave problem gaps in the long run. We are not be collecting material that we may need to secure our future.

Practical sessions included a look at ways of minimising risk when working with hazardous collections containing mercuric chloride or naphthalene residues (both occur in most natural science collections and others).

Technological items included demonstrations on the latest in web and mobile app thinking as well as the use of new techniques for data capture and processing enabling more effective digitisation allowing wider access to collections across the world. There were also some fascinating sessions on 3-D digital imaging, which is now becoming much more affordable.

There were some excellent collections management sessions including managing projects to move large collections, using Environmental Sensitivity Profiling to manage and develop storage effectively, and a fascinating demonstration of the use of thermal imaging cameras to improve environmental standards in collection stores.

There were sessions covering numerous collection digitisation projects including several that focused specifically on small collections where resources are limited. There were also several great examples of crowdsourcing digital capture, access and documentation and examples of the benefits of sharing these resources internationally. The Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris scanned their herbarium using conveyor-belt processes and then placed the material online for people to transcribe the data from labels to populate the database.

Finally, for the younger set there were events for the Emerging Professionals Group (EPG). If you are interested you can find out more at
With such a dynamic and varied conference it was impossible to see everything. Thankfully every session was recorded/videoed and will be available online in the near future.

If you ever get the chance to attend a SPNHC conference, I highly recommend it.