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Research & Collections Programme

Growing research through the convening power of Cambridge’s collections

Environment Research Growth Network

Professor Rebecca Kilner, FRS, Museum of Zoology & Charlotte Connelly, The Polar Museum

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There is no question that we are living in a time of rapid climate change, induced by our own activities. An urgent and current global challenge is to mitigate and manage the harm that will follow – both to the natural world, through loss of biodiversity, and to our own societies.The scale of the problem is immense, requiring collaborative solutions between research fields traditionally divided into the Sciences and the Arts. The library and museum collections offer precisely such an interdisciplinary opportunity for addressing these challenges – by facilitating greater collaboration with departments, faculties and interdisciplinary research centres. They provide a detailed longitudinal record of declining biodiversity in relation to environmental change, over thousands of years, and how we have shaped and responded to that change. Natural science collections can be used to chart broad-scale patterns of extinction in relation to climatic change, and to understand more recent declines in local biodiversity following human caused environmental change, to better inform policy making by local conservation organisations. Changes in the natural environment, and our attitudes to change, can be observed and understood through the art, library, archaeology and anthropology collections, though depictions of wildlife or our changing personal relationships with landscape, heritage and our local environments. The university has placed itself at the forefront of international efforts to tackle the unprecedented crises caused by human-caused climate change, and this research growth network will ensure that the collections cared for by the university are thoroughly integrated into that important work.

The key questions asked by the network are:

  • What can the collections cared for by the University of Cambridge tell us about environmental change, and our response to it?
  • How can we best engage a range of audiences, within and beyond academia with issues related to environmental change, especially in our public spaces andusing the collections we care for on behalf of our communities?
  • Can we develop new research questions, and new resources for research, byusing crowdsourcing or citizen science projects in collaboration with the ‘Digital’ strand of the Research and Collections Programme?

The broad range of collections cared for by the University of Cambridge offers a uniqueopportunity for cross-disciplinary research and longitudinal study. Here are some of the wayswe anticipate working with collections within the ‘Environment’ RGN:

  • The fossil record can be used to forecast how the natural world will respond to rapid global heating.
  • Genetic data in zoological and plant specimens can be used to assess the changing genetic diversity of populations and their resilience.
  • Archive material such as diaries, ships logs and field collectors’ notebooks can provide dated and geo-located information about sea ice extent, animal habitat ranges and weather patterns.
  • Changes in our environment can be observed in artworks, whether they depict wildlife, industrial developments or our changing personal relationships with our local environment.
  • The development of a global economy can be seen in fashions in art and design as new commodities became available.
  • History of science collections offer the opportunity to explore early environmental studies, and the way the scientific tools and practices have changed over time.
  • Our archaeological and anthropological collections help us to explore societal responses to our changing environments, which include entire settlements being relocated, new types of income generation being sought and building technological interventions such as sea defences. These also relate to human caused environmental change such as draining the fens in East Anglia, more intensive agricultural practices and and shifting norms around travel and work.

This RGN will build on previous work within the University including the Green Museum project, Operation Survival, Climate Hack and Earth Optimism Day to bring our research findings to new audiences using best practice in public engagement. It will seek to embed an understanding of environmental change and its effects to engage audiences across our organisations with leading edge research about environmental change, one of the most important issues humanity is currently facing.