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Two UK museums will undertake projects to tackle the urgent crisis facing insect populations and boost interest in this subject among girls and young women.


The University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and Leeds Museums & Galleries have been awarded funding by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund to undertake two projects which bring their historic collections into the public eye in order to solve two critical intertwined global problems: the extinction crisis facing insect populations and the need to engage a wider audience in these pressing conservation issues. 

Recent news reports have highlighted the stark crisis that insects are facing as their populations crash, threatening ecosystems worldwide. These losses are particularly worrying as insects make up the majority of animal species and are fundamental for important biological processes, including pollination, decomposition and pest control. A loss of insects therefore directly threatens both natural systems, and agricultural landscapes that people rely on for food.


Museums have long-term data attached to their specimens which will be used to investigate declines in insect numbers over the last two centuries, to influence ongoing conservation work, and to inspire and diversify a new generation of biodiversity scientists and conservationists.


In particular, the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge will use their project to guide ongoing large-scale habitat restoration in the Fens, in collaboration with conservation organisations such as the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust. The Museum holds around one million insect specimens, including butterflies and beetles collected before widespread expansion of agriculture and drainage of wetlands occurred, causing multiple extinctions. By comparing what species were found in the past with those that remain today, researchers will inform how wetland habitats can be rebuilt. Data collection for the project will rely on interactions with school children and volunteers, directly involving people with museum collections and the natural world and inspiring a series of activities in the Museum and in nature reserves. This will tie into a new PhD project researching the benefits of engaging with nature for people’s mental and physical wellbeing.


The work at Leeds Museums & Galleries will address the need for people to feel connected to this crisis, by working specifically with girls and young women. ‘Dead Inspiring’ will promote a women-in-science agenda, using and developing Leeds’s fantastic insect collections. A recent UN study reported that, “…women and girls continue to be excluded from participating fully in science.” According to 2014-2016 UNESCO data, female students’ enrolment is particularly low in natural science: globally just 5%, and less than 30% of worldwide scientific research is carried out by women. In 2017, women made up 24% of those working in Core STEM industries in the UK (WISE Women in STEM workforce report, 2017). The work at Leeds is intended to inspire young women to develop a love for insects and an enthusiasm for conservation that they will pass on to others. The projects hopes to combat gender stereotypes in science – particularly the study of insects – and improve the uptake of science subjects in young women beyond GCSE level.


Edgar Turner, Curator of Insects at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge said “Now is a critical time for insect conservation. Worldwide, insect numbers are in sharp decline, threatening global biodiversity and key processes that we all rely on. It isn't yet too late to reverse these losses, but this action needs to be now. Using our outstanding collections, these ground-breaking projects will directly inform innovative conservation on the ground and engage diverse audiences in insect conservation. Without this sort of work, future generations won’t experience the dazzling diversity of species that we share the world with.”


Clare Brown, Curator of Natural Science at Leeds Museums and Galleries added, "UK insect collections have a huge role to play in helping people understand what's going on with wildlife in this country. I'm delighted that the Museums Association are putting their weight behind this idea. They are funding two great projects that will illustrate, in different ways, how museums can lead people to a better connection with the wild world around them."

Sharon Heal, Director of the Museums Association, who run the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, said “I am delighted that the Museums Association and EFCF have been able to support these two fantastic and timely projects. These are perfect examples of how museums can use objects and collections from the past to understand the present and to influence the future. There is mounting concern about species extinction and the climate crisis and I hope these two museums will be able to use their natural science collections to inspire a new generation of scientists, conservationists and environmental activists.”



The University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge is one of the largest and most significant natural history museums in the UK, with an extraordinarily rich history dating back to 1814. Today it houses over two million specimens. In June 2018 the Museum reopened after a five-year, £4.1million redevelopment – including nearly £2 million of funding raised by National Lottery players – to reveal thousands of incredible specimens from across the animal kingdom. Zoology is the study of animals, and the Museum’s new exhibits explore stories of conservation, extinction, survival, evolution and discovery. The Museum has a lively programmes of exhibitions and events.


Leeds Museums & Galleries is the largest local authority-run museum service in England and has one of the larger and most significant multidisciplinary collections in the UK. They care for 1.3 million objects which they use to inspire, educate, entertain and challenge the people of Leeds and visitors to the city. They run nine historic sites and visitor attractions, welcoming over 1.6 million visitors each year, accounting for around a quarter of all museum visits across Yorkshire.


The Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund is run by the Museums Association, funding projects that develop collections to achieve social impact. Since its launch in 2011, it has awarded 101 projects with grants totalling nearly £8.4m in16 funding rounds. Between 2017 and 2019 it is offering a total of £3.5m in grants to Museums Association members, as well as providing events and resources for the whole sector.