Susan Waugh: Biography and interview

Susan Waugh, editor of 100 Natural History Treasures of Te Papa, discusses her work with Te Papa Press.

Susan Waugh, 2017, Te Papa

Dr Susan Waugh manages the science and natural history programme for the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Her personal field of expertise is in seabird population ecology, and she has research experience in petrel and albatross foraging, population estimation and fisheries by-catch management.

Ten Questions with Susan Waugh

100 Natural History Treasures of Te Papa will be published at the same time as Te Taiao/ Nature, Te Papa’s new natural environments gallery, open after several months of concept work and construction. How do does the book complement the new exhibition space?

The book is a deep dive into the collections and a ‘curated’ set of objects that explores the different disciplines and the ways we work as scientists within the museum field. We tell the stories of how objects in the collections help us unlock the secrets of New Zealand’s unique biodiversity. By contrast, the exhibition explores our natural world through two lenses – one the Mātauranga Māori perspective on Te Taiao – the natural world or cosmos, through its longitudinal study of nature and human interaction; the other through a geographical and scientific exploration of what’s unique, threatened, and how to contribute to a better future for it. Both perspectives intertwine, and contribute to how we, as New Zealanders and visitors to Aotearoa, build a resilient and sustainable future for our corner of the planet.

What do you hope readers will learn from the book?

I hope that readers will be inspired to engage with nature in their own ways, and find their own stories or angles of discovery. The guy at the marine supplies shop was telling me today about how he let the grass grow tall on his property to help the birds and insects! That’s a great example of how we all have small ways we can make a difference for nature in our own back yards.

The objects selected and the stories associated highlight that some very unassuming items can lead to amazing discoveries – it’s all about asking the right questions. We hope the readers will have their curiosity kindled, and feel the urge to share their own ideas and feelings about things in the natural world with their friends and family.

It was written by a large number of expert authors, all of whom work in Te Papa’s Natural History team. Collectively, what does their expertise and research areas bring to the book?

We aimed to get everyone who works with us in our core Natural History team to contribute to the project. What we delivered shows how dedicated they are, how diverse and in-depth their knowledge is, and what a great bunch of story tellers they are, when we all take the time to sit down and write.

The book honours the past of science and natural history collecting and research at our national museum while also looking to the future. What is the museum DNA that connects that past and the future?

Te Papa’s science is grounded in defining the unique biological character of our nation. The collection, and items featured in the book show how that special biota is connected across the southern hemisphere and around the world. There are lovely connections that come through between plants and animals – e.g. the fungus gnats/orchid co-evolution, and between specialists. What makes our agency really special among science organisations is that our team is highly collaborative and together, we work across all of the biota of the region. We’re specialists on our own thing, but can find connections wherever we turn. 

It must have been quite an arduous process arriving at only 100 objects given the vastness of the collection. How were they selected?

We did start with around 250 or 300 objects, and had some areas we really wanted to highlight. Some of them were ‘unique’ objects that are found nowhere else, such as the extinct tree species, Woloonia – and tell the story of how museums record these observations in a tangible form; others had been part of a major change in thinking in a field of science, such as the iguanodon tooth – which sparked the knowledge of a past that looked different from today and had endured for eons, not just millennia; and others showcased our work in present day science which leverages the collections – such as the genetics examples or newly described species. We also selected stories that highlighted some of our major collectors. We wanted quirky stories that demonstrated the essence of what Te Papa’s breadth of science is, and most importantly to showcase our fabulous collection in all of its extraordinary diversity.

Compressing the information about each of them into just 250 words must have been a challenge at times?

Being succinct can be a challenge, but our staff are great communicators, and also enjoy the side of the work where we relate to the public. The body of work presented in 100 Natural History Treasures of Te Papa shows that even the most banal objects have fascinating stories. While we’ve picked out some of the quirky and momentous ones, the Te Papa collection of several million plants and animals all have stories to tell!

Your own area of research is seabirds, so were some of the stories behind objects from the botany and invertebrate collections as interesting to you as they would be to the general reader?

Of course it’s always exciting to see what inspires my colleagues, and few people can cover several science disciplines in equal depth! Probably no-one has covered all of science since the days of Pliny! The really delicious part of this process is discovering why we find an object or its story interesting – it helps you to open up to these new perspectives yourself! It’s like discovering that your friends like a genre of music or a flavour of ice-cream you had never imagined or discovered before.

What’s one new thing that you learnt when editing this book?

Te Papa has more stuff than you can wave a stick at! And I already knew that when we started! But I was still surprised. Imagine if we could share all of those treasured items with an even broader public and more diverse audiences, and capture their insights into what they mean in our lives? What a rich, wonderful experience that would be.

What’s one collection item story that really fascinates you?

I loved the luminous limpet story – and it has a crazy back story of how much skill and effort it took to photograph this insane creature doing its thing! I think Jean-Claude should get a medal for lighting, composition, animal behaviour study and determination.

What are you reading at the moment, for work and for pleasure?

A Honey Bee Heart Has Five Openings (fiction) by Helen Jukes. For pleasure. I started beekeeping more seriously this year (previously I just helped a friend), and it’s interesting to see how this author parallels the activity with her own need to create serenity and order in her life. My motivation for doing the beekeeping is rather simpler, I’m doing my bit for ecosystem services – pollination and biodiversity conservation. The measure of success is a very good crop of apples & pears, cooked up into marvellous deserts with lashings of honey!

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jul/20/a-honeybee-heart-has-five-openings-buzz-review