What is a museum curator made of? Slugs and snails and puppy dog tails, and then some…

We’ve all been asked it – what do you actually do as a zoology curator…

Some years ago, in a post I can no longer find, @morethanadodo responded with a long list that ranged from bar-tender to expert on name-your- taxon. Oh, how we laughed… In my long service at the Hunterian in Glasgow I have had the privilege of curating all sorts of zoology material – today I am a coral expert, tomorrow I’m puzzling over pickling fish correctly…

However, over the years, in addition to curating the zoology collection, my remit expanded to include the anatomy and pathology collections and most recently a collection of materia medica. ‘Wot dat?’ you may well ask. Well, essentially it’s an apothecary/pharmacology collection and could easily be the original ‘animal, vegetable, mineral’ quiz. In University museums, unsurprisingly and quite typically you are offered and acquire collections that have been made by former or existing academic staff in the course of their research and teaching. Given the collections are made for those
purposes, they usually require processing to get up to museum standards.

The collection in question is that made by Professor Ralph Stockman, (1861-1946), Regius Professor of Materia Medica 1897 – 1937 at the University of Glasgow. Stockman, born in Leith and educated at Edinburgh University, was a medical doctor who worked as an influential and successful clinician and an academic scientist in what was then called medical chemistry.

Ralph Stockman, University of Glasgow UGSP00223

Ralph Stockman (image from University of Glasgow, UGSP00223)

His research interests were wide and he published extensively on topics such as the physiological factors influencing conditions/diseases like anaemia, arthritis and rheumatism, lathyrism in man and animals, pellagra and ergotism; the pharmacological action of drugs including the salicylates, the opioids and neuro or muscle toxins; and the history of medicine. His collection is an amazing mix of mainly plant-based material with copious amounts of foodstuffs such as lentils, beans, and rice but also includes animal remains and assorted salts, crystals, metals and rocks. Truly, it was like working
in Severus Snape’s store cupboard crossed with a health food store…

Here are a few of the special things we found:

spirocid Bayer jar

Spirocid – one of a set of drug sample bottles from the early days of now giant pharma company Bayer. Spirocid was used to treat syphilis.

Schering jars

Various chemicals in historic presentation jars from pharma company Schering.

dragons blood

Dragons’ Blood – sadly not literally… the hard-to-read label (sorry) says it is from the plant Calamus ie Acorus calamus or sweet flag. Dragon’s Blood is a red resin extracted from a number of different plants and used as medicine (for many ailments) , dye and varnish.

fancy Ephedra jar

Ephedra sinica – Chinese ephedra. Contains the alkaloid decongestant ephedrine. Very decorative jar – touch of the old style ’Evening in Paris’ perfume bottle about it…

dried toad

Dried toad – is what it says on the jar…..

We safely cleaned, inventoried, packed and moved nearly 1000 items in this collection in under a week and this would not have been possible without the help of museum studies student volunteers – huge thanks to Maia, Alix and Melissa. I got three hardworking, enthusiastic, capable and willing helpers – what did they get out of it? Hands-on experience in real-world wrangling of collections – its not like in the museum studies text books y’know…

It was a relatively orderly collection all in one place (that’s a good start…) but hadn’t had professional curatorial attention in a long time. Some collection documentation turned up late in the day so there hasn’t yet been time to properly examine that. Of course this was a job that had to be done in a hurry, situated in a building where we hadn’t worked before, with slope-y floor and inadequate trolleys.

We carted in all the kit we needed for the job, as not being our space, there wasn’t anything on-hand. Building staff were great – giving us working space, temporary storage space and generally fetching us things like bin bags when we forgot to bring our own. And indeed we attracted attention sitting working in a corridor where this collection was housed– we even garnered an extra bit of collection history from a passing pharmacologist…

Job done – it is an amazing collection, a significant acquisition for the Hunterian, we all enjoyed working on it and it is bursting with possibilities for interesting projects.


Written by Maggie Reilly, Curator of Zoology, Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery and NatSCA’s Membership Secretary.

NatSCA Digital Digest


What Should I Read?

I encourage you to read Darren Naish‘s recent post on the “Mountain Beaver”, an unusual rodent which is not a member of the beaver family, nor is it mountain-dwelling. The article also goes into other members of the aplodontoidea so, if you like horned extinct cousins of the squirrel (of course you do), it’s well worth a read.

Why do all the beautiful things crack? Paintings by old masters, antique furniture, … and historical taxidermy. The Grant Museum has been running a project where they take their important taxidermy specimens in for essential conservation work and place stuffed toys on display in their place. A chance to see Jack Ashby‘s favourite teddy? You’d be crazy not to. For an example of the beautiful restoration work carried out by Lucie Mascord, check out this piece on the Owl Formerly Known as Googly-eyed.

What Should I Do?

What are you doing on the 22nd September? Keep it free if you can because we have a great workshop event coming up called Bringing the Dead to Life: How to Display Museum Natural Science. Among other things, you will hear testimonies from the Lapworth Museum, who were recently shortlisted for Museum of the Year.

If you haven’t been to Wollaton Hall yet, stop what you’re doing and go now. They are currently hosting a temporary exhibition called Dinosaurs of China, which I cannot recommend strongly enough. It was also the set for Wayne Manor in the recent Batman movies, as if you needed any further encouragement.

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy (SVPCA) is holding their 65th symposium next month. It’s in Birmingham this time and culminates with a field trip to the afore-mentioned Chinasaurs exhibit, so you get both. I’ll be there so do come and say hi if you’re going.

What Should I listen to?

NatSCA patron Ben Garrod is going to be on BBC Radio 4 next week, with a new series called Bone Stories. You can tune in to it here.

I’ve been having great fun listening to a podcast called Palaeo After Dark. If you like your podcasts polished and concise then this probably isn’t for you but there’s some really interesting discussion in there and plenty of comedy value. If you’re looking for something new to get into, I recommend it.

Before You Go

Our Emma Louise Nicholls is getting married tomorrow! Please join me in wishing her a fantastic day and a long and happy union.


The formerly googly-eyed owl

The long-eared owl: BEFORE. LDUCZ-Y1604

In a move unprecedented in Specimen of the Week history, I have chosen to blogify the same specimen as I selected in my last Specimen of the Week. The reason is that in many ways it is not the same specimen as it was six weeks ago: it has undergone a profound transformation. We used to call this specimen “the googly-eyed owl”, due to its comedy wonky eyes, but it is googly-eyed no longer. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…

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Stirring the hornet’s nest – are natural science collections even legal?

I was wrapping up a particularly difficult male peacock with a helper a few weeks ago and we were discussing natural science collections. “Do you think one day they’ll just be made illegal?” she asked, straight-faced and sincere. I was miffed – this was someone saying to a natural science curator that really, it shouldn’t be allowed. I sighed and spent the rest of the wrapping session (porcupine was also tricky) explaining how wonderful – and legal – natural science collections are.

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Meet the NatSCA Committee – Lucie Mascord

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Ordinary Member

Name: Lucie Mascord

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee? I am the new Conservation Representative

Job title and institution: Conservator of Natural History, Lancashire Conservation Studios

Twitter username: @LuceGraham

Tell us about your day job: I am a specialist natural history conservator, working for a museums service and my own business. In both, I provide conservation services to the heritage and private sector. This is mainly in the North West – everywhere from Cumbria or to Cheshire, but my work has taken me all over the country which means I get to visit lots of new collections.

My role covers all scope of natural history collections but I specialise in bone, fluid preserved collections and taxidermy. My work is incredibly varied; as well as a conservator I am a preparator – preparing bone, skins, taxidermy and fluid preserved material. I can spend 200 hours plus conserving a single specimen, or carry out a whole collection survey in 72 hours! I also provide training to institutions in natural history collections care.


Visiting the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée

Natural science collections are very popular with visitors. Why do you think this is?

Overall, I think it is about innate curiosity – the natural world is deeply fascinating and diverse. The reason natural history collections are popular with children is they are still in that stage of uninhibited curiosity.

Our interest and relationship to natural history collections has changed and evolved over time, but I have also observed that some of those traditional links with natural history collections are being revived. I think hobbyist specimen collecting and preparing is having a resurgence; there are more curiosity shops and natural history dealerships popping up; and natural history has been all over interior design for years now. It is very evident that we are in a taxidermy popularity peak at the moment, unfortunately it’s for reasons I don’t much like – the morbid factor. Isn’t it fashionable to be macabre! This very much celebrates badly crafted and poorly preserved specimens (very Victoriana). On the other hand, this is an engaged audience whom we can positively interest in our collections.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now?

I think everyone in the community would agree that the loss of specialist knowledge and skills is really concerning. I am particularly concerned that these are also undervalued. We are continually having the conversation about whether we need them, and I think “specialists” within the museum community can often be characterised as inflexible, uncompromising and routed in “old-fashioned” practice when it comes to the use of our collections. This is an erroneous stereotype. Natural history collections, more so than any other, have to progress with research and science so not to become redundant.

With natural history conservation, these risks to skills are further magnified. There are very few specialists nowadays, and little appreciation of how vital the skills involved are. In many museum roles, we all find ourselves asked to take on more, this may sometimes manifest itself in untrained staff taking on conservation work on natural history collections. This would never be considered acceptable on oil paintings, so why should it be acceptable on other materials! Even within the conservation sector the specialist role can be overlooked.

We need to stand firm on our position on the need for specialist skills, and demand that our specialists are utilised in the work with our collections, and in training.

What would be your career in an alternate universe without museums?

I never wanted a 9-5 job or a desk job. I studied in human anatomy, and rather fancy myself as a forensic pathologist. I also wanted to pursue my art and anatomical illustration. In many ways, my current career is a good mix of all those things.

What is your favourite museum, and why?

I have a soft spot for the place I started my career as a volunteer, the Victoria Gallery and Museum at the University of Liverpool. It is worth visiting alone just to see the incredible Waterhouse architecture and glazed tile interior.

My favourite natural history collection is the Galerie de Paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée in Paris, but the top spot has to go to the People’s History Museum in Manchester – sometimes it’s good to have a break from natural history. It’s invigorating to visit a museum that challenges you and inspires change.

Written by Lucie Mascord, Conservator of Natural History, and NatSCA Committee Member.

NatSCA Digital Digest – July

What Should I Read?

If you like a good nose, the second part of TetZoo’s Elephant Seal article has just been published, which you can read here. And here is a thoughtfully placed link to the first part in case you missed it and wanted to catch up.

For a fun bit of ‘history of natural history’, this article is all about the secret that the Natural History Museum’s blue whale has been hiding since the 1930s, unknown to anyone until it’s recent clean prior to the big unveiling next week. Those naughty conservators… chuckle.

Whilst some of this article raised my quizzical-shark-scientist’s-eyebrow, such as the scale bar for instance, researchers believe they have uncovered a big clue as to why the Megalodon went extinct. Definitely worth a read if, like everyone, you like sharks. Although this article came out in January, it is receiving media attention at the moment so I thought I’d treat you to it.

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Private Bone/Taxidermy Collection: The Good, The Bad and The Illegal

This article is re-posted from the Adventures in Natural History Illustration blog by natural history illustrator Beth Windle.

This blog has taken a while to write. It’s a complicated subject that can be hard to condense into a simple blog post. However, I feel that it is now necessary to write about it due to growing, worrying, illegal, and unethical trends that are resurfacing due to a private natural history collection resurgence in recent years. Aside from this, I am aware of the positive aspects of private collections and therefore I do not want to come across as too preachy or completely ridicule those with private collections who work extremely hard to promote conservation and education. But I feel that some things now need to be said, as well as how these new problems need to be fixed with realistic solutions. Continue reading