Derby Museums showcases 200 year old Captain Cook shells

200 years after being collected, a group of sea shells with links to Captain Cook’s voyages have been fully documented and photographed for the first time, and put on display in Derby Museum & Art Gallery, thanks to one of the museum’s Super Nature volunteers, Hannah Maddix. Donated to the museum in 1961, along with original documents dating to 1815, they are key to unlocking the secrets of 18th century shell studies. Fred Woodward, former president of the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland, said: “The collection could be considered an equivalent to the Rosetta Stone since it contains shells with common names and Latin names not only used by Humphrey in his catalogues but also numbered by Humphrey himself, which until now has not been known.”

Shell. Image: Derby Museums

Image: Derby Museums

The shells have a fascinating history. They were bought by a Mrs Borough in 1815 from George Humphrey, a London dealer in shells and ‘curiosities’ who in turn had bought shells collected on Captain Cook’s second and third voyages of discovery to Australia and New Zealand in the 1770s. It is almost certain that the Australian and New Zealand shells in the collection came from Captain Cook’s voyages. George Humphrey was one of the world’s first conchologists, and wrote numerous catalogues of important shell collections. The shells in Derby Museum have tiny numbers written on them by George Humphrey, and his original lists survived with the collection. This unique combination of actual specimens related to original lists provides a missing link for modern shell specialists, allowing them to translate long forgotten 18th century shell names into their modern equivalents.

Rachel Atherton, Co-production Curator at Derby Museums said:

“This wonderful collection of shells not only links to Captain Cook and the discovery of a continent, but also give us a glimpse into the early scientific study of shells.”

Shell. Image: Derby Museums

Image: Derby Museums

Hannah Maddix, who catalogued the collection, said:

“It was such a delight to research these shells and discover that we have specimens collected from all over the world. For over two hundred years they have remained desirable and beautiful objects, commonplace and yet still precious.”

The Borough family was once a prominent Derby family, originally called Borrow, living at Castlefields House, before moving to Chetwynd House, Shropshire in 1803. Mrs Borough’s shell collection was passed down in the Borough family until they were donated to Derby Museums in 1961, along with six Joseph Wright oil paintings and a portrait of Isaac Borrow, twice Mayor of Derby in 1730 and 1742.

The shells are on display in Derby Museum’s new nature gallery ‘notice nature feel joy’.

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