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.

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