Written by Christine Taylor, Curator of Natural History, Portsmouth Museums
Wild about Portsmouth is a two-year Heritage Lottery Funded project to share and raise the profile of the city’s natural history collections. In addition to enabling visitors to get more hands on with the collections through events and activities, work is being carried out to make them more accessible for museum staff and researchers.
The collections are held at three sites across the city and housed in environmentally controlled stores with many specimens held in archival quality boxes. However, the absence of a natural history curator for over 10 years has led to a series of challenges with accessing them:
Little Knowledge of Collections
Apart from the sizeable and substantial HLF Guermonprez Collection transferred from Bognor Regis Museum in the 1970s, very little was known about the collectors associated with the remainder of the natural history collections. In-depth knowledge of the HLF Guermonprez Collection has also been lost over time, although it is occasionally cited in publications by Sussex naturalists.
Physical Access to the Collections
The vertebrate and entomology collections are housed to fit a compact space, with some specimens stored at a height of 4 metres. Until recently entomology cabinets were stored on racking, often at right angles to save space which restricted access to the drawers. Other cabinets were stored behind large taxidermy cases and other entomology cabinets. Uncased taxidermy (over 1500 specimens) is housed in large archival quality boxes stored in numerical rather than taxonomic order which requires searching for specimens in several places.
Digital Access to the Collections
Many of the collections were catalogued as part of an audit exercise, which although met SPECTRUM standards and logged conservation and pest control processes, did not, in many cases capture provenance data. As many natural history specimens are not suitable for display their value lies in their data which needs disseminating.
Meeting the challenges
First steps involved recruiting volunteers to help work on the collections and to assess what needed doing. To date there have been 18 volunteers working on the Natural History collection, donating nearly 600 hours over 9 months.
Gaining Physical Access to the Collections
The first volunteer project was to label the geology cabinets with their contents, site and stratigraphy, which revealed that the cabinets were out of sequence. Reorganizing the cabinets into numerical order placed the collections into a rough geological sequence from oldest rocks (Permian) to the most recent (Holocene). The drawers are now being worked through to refine the sequence, check for pyrite decay, give the specimens a light clean, replace unit boxes where necessary and to clean each drawer.
Another project was the reorganization of the herbarium formerly stored in boxes. Following enquiries to the Natural History Museum, London, 36 herbarium cabinets which formerly held the European plants collection, were transferred to Portsmouth Museums. Volunteers were drafted in to assist with the making up of genus folders which were tagged with a collection colour code. Over a period of two months the 20,000 plants were placed into 1500 genus folders and arranged into Stace order.
The recent relocation of the entomology collections to a newly cleared room in the store has created space in the ‘pod’, reducing the height of stored collections and has enabled access to the uncased taxidermy.
Improving Digital Access to the Collections
As provenance data for many natural history records was absent, staff and volunteers have updated the database using accession registers, card indexes and specimen labels. New records have been created and the first 500 Lepidoptera records identified some previously unrecorded Sussex locations for some species. In the first year of the project nearly 10,000 records were added to the database and over 10,000 records updated.
Increasing Awareness of the Collections
Social media in the form of tweets or blogs have been posted every week of the project. These also act as a photographic record and have provided opportunities to carry out initial research which has been added to the natural history database.
Targeted tweeting has also provided offers of assistance and advice on collections care and additional knowledge.
Attending and running events based on the collections has increased the profile of the collections locally. Over the past 12 months over 3000 people have engaged with the natural history collections through a series of talks, workshops, drop-in activities and visiting our stand at events held in Portsmouth, Isle of Wight and Winchester.
Developing partnerships with local organizations and universities has also raised awareness of the collections through research, interns, volunteers and joint projects.
The first year of the Wild about Portsmouth project has concentrated mainly on physically making the Natural History collections accessible. Next steps will be to work with volunteers to rearrange the uncased taxidermy into taxonomic order, develop one-day work parties of local specialist groups to identify undetermined specimens, and to begin working with a wider audience to look at future permanent displays.