Written by Holly Morgenroth, Collections Officer, Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM).
On 30 January 2020 Arts Council England’s (ACE) awarded Designated status to the George Montagu collection of Molluscs at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM). Just 152 collections in the country hold the coveted Designation award, and only a few of these collections are Natural History. Tullie House’s natural science collection recently received this accolade. The Designation scheme is a mark of distinction awarded to the finest cultural collections housed in non-national museums, libraries and archives across England.
Pioneering naturalist George Montagu (1753-1815)
George Montagu was the first person to collect and name British molluscs in a truly scientific manner. The shells were not just attractive curios. His work revolutionised the study of molluscs and his collection at RAMM is Britain’s most intact and taxonomically-important, early 19th-century collection of British shells (1800-1816). Today it is an essential resource for taxonomic research.
Montagu moved to Devon in 1798 when his army career ended in disgrace. He was court-martialled after the discovery of his affair with Eliza D’Orville. Together they moved to Kingsbridge in Devon where Montagu devoted himself to natural history. Ahead of his time, he had a broad environmental focus and his stress on examining live animals showed that he was a true naturalist and not merely an assembler of trophies. Montagu was the first to publish a fully comprehensive monograph on the molluscs of the British Isles (Testacea Britannica 1803, 1808), Eliza provided the illustrations.
Recognising the significance of the collection
Montagu’s collection is one of RAMM’s most frequently requested collections for research. I have known it was important ever since my first day at RAMM 10 years ago. Yet these enquires filled me with dread. The specimens had been curated, re-curated, borrowed by researchers around the world, reclassified, annotated and dispersed to various different locations in its almost 150 year history at RAMM. Although the box said ‘type’ there was little evidence to support this and I didn’t have the taxonomic expertise to verify or deny the claim.
When the John Ellerman Foundation funded the Mollusca Types in Great Britain project spearheaded by Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and the Natural History Museum, London, all of this changed. Cardiff conchologist Dr Graham Oliver spent several weeks with me working on the collection. On the first day I remember him saying ‘don’t worry, this won’t be as hard as you think it will be,’ and then by morning coffee he realised the extent to which the collection had been ‘mucked about with’.
We started by making a list of all the 199 mollusc species Montagu described in the scientific literature that he considered were new to science. We matched as many of the accessions register entries to these names as we could and located corresponding specimens. All were photographed, Graham verified their historic and current identifications and we located any archival documents regarding loans. Gradually we located 120 lots that could be considered as having type status.
Without Graham’s expertise through the Mollusca Types in Great Britain project the scientific value of this collection could not have been proven or demonstrated.
Accessing the collection and learning more
Montagu’s type specimens are all listed on the Mollusca Types in Great Britain project website.
All of Montagu’s collection is available via a research theme on RAMM’s Collections Explorer.
Two open access (free) research papers describing the collection are also available:
Oliver PG, Morgenroth H, Salvador A (2017) Type specimens of Mollusca described by Col. George Montagu in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter and The Natural History Museum, London. Zoosystematics and Evolution 93(2): 363-412.
Oliver PG, Morgenroth H (2018) Additional Type and other Notable specimens of Mollusca from the Montagu Collection in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter. Zoosystematics and Evolution 94(2): 281-303.