Written by Christine Taylor (Curator of Natural History), Bradley Foster (Natural History Collections Assistant), Portsmouth Museums.
Until lockdown, the Wild about Portsmouth project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, had been a whirlwind of activity, working with volunteers to re-house, reorganise and catalogue the natural history collections, developing school sessions, putting on and attending events as well as setting up displays.
In the four weeks prior to lockdown, the curator, volunteers and the newly appointed (14 February 2020) Natural History Collections Assistant installed an exhibition, ‘D is for Dodo, E is for Extinct’; attended a work placement fair at the University of Portsmouth, a family fun day at Dinosaur Isle, a STEM fair and the HBIC Hampshire Recorders Forum. We also created a Pop-Up Museum one-day event and ran a trial school session on rocks and fossils at Cumberland House Natural History Museum.
One area of the collection that needed revisiting was the database. While adhering to SPECTRUM guidelines for mandatory elements such as movement control, the database was, in many places, an audit exercise and needed work to properly address taxonomy, field collection data and missing data. Brief descriptions were inconsistent, often comprising a single word, the least helpful being the word ‘fossil’ with nothing in the record to suggest provenance, stratigraphy, period or even phylum.
Prior to lockdown, some work had been carried out on the database in the form of global edits or improving individual records when working on a specimen. Most of the work by staff and volunteers had focused on creating new records using a revised format for cataloguing and data capture set up by the curator on her arrival.
Lockdown has provided an opportunity to update the database and populate it with data. To date (mid-June 2020) just over 12,000 records have been worked through. Brief descriptions have been globally edited to add common and scientific names and field data, but many have needed updating individually. Fortunately, card index files set up in the 1960 – 1970s (the forerunner of digitisation!), day books, accession registers and notebooks, created by former curators still existed, provided a valuable source of additional information. An immediate benefit of working through the database has been a much-improved overview and scope of the natural history collections and, for the first time in decades, regain ‘lost’ collections knowledge.
Although the H.L.F. Guermonprez and Bognor Regis Museum collections transferred to Portsmouth in the early 1970s comprise over 60% of the natural history collection, it has been fascinating to discover the ‘golden age’ of the collections, a time when the collections were well known by local experts in the field. Following the loss of many of Portsmouth’s collections during WWII Blitz on the city, the 1950s – 1970s was a period of active collecting to build the natural history collections up.
Collections local to Portsmouth and Hampshire include:
- Maclure collection – Cabinet of British birds’ eggs, mainly collected in Hampshire in the 1930s-1940s, with full data and accompanying notebooks.
- F. E. Blagg collection – c.100 bird specimens, mostly collected in Hampshire and Norfolk between c.1905 – 1915. There are two taxidermists associated with this collection – H.N. Pashley of Cley, Norfolk and William Chalkley of Winchester, Hampshire.
- Edwin Cohen collection – 12 specimens of birds collected by the author of ‘The Birds of Hampshire’ (1963).
- Charlotte Ellen Palmer Herbarium – late 19th century plants collected in Odiham and the New Forest, Hampshire. Collected with her nephew Bolton King.
- Tate Herbarium – 120 plants collected mainly on Portsea Island, Portsmouth in 1832.
- Lepidoptera collections by D. J. Clark (butterflies only, c.1949-1960, Downer (butterflies only, 1980s), Dr J. Malpas (pre 1960), A. W. Westrup (c.1930s – 1950s), A. H. Sperring (moths, mid 1940s – early 1950s), Heppell collection (1940s – 1950s), Dr Stone (c.1900 – 1920), A. H. Sperring collection (1950s).
- D. J. Clark collection c.1000 beetles collected mainly in Hampshire (VC11), between c.1949 – 1960.
- C. G. Benson collection – c.1500 land and freshwater gastropods and some freshwater bivalves collected mainly from southern England, 1902 – 1921.
Work on the database, which has filled gaps in knowledge, has also identified more specimens for adding to Portsmouth’s online collections which will go live on our website later in the year.
Social media has certainly come to the foreground for many museums and to date over 150 posts have been added to Facebook (Cumberland House Natural History Museum) and Twitter (@wildaboutportsm) since lockdown began. Limited access to the natural history collections and images has resulted in more creative posts in the form of videos (work on the Hymenoptera collection, thaumatrope, frozen dinosaur egg), a Facebook Live session on the Wild about Portsmouth project), activity sheets and linking to national and international wildlife days, including National Insect Week and York Museum’s #CURATORBATTLE.
One area of the collection that has benefited from lockdown has been the Hymenoptera collection. A previous project to bring the collection together into one place and a newly appointed Natural History Collections Assistant who is a keen entomologist made this a logical choice to work on. Brad, who was one month into a six-month position with the Wild about Portsmouth project, took home several drawers to focus on cataloguing and identifying Hymenoptera collected by H.L.F. Guermonprez about 120 years ago. Guermonprez was an avid collector of natural history, primarily in Bognor and surrounding areas in West Sussex and Surrey. He collected c.1500 aculeate hymenopteran specimens, c.1000 of which are bees. The lockdown has meant that a large proportion of our time can be spent on tasks like cataloguing specimens and has allowed us to catalogue just over half of the Hymenoptera collection so far – it will be the first fully completed insect collection when finished.
Highlights include the Orange-legged Furrow bee, Halictus rubicundus, wearing a head dress made of orchid pollinia which were glued to its head when it visited an orchid flower 100 years ago. Another unusual specimen is the Buffish Mining bee, Andrena nigroaenea, with another insect poking its rear end out its abdomen – a female Twisted Wing fly (Strepsiptera). Strepsipterans are obligate parasites thought to be related to beetles. Adult females lack wings, antennae, and legs as they spend the entire adult stage of their life within the host insect. Although they are not uncommon, they are often overlooked because of their cryptic lifecycle, and even Guermonprez did not notice it when he collected the bee/parasite combo from his garden in Bognor in 1903.
There are also several species in the collection which, nowadays, are considered uncommon or rare. For example, one of our smallest bumblebee species, the Shrill Carder bee. It was once distributed over much of England and Wales, with highest concentrations in the South and there have even been sightings in Paulsgrove, Portsmouth, during the 1970’s. However, the Shrill Carder bee has experienced dramatic distribution declines in recent years, making it one of the rarest bumblebees in the UK. The data that we amass from cataloguing this collection during lockdown will be forwarded to relevant county recorders, providing an insight into distributions of these insects.
Although planned activities and events have not taken place this summer, staff have been able to focus on areas of collections management that often get put to one side. The overhauled database can now be used for enquiries and we have had time to plough through collections paperwork. Collectors and taxidermists associated with the collections have been researched by front of house staff and volunteers. An insect collection is not only well underway towards completion but also provides a standard demonstrating aspirations in collections care. As a team we have become more geared towards social media and more versed in digital technology.
Lockdown has not been the ideal way to spend the last few months, but great progress has been made on Portsmouth’s natural history collections which can only be a positive outcome.