Ostracod Odessey – Broadcasting the Brady Collection

Written by Dan Gordon, Keeper of Biology, The Great North Museum: Hancock.

The Great North Museum : Hancock is home to many remarkable collections, but one of the most important is perhaps one of the most unfamiliar to our visitors. The Brady collection of Ostracods.

Ostracods, sometimes called Seed Shrimp, are distinctive Class of crustaceans. A shell of two intricately textured valves almost entirely envelopes their shrimp-like bodies, with just a small opening for a cluster of rapidly moving legs to poke out. As their common name suggests, most species are very small, mostly invisible to human eye, but they’re ubiquitous, busily going about their lives wherever there is permanent or temporary water, from the poles to the tropics. Some swarm the world’s oceans in vast planktonic shoals, while others live in the still, dark pools of caves, in garden ponds or even puddles.

They’re poorly known outside of academic communities, which is a real shame, because despite being fascinating creatures in their own right, they have important roles in many aquatic ecosystems, and significantly, they’re commonly encountered in the fossil record, which means that they are particularly important indicator fossils. In addition, the chemical make-up of their distinctive shells tells us about ocean acidity and temperature, which can tell us about ocean warming and climate change.

The collection was the work of George Stewardson Brady, a local man, born in Gateshead in 1832, and one of the people who pioneered the study of these animals at a time when they were relatively poorly understood.  Housed in a row of cabinets, the Brady collection is made up of nearly 3000 microscope slides with up to 100 Ostracods on each. These specimens were collected all over the world, many of them by well-known expeditions such as the HMS Challenger expeditions in the 1870s. It contains many Types, and provides a valuable resource for the study of these animals today.

In 2019, we decided to embark on an ambitious project to improve the collection’s documentation, increase its accessibility and research potential, and try to raise the profile of this local science hero and his legacy to our audiences. We made a successful application to the Arts Council’s Designation Development Fund and the ‘Broadcasting the Brady Collection’ project was born.

A major part of the work was to improve the documentation of the collection, an impressive feat carried out by a dedicated Project Officer, Alex Reynolds, who spent many hours painstakingly correcting and re-organising, updating taxonomy and editing the catalogue. It was an enlightening process that reavealed all sorts of new information (for example some of the puzzling abbreviations and marks on the labels turned out to refer to the specific dredge samples carried out by expedition researchers)

Fig. 1. A typical drawer of Brady’s Ostracod specimens © Dan Gordon

Alongside this work, we created a small exhibition ‘Voyage and Home, Ostracod Oddessey’ featuring an ambitious digital artwork by local creative studio, NOVAK. Surrounded by graphics referencing the colourfully labelled microscope slides of Brady’s collection, visitors peered into a giant virtual microscope to view a host of different ostracod species from around the world, while a specially commisioned narrative helped provide an insight into Brady the man, his work, and his legacy.

Fig. 2. Voyage & Home: Ostracod Odyssey at the Great North Museum : Hancock © Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums

The improved documentation now makes it easier for us to respond to academic requests, and Alex’s work reviewing the handwritten labels has given us new insights into how, when and where the specimens were collected. We now have the opportunity to add Brady’s specimens to online data hubs and ‘broadcast’ his work to the world.

The digital artwork we’ve created will also hopefully become a permanent feature in the museum’s public galleries and will give us the opportunity to bring ostracods into our learning programme. We know that Brady himself was eager to share the world of ostracods in public lectures, where people could peer into microscopes to see these tiny creatures in all their remarkable detail. It’s great to think that we’re carrying on this part of his work.

The Broadcasting the Brady Collection project is a really exciting new phase in the story of the collection, and we really hope that this project provides the starting point for lots of future work.

Further reading

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Stewardson_Brady

https://greatnorthmuseum.org.uk/whats-on/ostracod-odyssey

George Brady’s Ostracod Odyssey

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