Making the Most of a Move: Geological Curators’ Group Conference, Day Two
We like to share the goodies in the field of natural history, so in the first ever cross-over of its kind, Part I (comprising Day One) of this blog can be found over on the Geological Curator’s Group website. No need to take the time to google it, let me give you a hand over there.
Night Early Morning at the Museum
The only thing that beats going to a natural history museum is visiting it when you’re not meant to be. The trump card of such a visit, is when you’re allowed to go to parts of the collections, not normally accessible to the general public. After a day in the lecture theatre, the 35+ members of the “Making the Most of a Move” conference assembled the following morning outside the Natural History gallery of the National Museum of Ireland, in order to tick off every one of the above, on the Museum Treats Bingo Card*.
In a blog series hosted by the Horniman Museum, each month I (the Deputy Keeper of Natural History at said Museum) select a specimen from our collections, do a little research, hopefully find out some riveting and hitherto unknown piece of historical information about it that can be added to our database, and write a blog in a format accessible for the general public. It is one of my pride and joys in my job as it covers so many different aspects of museum life- public engagement, outreach, research, museum documentation, collections management, etc. This month I managed to go a step further and incorporate not just exhibition content into the article (British Wildlife Photographer Awards temporary exhibition), but also a new avenue of research and interest; a 6000 strong army of hawfinch enthusiasts who take to Twitter to record sightings of this shy but glorious little bird. I asked the followers of @HawfinchesUK if they would like to publish an image they had taken and was subsequently presented not just with photographs, but with fascinating insider information of the birding world that I may not have found by my own research.
What a wonderful collaboration of scientists and enthusiasts, and an exceptional reward for the utilisation of social media. Please enjoy:
A Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, Harold Edward Hammond, (1902 – 1963), was a keen Lepidopterist. Coupled with this affinity for butterflies and moths he was also interested in entomology generally and would take up a new order every couple of seasons, afterwards giving the carefully mounted specimens to some young aspiring student of the subject. Before his health failed a few years before his death, it was not unusual to find Hammond out in the snow on Boxing Day, splitting logs with an axe to find beetle larvae. Generous, almost to a fault, he was content with gaining new knowledge and found reward in encouraging a new generation of enthusiasts.
Hammond’s main focus was on the larvae of Lepidoptera and, as can be seen by the associated article, he became an expert in their preservation. Raising many larvae into a suitable size for mounting could be somewhat problematic, so his Birmingham garden became a cross between a sanctuary and a fattening pen for many caterpillars. This miniature farm was orderly and well maintained, where trees were pruned to the size of bushes for easy access and micro habitats were constructed to help manage conditions for more demanding food plants.
The skills that Hammond developed in preserving caterpillars were much in demand by fellow entomologists, and he would sometimes receive dozens of boxes of live larvae a week, all dutifully delivered by a postman oblivious to their wriggling contents. His fee for this service was a request that he could have a larva or two for his own collection. During his preparations he encountered many parasitic hymenopteran and dipteran larvae, so he became quite the expert on those also, co-authoring several papers in the Entomologist’s Gazette.
Katie Ott, a museum studies student on placement with the Horniman, tells us about her fascinating work with our botany collection.
I’m Katie, and I’m three weeks into an eight-week work placement at the Horniman, helping the Natural History team to research and document the botany collection.
The botany collection at the Horniman is made up of around 3000 individual specimens either mounted onto herbarium sheets or bound in volumes. The flowering plant collection dates mainly from 1830-1850.
Two herbarium sheets from Flora Britannica no. 4., Katie Ott
The main task is to transcribe the (beautiful, but squiggly) Victorian handwriting on the herbarium sheets such as the plant’s scientific name, and where it was found etc onto MimsyXG, our collections management database.
I was just thinking last week that social media has taken over the world as the most thing in existence, corporeal or not, when this article came out about how scientists should all be trained in its use; Social Media; More Scientists Needed. No hope of escape for any of us then. (I say on a social media platform).
Last Wednesday, sadly, New Walk Museum had items stolen from display; From Rhino horns to Egyptian jewels. Whilst the objects stolen last week weren’t of natural history origin, this article (if you can see it through the adverts) also reveals that rhino horn was stolen from there a few years ago. The huge rhino horn problem faced by museums, primarily in 2012, was largely curbed by museums removing all horn from display. An update on this situation was published on our website recently in Rhinos and Museums.
There are many of us that have had to justify our job’s existence, especially in these times of never ending cuts. Often those with the purse strings have no idea what a curator does on a day to day basis, and this lack of understanding is something that we are constantly trying to rectify to help ensure the safety and future accessibility of the collections under our care.
Depending on your point of view, it may be sad or comforting to know that this is something curators have had to deal with for generations. The following article was written by Miss Joan Harding, the curator of Warwickshire Museum from 1938 to just after WW2. The museum was closed and emptied for refurbishment in 1938 and Miss Harding packed up the collections with little help to a draughty, leaky building nearby. Before works began, the museum was requisitioned by the army as a Civil Defence store, and all of the collections had to remain in their rather inadequate temporary location for a lot longer than was originally planned. To add insult to injury, the Education Committee tried to disperse the collection in 1947, but this was fortunately not approved.
Despite her best efforts over this decade of mothballing, some objects were lost during the constant battle of attrition, and Miss Harding left and emigrated to South Africa in 1948, possibly after running out of patience. Miss Jocelyn Morris took her place shortly afterwards and oversaw the long overdue renovations for the next 3 years, opening up the museum to great fanfare in May of 1951.
Without further ado, here is a transcription by Janet Vaughan of the observations of Miss Harding:
What is the Work of a Curator of a “Closed” Museum?
From Miss Harding’s Notebook, CR 2547/146, held at Warwickshire County Records Office
“This question suggested itself to me when an educational authority (and one who should know better since this particular human is administered by an Education Committee) voiced in my hearing “I can’t think what she finds to do.”
For over 2000 years, rhino horn has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat a variety of ailments including fever, headaches, and vomiting. It is typically ground or shaved and then dissolved in boiling water to drink. Rhino horn is solely comprised of keratin (as are your finger nails) with a structure more similar to a turtle’s beak or a horse’s hoof than the mass of compressed hair as it used to be thought. Keratin in really vast quantities may be able to detect some poisons, but absolutely not in a practical sense, and it certainly doesn’t have the ability to cure any of the vast number of illnesses listed in the ‘TCM handbook’.
Trade in modern rhino horn, and unworked antique pieces that predate the 1947 legislation, is illegal. Unfortunately the demand for horn is high and things like its legality don’t currently seem to be enough to deter the market. Poachers are turning to more sophisticated, and nefarious, techniques to obtain it.
Black rhino in Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
In South Africa, where the highest numbers of wild rhino live, poaching went from 13 deaths in 2007 and 83 in 2008, through 448 in 2011 and 668 in 2012, to a peak in 2014 where 1215 animals were killed for their horn. Since 2015 the number of rhinos killed per year has dropped slightly, largely due to an increase in security and protection in their range states, however the rate of slaughter is still alarming (1054 were poached in 2016 in South Africa alone) and conservationists fear the day that the number of deaths will outnumber the births, and the African rhinos will go into decline. Both African species are still trying to recover after intensive poaching during the 20th Century decimated their numbers, but are (were) recovering due to intensive conservation management. That is until the last decade and the current ‘poaching crisis’.