Resurrection 101

Written by Paolo Viscardi, Curator of Zoology, National Museum of Ireland – Natural History

Anyone who has to deal with fluid collections, without the support of a natural history conservator, probably has nightmares about cracked jar lids and desiccated specimens. But would you sleep more easily if I told you that it’s possible to get a transformation like this using a straightforward and inexpensive method?

Frog_before-after

Here’s my account of how I resurrected this dehydrated specimen using stuff you probably have sitting in your museum cupboards or that you can buy for less than £20. It’s worth noting that the technique will not always work and if you plan to use it on a specimen that may have useful DNA to contribute, you should take a sample before rehydrating, since it is likely to reduce the quantity and quality of DNA you can extract.

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Invertebrates In Vitro

Written by Paolo Viscardi, Curator of Zoology, National Museum of Ireland – Natural History

I’m not sure why, but people really seem to love Blaschka models.

Beccaria tricolor [sic] Nr.373 in Blaschka catalogue. Specimen NMINH:1886.810.1 at the National Museum of Ireland.

Beccaria tricolor [sic], Nr.373 in Blaschka catalogue. Specimen NMINH:1886.810.1 at the National Museum of Ireland. Image by Paolo Viscardi, 2018

They are the subject of a surprisingly large number of enquiries at the National Museum of Ireland — Natural History (AKA the Dead Zoo), where I look after the zoology collections.

If you’ve not heard of the Blaschkas, they were a father and son company of lampworkers based in Dresden, who supplied museums and universities around the world with glass models for teaching and display. Between 1864 and 1890 they made mail-order models of invertebrates (alongside glass eyes and medical equipment), then from 1890 until 1936 they worked exclusively for Harvard University on the Ware collection of glass flowers.

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Bouquet of Blaschka glass flowers made in 1889, gifted to Elizabeth C. and Mary L. Ware. Now part of the Harvard Glass Flowers exhibit. Image by Bard Cadarn, 2018.

At the Dead Zoo we have a particularly large and comprehensive collection of the invertebrates, with around 590 models acquired in lots between 1874 and 1888. I say ‘around’, because many of the models are made up of multiple parts, with different developmental stages, enlargements and details that are classed as elements of the same model.

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Brexit & the Customs Union: The practical impact on museums

With less than one year to go before Britain officially leaves the European Union, it’s high time we got to grips with what Brexit means for those of us working with museum collections. The most talked-about issues have tended to be the impact on visitor numbers, hits to funding and the loss of skilled and knowledgeable staff, as museum professionals reconsider staying in a more divided (and some might even say openly xenophobic) Britain.

brexit

Brexit – Public domain image courtesy of freestocks.org, 2016

However, there are also practical issues that need to be considered right now, as the UK government wrangles over the deal for borders and trade relationships that will impact on how museums undertake their day-to-day business. In particular there are significant issues relating to how membership of the Customs Union plays out.

This became a reality for me when I  was assessing the status of research loans to the UK from the National Museum of Ireland, where I am the Curator of Zoology & Entomology. I have to deal with quite a lot of research loans of type specimens to taxonomists and getting material across borders can be quite nerve-wracking thanks to the attitude of the occasional overzealous border official – who can forget the horrific incident last year in which 105 botanical specimens (including six types) were incinerated by Australian border control?

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What is a museum curator made of? Slugs and snails and puppy dog tails, and then some…

We’ve all been asked it – what do you actually do as a zoology curator…

Some years ago, in a post I can no longer find, @morethanadodo responded with a long list that ranged from bar-tender to expert on name-your- taxon. Oh, how we laughed… In my long service at the Hunterian in Glasgow I have had the privilege of curating all sorts of zoology material – today I am a coral expert, tomorrow I’m puzzling over pickling fish correctly…

However, over the years, in addition to curating the zoology collection, my remit expanded to include the anatomy and pathology collections and most recently a collection of materia medica. ‘Wot dat?’ you may well ask. Well, essentially it’s an apothecary/pharmacology collection and could easily be the original ‘animal, vegetable, mineral’ quiz. In University museums, unsurprisingly and quite typically you are offered and acquire collections that have been made by former or existing academic staff in the course of their research and teaching. Given the collections are made for those
purposes, they usually require processing to get up to museum standards.

The collection in question is that made by Professor Ralph Stockman, (1861-1946), Regius Professor of Materia Medica 1897 – 1937 at the University of Glasgow. Stockman, born in Leith and educated at Edinburgh University, was a medical doctor who worked as an influential and successful clinician and an academic scientist in what was then called medical chemistry.

Ralph Stockman, University of Glasgow UGSP00223

Ralph Stockman (image from University of Glasgow, UGSP00223)

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National Gorilla Day! (or Racist Skeletons in our Closets)

Happy National Gorilla Day!

We don’t usually cover “national *insert_animal* day” specially on this blog, but this year we’re particularly excited about gorillas because a book was recently published that contains a comprehensive list of all the gorillas held in natural science collections worldwide.

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This impressive resource has been compiled by John Cooper and Gordon Hull over the course of many years and not only are specimens listed, their collection and/or acquisition data are also reported. Cooper and Hull have also offered suggestions for use of specimens in collections as well as guidance on the different types of preservation available and how they can be achieved. This only forms part of the book, with the first section more concerned with the health and conservation of these impressive animals. Continue reading