Since Covid-19 hit the scene, time has not seemed to behave normally, with a Groundhog Dayesque sense of repetition that has eroded our patience and put our mental health to the test. For many people working with collections it has been a very difficult time, with projects being put on hold, contracts not being renewed, furlough and redeployment making normal work impossible and even the improvements seen in facilitation of working from home offering the thinnest and most tarnished of silver linings.
At the Dead Zoo in Dublin the pandemic has thrown up different challenges. With a leaking roof threatening the national collections, a project to safeguard them by undertaking a roof refurbishment was considered a priority and categorised as essential work. The first stage of this project was to remove two whales suspended from supports within the roofspace, which in turn required a substantial amount of preparation, given the crowded Victorian gallery space.
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?
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (image from University of Glasgow, UGSP00223)