In November 2021 National Museums Scotland acquired a remarkable collection of fossil bird skeletons dating from the Eocene, approximately 54.6-55 million years ago. The story of how this collection ended up in Edinburgh is a very long one and began more than 25 years ago.
“Please can you show me your collection of Eocene birds?” This was the question that greeted me when I first met a Mr Michael Daniels more than 25 years ago. Visiting the museum with his wife Pam and his daughter Caroline, who lived in Edinburgh, this meeting would be the beginning of a long friendship and long-term correspondence, which ended sadly in 2021. My answer was “Well I would love to show you our collection of Eocene birds, but we don’t have any.” Michael proceeded to tell me about his remarkable collection of several hundred skeletons and part skeletons that he had discovered in nodules of the London Clay, which had eroded out of the cliffs at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex. In later years I visited Michael and Pam at their home and got to see the collection in its countless drawers and boxes in his study. I was astonished at the amazing variety of specimens of all shapes and sizes. Many of the bones were minuscule, requiring great patience and skill to extract from the substrate.
Michael Daniels was a passionate self-taught palaeontologist, who visited various fossil sites outside London and further afield in southern England from his home at Loughton near Epping Forest. He developed a more specialised interest in the Tertiary Eocene London Clay in the early 1970s, having been a founder member of the Tertiary Research Group in 1969. On retirement in 1985 he moved with his wife to Holland-on-Sea, so that he could pursue this interest at Walton-on-the-Naze.
“Year of the Student” focuses on how college and university museum staff can attract students to their museums by employing a variety of programs and collaborations. Like many campuses natural history museums, the Werner Wildlife Museum had difficulty attracting college students who either had no idea it was there, or only remembered it as a dark and dusty place with a towering, menacing polar bear. After attending a few New Student Orientation events (there are several each semester) to chat with incoming freshmen, we realized that we needed to show them that the museum was inviting and relevant. After brainstorming, several ideas came to the forefront. One was to work with the museum studies program, which the museum had done successfully in the past, and another was to develop programs and partnerships that would bring new groups to the museum.
The museum studies class was an engaging group to work with. In collaboration with staff, the most recent group curated both an art show that featured works from the Casper College permanent collection and juried a community art show. The students researched artists, and artwork, designed and produced the exhibition pamphlet, took professional photographs for curation records, and installed both shows. They also planned and executed an opening reception in the museum space. The program attracted the attention of their fellow art students, faculty, and engaged the public who attended the opening.
Another program that engaged both current students and the public were creative writing workshops that were offered in the evenings in collaboration with the English faculty. These programs were created to engage a new audience and to utilize the museum in a less traditional (at least to us) manner. Several of the faculty members are published authors who enjoy delving into their preferred writing style and were encouraged to do so in these workshops. Using the specimens in the museum as inspiration during the cold winter nights, participants were able to tap into experiences and creativity that surprised even the most seasoned writers. From poetry to reductive writing, to traditional storytelling, each participant produced works that were gathered and published in house. This publication was the first time some of the students had shared their work with a wider audience.
Other outreach efforts centred around visiting the students where they gathered. We attended more orientation events and developed an on campus “passport” that brought students to the campus museums, the art gallery, the archive, the greenhouse, and other overlooked destinations. Staff started bringing touch specimens to the dorms one evening each month. By the third month, we had a few regulars who would stop by to see what new objects we had brought with us. Work-study students assisted at these events, giving them the opportunity to engage with their peers, which can be less intimidating for the students on both sides of the table.
These engagement strategies worked well and both campus museums saw an increase in student visitation. The takeaway lesson museum staff learned was that talking to the students one on one, through courses, or in small groups; demystifying the visitor experience through peer-to-peer engagement; and outreach to student dominated areas (dorms, welcome fairs) increased awareness and interest in the institutions. Student engagement is an ongoing process that should be adaptative, interesting, and educational while supporting the museums and the students they serve.
Written by Clare Booth-Downs, Herbarium Curator, Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium,
Moving On Up, To Move On Out
The Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium (RHS), which holds approximately 150,000 specimens and associated ancillary collections, had outgrown its original storage space. The building of a new dedicated science and collections centre, RHS Hilltop, which opened in late June 2021, provided a solution to this. Hilltop, the home of gardening science, includes a larger, purpose built facility, the 1851 Royal Commission Herbarium.
Increasing the capacity of the herbarium was vital as the collection is expected to expand at a fast pace over the next few years. With a full time plant collector now in place, the RHS’ ultimate aim is to hold a specimen of every species and cultivar of garden plant growing in the U.K. It is estimated this will be a collection numbering 400,000 specimens by 2050.
This repository will act as a reference point for gardeners, breeders, students and researchers as well as for ‘non-traditional’ herbarium visitors, for example, artists and designers looking for inspiration for fabrics and jewellery. This is alongside one of the Society’s own research foci, as described by Professor Alistair Griffiths, RHS Director of Science & Collections, “In the UK, we’ve got a massive diversity of cultivated plants, originating from around the world, and all have potential for nature-based solutions. We’re going to work towards a database of the garden plants and their uses from an environmental, and health and wellbeing perspective”.
Whilst we do have some objects held at Worcestershire Archives, a mummified bird filed in a plastic pocket was a hugely surprising find all the same! The bird was ‘filed’ – its place as important as other key events in the history of Burlingham & Co., Evesham, a business, which from the late 19th century onwards was managed by Henry Burlingham.
Either side of the mummified bird contains photographs of the Evesham premises charting its changing fortunes, a catalogue of products sold, adverts and circulars sent out to clients. Whilst Burlingham & Co. began as merchants and agents of a wide range of goods, including coal, their interests narrowed as sellers of construction materials, garden machinery, and fertiliser.
I was excited by ‘The Burlingham Bird’ find and set about the challenge of learning more about it and also how best to conserve and safely store the specimen in our archives.
The Mummy Bird
As you can see it was described as ‘Mummified sea bird found in bag of Arabian Guano c.1957/8’ When I first examined it, I thought it most resembled either a cormorant or a shag having been used to seeing both around the coasts and estuaries in Devon. Having reviewed the different species found in Arabia using the image supplied with the bird and the morphology of the mummified bird itself, it most closely resembles the Socotra cormorant (Phalacrocorax nigrogularis) – endemic to the Persian Gulf and the south-east coast of the Arabian Peninsula.
Written by Piotr Korpak, Visitor Team Assistant, Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester.
Last August saw the Manchester Museum entering the final phase of its capital project called hellofuture when it closed to the public for over a year, until February 2023. Major redevelopments like this tend to be quite stressful for most institutions, but also bring a lot of excitement and many valuable opportunities for individuals. Being closed to the public meant no visitors and so I was able to support work in other departments. Always interested in natural history collections, I welcomed the chance to work with the Curatorial Team in the Entomology Department with true delight.
The Museum’s arthropod collections are amongst the top three in the UK, with over 3 million specimens, out of which about 2.5 million are insects (Logunov and Merriman, 2012). As is the case with many museums, the collections are vast, the staff numbers small, and it can be difficult for curators to catch up with the backlog of past acquisitions and historic materials. No doubt one could find boxes, cabinets, and all other imaginable storage units full of specimens still awaiting their official accessioning, cataloguing, research, and digitisation in any museum.