Making the Most of What You’ve Got

Written by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The Collection

The Horniman Museum is the custodian of a collection of ca. 175,000 fossil specimens, collected by Walter Hellyer Bennett (1892-1971). A mining geologist and palaeontology enthusiast, Bennett collected somewhat indiscriminately, not pausing to favour geography, strata, or taxa, which makes it a collection of great interest to a wide variety of academics, and for other uses such as exhibitions and loans.

This huge collection was bequeathed to the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society in the 1970s, where choice pieces were put out on open display whilst the rest remained stored in Bennett’s original wooden cabinets. It contains some beautiful material, such as this Isotelus gigas trilobite, and Eryon propinguus lobster.

A) Isotelus gigas, and Ordovician trilobite from the Trenton Limestone. B) Eryon propinquus, a Jurassic lobster from the Solnhofen Limestone. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

The collection is approximately 10% vertebrate material, 85% invertebrates, and 5% plants and trace fossils. In case you are interested in particular taxonomic groups (as we are keen on facilitating research enquiries and visits… fyi) the invertebrates are mostly bivalves, brachiopods, cephalopods, corals, and gastropods, with a large variety of other taxonomic groups represented in small numbers as well (please do get in touch if you’re interested in getting more information), and the vertebrates are primarily conodonts, crocodilians, dinosaurs, fish (including sharks), ichthyosaurs, mammals, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, and turtles. Geographically, around 87% of the material was collected within Europe, primarily from the UK (50%) and France (15%). A further 10% is from North America whilst small amounts of material were collected from across Africa, South America, the Middle East, Asia and Australasia. Notable sites include the Solnhofen Limestone and the Burgess Shale.

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Survey of Flowering Plants Stored in Fluid Preservatives Across European Herbaria

Written by Ranee Prakash, Senior Curator (Flowering Plants), Algae, Fungi and Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum, London.

A survey of flowering plant material stored in various fluid preservatives across several European herbaria/institutions was carried out a few years ago. The feedback received from the survey is shared and shows that the majority of the herbaria use 70% IMS (industrial methylated spirit) to store their collections.

Introduction

The seed plant collections (stored in various liquids such as formalin, some have unknown liquids, and some mention poison) form a relatively small yet significant part of the botanical holdings at NHM (Natural History Museum). They include some important material dating back to the mid 1800’s and type collections such as the world’s largest flower Rafflesia arnoldii collected by Robert Brown. However, these wet collections have remained a somewhat underused asset and are in dire need of curatorial attention.

In continuation to this aim, a survey of flowering plants stored in spirit collections across various institutions in Europe was carried out in 2012 so as to assess what preservatives other institutions were using and what would be the best method to store the collections at NHM for posterity. The objective of this survey was to gather information on:

  • How big the spirit collection is
  • How the collection is used
  • Which liquid preservatives the flowering plant collections are stored in

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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.

glass_flowers_gift-bouquet

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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Wild About Portsmouth – Discovering and Uncovering a Little Known Natural History Collection

Written by Christine Taylor, Curator of Natural History, Portsmouth Museums

Wild about Portsmouth is a two-year Heritage Lottery Funded project to share and raise the profile of the city’s natural history collections.  In addition to enabling visitors to get more hands on with the collections through events and activities, work is being carried out to make them more accessible for museum staff and researchers.

Challenges

The collections are held at three sites across the city and housed in environmentally controlled stores with many specimens held in archival quality boxes. However, the absence of a natural history curator for over 10 years has led to a series of challenges with accessing them:

Little Knowledge of Collections

Apart from the sizeable and substantial HLF Guermonprez Collection transferred from Bognor Regis Museum in the 1970s, very little was known about the collectors associated with the remainder of the natural history collections. In-depth knowledge of the HLF Guermonprez Collection has also been lost over time, although it is occasionally cited in publications by Sussex naturalists.

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Global Biodiversity Collections: Becoming Part of the Open Data Community

Written by Isla Gladstone, Senior Curator Natural Sciences, Bristol Museums

On 13th March I travelled to Sofia in Bulgaria, my mind buzzing with questions about biodiversity data…

I had been awarded one of 30 funded places on the first training school of Mobilise, an EU initiative to mobilise data, experts and policies in scientific collections. More specifically, Mobilise is an EU COST Action: a bottom-up network funded over four years to boost research, innovation and careers by COST, an intergovernmental framework for European Cooperation in Science and Technology.

Digitisation and data management challenges in small collections promised new skills in the key basics of data quality and cleaning. It also offered a chance to meet colleagues from around the world, and connect to a bigger picture.

At a time of unprecedented human-caused climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation, it feels more urgent than ever to connect museum collections to real-world change. Natural sciences collections offer precious opportunities here. Alongside huge potential to engage communities and inspire debate, specimens are unique sources of the scientific evidence urgently needed to unlock sustainable development solutions:

“There is more information about biodiversity in [the world’s] natural sciences collections than all other sources of information combined.” iDigBio

Collections’ biodiversity data: the what, when, where, who collected attached to many biological and palaeontological specimens © Bristol Museums

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Oldfield Thomas: In His Own Words.

Written by Roberto Portela Miguez, Senior Curator in Charge of Mammals, The Natural History Museum.

One could think that natural history curators are a kind of unidimensional creature because of their secretive nature (preference for collections habitat over open exposed museum public galleries) and their passion verging on obsession for the specimens they look after.

However I like to think that much has been done in the 21st century to change this perception and that our consistent and abundant presence in social media and public events sufficiently demonstrates that we are actually well-rounded human beings capable of entertaining a wide range of interests.

For instance, I myself, am known to be partial to a bit of heavy metal, chocolate spread sandwiches (Wild World Magazine, 2013), have a gentle interest in poetry (Waterhouse Times, 2006) and even have indulged my thespian side by making brief appearances on celluloid alongside Javier Bardem (Mondays in the Sun, 2002) …and therefore, aside from my professional interests, I do enjoy exploring other aspects of my personality and sharing the joy with the world.

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Five Lessons for Life from Working on the Horniman’s Historical Herbarium

Written by Imogen Crarer during a student placement at the Horniman Museum and Gardens early last year. Imogen recently graduated from King’s College, London with an MA in Modern History with Distinction and is currently training as a curator at the Museum of Cornish Life.

You may think that I have taken slight leave of my senses or perhaps am being a pinch too ambitious in claiming that the Horniman’s historical botany collection is the source of 5 significant life lessons. However, “Yes! To science and history but also yes to life!” is my cheerful reply. Instead of dancing away merrily in a fit of musical theatre style exuberance, I shall explain how my student placement with the Natural History department researching the Herbarium gave me such insight.

Life Lesson Number 1: Often, the Simple or Basic Tasks are the Most Important.

Everything starts somewhere. My time at the Horniman highlighted that research processes and the museum journey of cataloguing, conserving and interpreting specimens for scholarly and public benefit has to begin with the basic “’ello ‘ello, what have we here?”. In my case, what we had were unbound volumes of Flora Britannica- physical specimens attached to annotated sheets collected mostly within the 1840s.

Having never previously been catalogued, the data from the handwritten labels on these specimens needed entering into the Horniman’s Collections Management System, Mimsy XG. Recording information on the database, such as scientific name, locality, and date collected, allows Horniman staff, volunteers and future researchers to know what is in the herbarium and explore its significance without having to disturb the specimens. While handy for convenience, it also helps us to conserve the specimens as repeated handling can damage these fragile, and beautiful, preserved plants. However it soon became apparent that the basic task of deciphering the handwriting and researching historical localities and common names was time-consuming, frustrating but also very rewarding. Transcribing the data from the specimens onto the database, I felt was my most useful contribution to the Horniman, and therefore my biggest achievement. It reminded me that taking the time to give yourself a solid foundation helps in anything that you do!

The collections management database used by the Horniman Museum; Mimsy XG. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Life Lesson Number 2: Little Things can Tell us a Great Deal.

The 175+ year old botanical specimens preserved in the herbaria have both historical and scientific significance. The specimens vary in size from approximately 2 cm to 30 cm in length, and the detail of delicate moss spores, flower buds, and leaf structures for example is wonderful. The specimen sheets tell us about the plants themselves. They also reveal a snapshot of the English countryside in the 1840s, particularly around Thame, Oxfordshire. Knowing the historical what, when and where allows us to make comparisons with current ecological data. This helps us to understand if and how plant species have spread or declined. This is particularly important for meadow flowers (represented strongly in the volumes I was working on) given that 97% of British meadows have been lost since 1945[1]. I feel that the Horniman’s historical botany collection and the present drive to conserve Britain’s green spaces and limit climate change, habitat destruction and pollution are much more linked than we might think.

One of a number of unbound herbaria held in the collections. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

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