Behind The Heads: Natural History, Empire and The Abel Chapman Collection. Part 1.

Written by Dan Gordon, Keeper of Biology, The Great North Museum: Hancock.

In the museum’s basement is a room filled with heads. Row after row of them stare out from metal racks, glassy eyed and bristling with every kind of horn and antler. Visitors to this room are sometimes awestruck at the breadth of species on display. The Kudu, its head crowned by spiralling horns like giant corkscrews. A tiny Klipspringer with horns like shiny black thorns. The huge Eland, its vast head armed with massive horns like tank shells. A parliament of Africa’s fantastic beasts, all in this small storeroom. These are hunting trophies from the Abel Chapman collection. When he died in 1929 they were taken down from the walls of his Northumberland home, and gifted to the museum.


Figure 1. A rack of game trophies from the Chapman collection in the Great North Museum resource centre (Copyright Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

In light of the current conversation about museums and colonialism, and the insightful work of Lowe and Das on the subject of Natural History collections in this context, I thought I’d try to learn more about the history of the great North Museum’s African collections, and my attention was caught on the horns of Chapman’s trophies. The more I’ve learned about their story, the more I’ve come to feel that trophy heads, some of the most recognisable Natural History objects, are great examples of the way that colonialism has both helped to shape naturalism, museum collections and even our ideas about wildlife conservation.

The story of our collection begins in 1851 when Abel Chapman was born into a wealthy Sunderland brewing family. Educated at the elite Rugby School, he joined the family firm as a young man and embarked on a successful business career. Chapman was intelligent and adventurous, making expeditions to places like Canada, Scandinavia and the Arctic. In detailed notebooks filled with deft pencil sketches he documented the things he heard, saw and shot, and used these to write a whole series of books. He built a reputation as a ‘hunter naturalist’ passionate about combining field sports with game preservation, and as well as amassing a horde of trophies, he became an influential figure in the emerging field of wildlife conservation.

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We Brought Our Electric Ray Specimens Into The Lab…What Happened Next Will Shock You!

Written by Claire Smith, Project Officer at the Cole Museum of Zoology.

If you’ve been following the Cole Museum of Zoology on Twitter, you’ll know that the museum is closed at the moment – not only because of the COVID-19 lockdown, but also because we’re preparing our collections for their move into a brand new Life Sciences building. While the new museum may not be ready to open until 2021, we have plenty of work to do behind the scenes in the meantime.

Along with a team of staff and volunteers, I work on the fluid-preserved collections at the Cole Museum. As well as the ongoing task of keeping all of the wet specimens in good condition, we’re also putting some into safe storage, and getting others ready to go out on display. As part of my fluid-preservation Twitter, I share weekly threads about the kinds of tasks that the team takes on.

When specimens come into the lab needing work, we identify them from an abridged version of the museum’s catalogue. This gives us basic information such as the specimen’s accession number, its species, and what kind of fluid it’s preserved in. The majority of the Cole Museum’s specimens are fairly new, by museum standards – they’re mostly around 60 to 100 years old. Many of them have been re-sealed, re-mounted or been housed in new jars during this time, but every now and then we come across one which appears untouched. Continue reading

Time To Figure Out Where Specimens Are Really From

By John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool.

In 2020 the Vertebrate Zoology collection at World Museum took a step towards ‘FAIR’ data sharing and began adding datasets of specimen records to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). There is always a trade-off between releasing datasets as soon as possible and ensuring they contain the most precise and reliable data possible. We’ve taken the view that through releasing these datasets, and encouraging their use, a positive feedback loop will incrementally improve data quality. That said, due to restrictions on other activities, one side effect of the Covid pandemic has been a little more time for in-house provenance research.

Banded Broadbill – Eurylaimus javanicus Horsfield, 1821 [accession number: NML 31.12.14.56a]. Collected at ‘Kao Nawng’, Surat Thani, Thailand on 1913-07-21 © National Museums Liverpool (World Museum).

One collection I’ve focussed on during this time is that of prolific collecting duo, Herbert Christopher Robinson and Cecil Boden Kloss, which came to World Museum from the Federated Malay States Museums (FMSM) in 1914. Robinson, a former assistant at the Liverpool Museums, directed the FMSM from 1908 until 1926; Boden Kloss was the colleague ‘to whom he was much attached’. It seems that the FMSM specimens arrived in Liverpool without any additional documentation, so the collection locality information in our database (at National Museums Liverpool we use Mimsy XG) must have originally been transcribed from specimen labels with ‘place collected’ presumed to be Malaysia. Continue reading

Project Update: Accessing Staffordshire Geology

Written by Glenn Roadley, Curator (Natural Science), The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

About this time last year, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery was successful in a bid to the Arts Council England Designation Development Fund, securing funding of £72,500 to catalogue and display its nationally significant geology collections. The Designation Development Fund provides funding for projects which ensures long-term care of Designated collections and maximises their public value.

Ammonites in Ted’s collection before it was transferred to the Museum. © The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery

In early March 2020, just days before the museum closed and the country sank into lockdown due to Covid-19, I contributed a summary of the project to the Geological Curators’ Group blog (you can read it here). It really does show how quickly everything changed – at the time of writing the original blog, we were expecting the project to kick off in June 2020, beginning with the recruitment of an Assistant Curator to carry out the documentation of geological specimens bequeathed to the museum by Ted Watkin. This collection, comprised of about 2,000 fossils mostly originating from around Staffordshire, is to form the basis of the project and the new displays, highlighting the history and importance of the Carboniferous coal fields under Stoke-on-Trent.

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Natural Connections

This is a modified version of two articles originally published on the Gallery Oldham webpage by Patricia Francis, Natural History Curator, Gallery Oldham. May & June 2020.

Fred Stubbs shown in The Naturalist by George Henry Wimpenny

This painting reveals a hidden Oldham story. It dates from the 1920s and has always been a great favourite with our visitors. Several years ago it inspired me to look more deeply and investigate, the person, the place and the specimens.

The person is Fredrick J. Stubbs

Fred was born in Liverpool in 1878 and moved with his family to Oldham where he became apprenticed to an upholsterer. He joined the Oldham Microscopical and Natural History Society, his first love being birds. Fred volunteered at the Oldham Municipal Library, Art Gallery and Museum which was long connected with the Natural History Society. When a vacancy arose at Stepney Museum’s Nature Study Centre, he was successful in getting the job and in 1909 left Oldham for London. Completing the booklet, ‘The Birds of Oldham’ in 1910.

Returning to Oldham in April 1919 he became the Deputy Librarian and Curator at the Library and Museum. He became president of the Yorkshire Natural History Society; was a member of the Beautiful Oldham Society and help found the Oldham Society of Artists. He worked at the Library and Museum until his death caused by pneumonia in 1932.

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