Collectors, Collections and the Geology of SW Britain – A View from the Audience

Written by Nadine Gabriel, a recent UCL geology graduate and an emerging museum professional.

This article is a joint paper for the Geological Curators’ Group and the Natural Sciences Collections Association, and has subsequently been published on both blogs.

On the 18th September 2018, I attended the Collectors, Collections and the Geology of Southwest Britain meeting. This joint meeting between the Geological Curators’ Group (GCG) and the History of Geology Group (HoGG) was held at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (BRLSI), and it was also my first ever GCG event! If you have an interest in British geology, you probably know that the southwest of Britain has amazing geology, but this meeting – with around 80 attendees – also looked at the people who have dedicated their lives to exploring this geologically diverse region.

The day started off with a keynote speech from Steve Etches who spent over 35 years collecting fossils from the Jurassic Kimmeridge Clay deposits of southwest England. His collection of over 2,300 fossils found an exciting new home in 2016; the Etches Collection museum in Kimmeridge, Dorset. It was interesting to find out about the difficulties associated with starting a museum from scratch, but despite the initial challenges, the museum looks incredible and is filled with a diverse array of scientifically important specimens.

Many of the talks focused on the enthusiastic collectors of the southwest. My favourite story was about Charles Moore (1815-1881), a palaeontologist from Ilminster, Somerset. In 1858, he purchased three tonnes of gravel from Holwell, Somerset for 55 shillings. This massive purchase turned out to be filled with Rhaetian (208.5 to 201.3 million years old) fish, mammal and reptile fossils. Moore also collected fossils from the Lower Jurassic limestone of Strawberry Bank in Ilminster, and these fossils are now cared for by our hosts, the BRLSI. During the coffee break, Matt Williams (the BRLSI collections manger) showed us a selection of Moore’s stunning fossils.

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Harry Higginson: Distributing Dodos in the 1860s

Written by Clare Brown, Curator of Natural Science, Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Curators are often asked to name their favourite object. I’ve got loads and swap between them all the time: the adult longhorn beetle that emerged from someone’s wooden sofa after a few years of chewing, our thylacine mount, the dude-y little rock hyrax with attitude, the Peruvian “mummy’s eyes” (read squid lenses), that gorgeous La Brea tar pits water beetle… My favourites at the moment are our dodo bones. Yes they’re dodo bones and so, obviously, are amazing but the story behind how Leeds came to have them is wonderful too.

It all started in 1838 in Thormanby near York where little Harry Higginson was born. He progressed through school in Leicester and an apprenticeship in Manchester to a railway construction job in Mauritius in 1862. Harry’s completely brilliant ‘Reminiscences of Life and Travel‘ is a great read. It’s packed full of amazing 19th century colonial derring-do from out-galloping the monsoon in a gorge to unbelievable childcare practices (burying them up to their necks in sand) to feeding a friend a dead – and extremely tough – donkey ‘as a lark’. It is in this book that Harry describes the moment when the dodo story gets more interesting:

Shortly before the completion of the railway I was walking along the embankment one morning, when I noticed some [locals] removing some peat soil from a small morass. They were separating and placing into heaps, a number of bones, of various sorts, among the debris. I stopped and examined them, as they appeared to belong to birds and reptiles, and we had always been on the lookout for bones of the then mythical Dodo. So I filled my pocket with the most promising ones for further examination.

And guess what? They were dodo bones and Higginson then kindly sent a box full to York, Liverpool and Leeds Museums. We all still have them.

This beautiful watercolour of a dodo dates back to the 17th Century. During this period, ‘dronte’ (as seen in the image) was the word used in Dutch, French and Italian for the dodo. © Image in public domain.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – October

Compiled by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

What Should I Read?

You may or may not own/have heard of ‘Dinosaurs, How They Lived and Evolved‘ by Dr Darren Naish and Dr Paul Barrett, but either way the good news is there’s now a literally-just-released-second-edition, which is the most up to date a (printed) book can possibly be really. There is a lot of talk about it already but my tuppence is- I have a copy and it’s brilliant. That description fully extends to the captivating cover art by Bob Nicholls of Paleocreations, featuring a hungry Tianyulong (that’s a dinosaur, in case you weren’t sure).

I came across a charming article about getting children into natural sciences recently called ‘Kids and caterpillars: Fostering a child’s interest in nature by rearing Lepidoptera (moth and butterfly) larvae‘. I’m not suggesting we all go out and start rearing leps, but in an age where human lives are ruled by technology, it’s a beautiful story and heart warming example of an intra-familial cross-generational citizen science project by an Assistant Curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and his son.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – September

Lost Treasures- A Statement from the Chair

Dear all,

As most of you will no doubt be aware, the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, suffered a catastrophic fire that started in the evening of 2nd September 2018. Fortunately no people were killed in the blaze, but the majority of the collections housed in the building are thought to be lost. While the cause of the fire is still as yet uncertain, a significant proportion of the blame for the devastation caused has fallen on the Brazilian government, due to ongoing under-investment in the Museum’s infrastructure. This serves as a stark warning of the dangers faced by museums with inadequate support.

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Impressions of My First NatSCA Conference

Last April I had the opportunity to attend the NatSCA conference at Leeds City Museum. I have been a member of NatSCA since I came to live in the UK three years ago and finally this year, thanks to one of the NatSCA bursaries, I was able to attend the conference. With more than 70 participants from all over the UK and beyond each day, more than 20 talks, interesting stands showing projects and new technology, good coffee and lunch in a uniquely-shaped hall, the event was very successful.

Over the two-day conference, I met colleagues from work, I recognised familiar faces from previous events and the most exciting part was to meet new people and to hear about the amazing projects and experiences from different experts in the museum environment. We also heard about the benefit of working with communities, schoolchildren, teachers, volunteers, undergraduate students, artists and many other groups.

After thinking carefully about what really impressed me (a difficult job with so many good talks), I would like to highlight the following topics.

Facing Challenges and Thinking Up New Strategies to Engage

The first two talks about the exhibition Dinosaurs of China in Nottingham really impressed me. The project involved extraordinary team work in organising the loans, the trips, the installation of the tallest dinosaur skeleton ever displayed in the UK, and the running of a very successful event with large numbers of visitors. The second talk showed brilliantly the role of theatre to enhance the visitor’s experience and engage the public while also showing a good marketing strategy. Moreover, selecting the artist with the required performance skills was very demanding work.

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The Mass Migration of the Cole Museum of Zoology

This article has been reposted from The Mass Migration of the Cole Museum of Zoology blog.

Spreading the word

We’re back!

There has been a lot of progress made in organising the move of our animals, and there will be a series of blog posts here to update you on what we’ve been up to behind the scenes.

In front of the scenes (as it were), some of our invaluable undergraduate volunteers have created and started to roll out an outreach/awareness focused Pop-Up Museum.

The pop-up features specimens (that aren’t part of the official museum collections!) and an information sheet about each species, with members of the public able to pick up and explore them. The volunteers are there to engage in enthusiastic conversation, to educate people about animal life and raise awareness of the Cole Museum itself.

The Featured Image of this post shows Max and Amelia at a local primary school’s summer fair, and below is the huge amount of interest the museum got from young zoologists on its first ever outing:

Max and Amelia at a local primary school’s summer fair. © Cole Museum of Zoology

The beauty of the pop-up museum lies in its portability and flexibility of content; it can include games, sweets and toys for sale if being run in the museum during holidays or at schools but could also include more in-depth specimen information, a more grown-up friendly range of merchandise and quizzes. The whole thing packs into 2 or 3 boxes, and requires only a table to set up.

For the Cole, our pop-up museum encompasses so many things that are really important to us; great undergraduate student experiences, public outreach, inspiring the next generations of zoologists and raising awareness/funds for the Cole Museum and its upcoming move. It’s a win-win-win…win-win…

Written by Meg Cathcart-James, Project Officer at Cole Museum of Zoology

NatSCA Digital Digest – July

What Should I Read?

On the palaeo-blog by ever prolific palaeoartist Mark Witton, a new piece called Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles at 25: a palaeontological retrospective looks back on the Age of Reptiles comic series, that first appeared in 1993. It is full of palaeoartistry insights, entertaining musings, and images from both Witton and the comic series.

The Geological Curators’ Group blog is a hive of activity with new content now coming out fortnightly. The latest article, published a couple of days ago, is a review of the very popular and highly successful pyrite workshop that took place at the Natural History Museum, London. With really useful content, the article by Deborah Hutchinson, Curator of Geology at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, is called Pyrite Oxidation: Where Are We Now?

Some fantastic new dinosaur skeletons, with thought-provoking growth rings within the bones…., are currently being unearthed in Argentina. Read about this Triassic site in the following article from the BBC; Fossil of ‘first giant’ dinosaur discovered in Argentina.

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