Not Just Old Birds in Cases

This article is reposted from the Stories from the Museum Floor blog by the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum

Not Just old Birds in Cases – The Value of Natural History Collections

The most recent exhibition ‘Extinction or Survival?’ at Manchester Museum has brought many interesting ideas and suggestions from a wide group of visitors about how we can change our future. Several comments have mentioned animals kept in museums and collections, for example, “Stop killing animals to put in a museum” or “help all the animals by collecting DNA … and … not get stuffed like … in museums”. These comments have inspired me to write about the importance of natural history collections, especially the value of bird collections.

deana 2Comment card left at the ‘Extinction or Survival?’ exhibition at Manchester Museum, 2017.

Whether collecting birds for science is still necessary remains a hotly debated topic. However, the value of scientific collections cannot be questioned. Research or reference collections are still making crucial contributions in documenting biodiversity in time and space, and understanding species’ ecology and evolution, vital for conservation strategies. Furthermore, collections and museum have an important role in preserving and caring for past and present natural heritage and providing educational opportunities.

CAN COLLECTING BIRDS FOR SCIENCE BE A THREAT TO NATURAL POPULATIONS?

Among the most significant causes of bird mortality in the UK are window strikes, for example against houses and buildings, and capture by domestic cats. The British Trust for Ornithology estimates that up to 33 million birds are killed by windows each year. The Mammal Society estimates that 55 million birds are caught by cats annually. By contrast, all bird collections in museums represent only a tiny fraction of the above numbers. But even cats do not cause decline in natural populations, in fact, the most significant threat to bird species worldwide is habitat loss.

BIRD COLLECTION BEHIND THE SCENES

Manchester Museum holds around 15,000 study skins, or bird specimens, from 3,000 different species, they were mostly collected between 1850 to 1950. All study skins are kept in labelled drawers in cabinets, organised in taxonomic order. If you want to know where the Manchester Museum’s birds come from, see here.

deana 3Drawers of study skins at Manchester Museum. (Photo: Ian McKerchar – see Further reading)

Study skins are different from taxidermy. Taxidermy preserves an animal in a lifelike position by stuffing and mounting the body for display in galleries and exhibitions. On the other hand, a study skin preserves the animal in a simple, un-lifelike position (in birds, resting on their backs), but useful for research. All the information associated with the specimen is kept on a label attached to the study skin.

diana 4Taxidermy of Pouter Pigeon (domesticated variety of Columba livia) and Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Living Worlds, Manchester Museum.

FullSizeRender (1)Study skin of the extinct Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum.

WHY SCIENTIFIC COLLECTIONS ARE IMPORTANT

Natural history specimens provide useful information for disciplines such as taxonomy, anatomy, morphology and ecology, among many others. The information associated with each specimen, for example, date and location, also provide important information about distribution, diet, breeding, geographical variation and much more. Darwin’s theory of evolution would not have been conceived without collections.

dian 4Warbler Finch (Certhidea olivacea) study skin from Charles Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, held at Manchester Museum. (Photo: Manchester Museum, University of Manchester)

Many study skin labels can be found around the museum galleries.

diana 8aLabel of a male Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), now extinct, collected in Toronto, Canada in April 1875 by I. Morley. ‘Extinction or Survival?’ exhibition.

dian 5Label of the extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), collected in Enterprise, Florida, United States in February 1875 by I. Morley. Nature’s Library gallery.

HOW BIRD COLLECTIONS ARE STILL USED TODAY – FOUR EXAMPLES

1. Illustrations

Bird books have always been a useful tool, not only for ornithologists, but also for birdwatchers. To identify species, illustrations can describe patterns, colours, shapes, sizes and other characteristics better than photographs. Many illustrators and painters have been using bird study skins for this purpose since the early 19th century.

Johannes Gerardus Keulemans was a Dutch bird illustrator, working in England in the 19th century. His illustration of Great Northern Diver can be appreciated in Nature’s Library next to the bird specimen that inspired it. The specimen is part of Henry Dresser’s bird collection, held at the Manchester Museum since 1899.

Study skin of the Great Northern Diver (Gavia immer) collected by Henry Dresser and the painting by J.G. Keulemans in Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum.

Guy Tudor and John Gwynne, artists and bird illustrators, produced beautiful colour plates, modelled on specimens in bird collections, for the guide to the Birds of Colombia and the guide to the Birds of South America. The drawings show different plumage according to age, sex, breeding status and subspecies.

Cover: The Birds of South America.

2. Describing new species from old specimens

After many years of remaining lost in drawers in museum collections, new bird species can come to light. Ornithologists revising and working with collections have described new species that were previously confused with similar species, often due to poor data on their labels. Many of them are now rare or possibly extinct. For example, Antioquia Brush Finch (Atlapetes blancae) was described by British ornithologist Thomas Donegan in 2007 from just three specimens in Colombian museums. It has not been seen in the wild since it was collected in 1971. It is currently classified as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct).

dian 9Comparison of Antioquia Brush Finch (Atlapetes blancae) with similar species from Colombia. (Figure: Bulletin of the British Ornithological Club, 2007 – see Further reading)

Who knows what may be in Manchester Museum waiting to be discovered?

3. Effect of climate change on bird distributions

Locality information on labels, that is, where the specimen was found, is vital for studies to predict changes in animal distributions due to climate change. These modern techniques make use of specimens that were collected long before computers or scientific climate models. A study in Colombia using different scenarios to predict the effects of climate change on globally threatened birds showed that in most cases species were projected to have smaller ranges while some others disappeared as a consequence of climate change. Museum collections were the main source of data for the models.

diana 10Map showing the predicted percent of species’ range loss in Colombia. (Figure: Regional Environmental Change, 2012 – see further reading)

4. Revealing secrets of evolution

There are still many questions to be answered about evolution. A project attempting to understand how and why bird species evolved and colonized different places on Earth used 3D scanners to analyse the size and shape of bird beaks from the Natural History Museum at Tring and Manchester Museum. The project is being run by the University of Sheffield with help from more than 1500 volunteers. More information on how to take part can be found here.

dian 113D scanning equipment for ‘Mark My Bird’ project. (Photo: markmybird.org)

In conclusion, stuffed birds on show at museums, and in the vast collections behind the scenes, are not just dead animals, they are museum specimens, with important associated information. A vital role of museums is to make sure this information can be used today to help us understand more about birds and to conserve wild populations within their natural habitats.

Written by Diana Arzuza Buelvas, Visitor Team Assistant at Manchester Museum

Meet the NatSCA Committee – Paul A. Brown

Meet the NatSCA Committee: Archivist

Name: Paul A. Brown

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee? I am the Archivist, responsible for collecting together the archives from our previous incarnations; The Biology Curators’ Group and The Natural Sciences Conservation Group and more recent NatSCA documents. Most of this sits by my desk. Do any of you membership have anything that could be added?

Job title and institution: Senior Curator, Hemiptera (Sternorrhyncha), Thysanoptera, Phthiraptera, Psocoptera, Collembola, Thysanura, Archaeognatha, Diplura & Protura, Insect Small Orders section, Life Sciences Department, Natural History Museum, London.

Twitter username: I am too old to learn how to have one!

On field work at Scolt Head, Norfolk

On field work at Scolt Head, Norfolk

Tell us about your day job: I am presently responsible for part of the ‘small’ orders listed above. This entails re-curating and data-basing the mostly microscope slide collections and dealing with scientific visitors, loans of material and answering enquiries. I still do some research into the taxonomy of Aphids in particular (see research-gate). Almost 40 years in Museums so according to some, I might know something? If you have problems with microscope slides then who ya gonna call, ‘slide busters?’!

Natural science collections are very popular with visitors. Why do you think this is? The public want to see real or proper models of objects to which they can relate to. Museums are not so much dead zoos as a way to show what there is out there, without having to get your boots muddy during long hours of waiting to see the living things which may only be a fleeting glimpse, in the wild or even in a zoo.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now? Even the National Museums have an uncertain future so there are many great challenges to keep our NatSCA profile high with government and funding bodies so as to continue a proper level of care of and access to our collections. During my working career, there has been a steady erosion of curatorial and conservator expertise and staffing levels and knowledge of the taxonomy of our objects which greatly saddens me. Please do look for information on our website at collections at risk, and join us in defending ours and the nations’ natural heritage.

What would be your career in an alternate universe without museums? Over and above my knowledge of Natural History, I have an interest in writing, photography, drawing genealogy, geomorphology, molinology, ancient buildings, archaeology and history and have been a farm labourer and forester (I still wield a chainsaw). So, without museums, I would probably be a reserve or historic site warden of some sort somewhere in the world.

What is your favourite museum, and why? It has to be the Smithsonian as they have so many real specimens on show and excellent dioramas which have such a ‘wow’ factor and must stimulate visitors to have a love of nature much more than any other museum I have visited! Otherwise maybe H.M.S. Belfast (2nd World War Cruiser) because it is a museum object in its own right and all the problems that this entails, as well as being a ‘museum’ full of objects.

Written by Paul A Brown, Senior Curator at the Natural History Museum, London

NatSCA Digital Digest

Three-toed sloth (C) Horniman Museum and Gardens

Three-toed sloth (C) Horniman Museum and Gardens

The October NatSCA Digital Digest is here already, where does the time go?

What’s New to Read?

Dana Andrew recently went to Jamaica to track down the original location of some museum specimens, and has reported back to ICOM. She was funded by a WIRP international travel grant, and you can read about her blustery adventures, so far, here.

Eighty full years of mourning have now taken place for the Thylacine, since it was deliberately driven to extinction in 1936. Thylacine expert, Jack Ashby, makes sure it’s not forgotten and talks about how it feels to be in the area where it happened in a tribute blog here.
What’s New to See?

On the 19th October the Grant Museum of Zoology will bring you some sex, some creativity, and some trickery. A new exhibition looks at the colourful world of reproduction in nature.

Two days later, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition opens at the Natural History Museum on the 21st October. Always a crowd pleaser, I’ve had some sneak peeks which prove this year will be no different.

And just one day after that, the Horniman Museum will also be ready to entertain with a new exhibition. This one, called Memorial: A Tribute to Taxidermy, exhibits historic Horniman Museum taxidermy specimens alongside Jazmine’s modern day interpretations. Elegant and beautiful, this exhibition is a must-see, and comes complete with a fascinating timelapse film of how she did it.
What to do with your Sawfish

If you have any sawfish rostrums in your collection, particularly if they have locality data, there is something important you really need to do! The Sawfish Conservation Society, the Shark Trust, and The Deep (aquarium) have begun a joint venture to research museum specimens and data with the aim to protect wild populations. If you can help, please get in touch with any of the aforementioned lovely people, and to thank you for your efforts, your institution will be acknowledged in any scientific papers that get published. Double win.

Sawfish rostra (Wikimedia Commons)

Sawfish rostra (Wikimedia Commons)

NatSCA Digital Digest

natsca

Jobs and Traineeships

If, like many, your world will never be the same again once Dippy the Diplodocus retires from his position adorning the entrance hall to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, you can at least help secure him a happy future by going for the job of Corporate Partnerships Manager- Dippy the Dinosaur on Tour at the NHM. The deadline is the 25th January so there’s still time to affect the life of this semi-retired much loved icon.

If digital engagement is more your thing then the University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) are currently looking for a Digital Engagement Specialist. The deadline for this post is also the 25th January, with interviews on the 8th February.

Events and Exhibitions

The London Transport Museum is holding an interesting half day symposium on 7th March 2016 called Contemporary Collecting. The symposium is free and includes an evening reception at the Museum. There are six areas of focus listed on the website, ranging from risks of collecting to acquisitions that ‘are inherently, and/or overtly, political’. Sounds exciting!

Around the Web

The project of digitising the Charles Lyell Fossil Collections is well underway at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The blog (link above) is a fun and interesting read but more importantly, if you have any Charles Lyell specimens in your collection, Sarah Joomun and Eliza Howlett at the OUMNH would love to hear from you.

 

NatSCA Digital Digest

(Image by Ton Rulkens, in public domain)

(Image by Ton Rulkens, public domain)

 

Your weekly round-up of news and events happening in the world of natural sciences

News

The BBC just posted a down to earth (or sea) article called The man who swims with sharks, by Melissa Hogenboom, feature writer for BBC Earth. Combined with beautiful images, it talks about swimming with and photographing sharks and summarises some very interesting facts about these majestic animals.

Exhibitions

If you haven’t seen the Natural History Museums’ exhibition Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea, you should definitely go this weekend. If you have seen the Natural History Museums’ exhibition Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea, you should definitely go this weekend. It will be your last opportunity to see (or re-see) the exhibition as it closes on the 13th September. There are fantastic specimens, cool interactive games and a video of the only coral spawning ever to have occurred in captivity. I personally recommend it to you.

Opened just last week is the new exhibition In the Footsteps of Elephants. This two and a half week exhibition is only open from the 3rd to the 20th September, so if it’s up your street you need to get a wriggle on. The exhibition is being held at the Nature in Art Museum and Gallery in Gloucestershire, which looks really worth too.

Jobs

If you are looking to move, or move into a, role in natural sciences the Naturejobs Career Expo in London on Friday 18th September should be a great place to meet others in the field, attend workshops and conference talks, schmooze with potential employers, and even get your CV looked at.

If Brachiopods are your thing, then the Natural History Museum in London is currently looking for a curatorial assistant to join them in the Earth Sciences Department. The contract is for a year, and the deadline is the 14th September. Sounds like a shell of a good opportunity (!)

As ever, if you would like to write a blog for NatSCA on anything natural sciences related, give us an online shout blog@natsca.org.

The financial value of museum objects

In the museum sector there’s a bit of unwillingness to discuss the financial value of objects. After all, museums are not run as salerooms and their focus is on the other sorts of value that collections hold.

Of course, for some artworks it can be hard to ignore the massive price tags that they sometimes carry and there are some good arguments that in our materialistic society, which has become increasingly focussed on economics, there are sound reasons for including financial value in considerations about collections. An interesting discussion about this between two NatSCA stalwarts, Jan Freedman and Mark Carnall, was recently published by the Museums Association.

Worth £175 million today. Card Players (5th version ca.1894-1895) by Paul Cezanne is the most expensive painting in the world. For now... (image from Musée d'Orsay)

Worth £175 million today. Card Players (5th version ca.1894-1895) by Paul Cezanne is the most expensive painting in the world. For now… (image from Musée d’Orsay)

For those of us who work in museums, we normally only consider a specimen’s price-tag when acquiring new material, deaccessioning material or dealing with insurance valuations for exhibitions and loans.

When acquiring specimens, the consideration is about whether an asking price is fair and an appropriate amount to spend in the context of institutional priorities and budget. When deaccessioning, the consideration is rather more complex and is linked to appropriate methods of disposal and the motivations for disposal. Deaccessioning shouldn’t be done in order to make money, but disposal by sale may be an option as long as the processes involved in the decision meet professional standards.

The controversial disposal by sale of the statue of Sekhemka has caused problems for Northampton Museum & Art Gallery. (Image of the statue on display c.1950s - uploaded by Bibilovski, 2012)

The controversial disposal by sale of the statue of Sekhemka has caused problems for Northampton Museum & Art Gallery. (Image of the statue on display c.1950s – uploaded by Bibilovski, 2012)

When assessing these sorts of values it can be very useful to look to private auctions for a guide, which take place every so often at a variety of auction houses. For natural history it can be worth checking Sotheby’sBonhams and Summers Place. However, auctions tend to deal with the more showy objects, rather than the scientific specimens that museum staff often have to deal with, especially for research loans.

Insurance valuations are slightly different, since these may not simply relate to the market value of an object, but could take into consideration the cost of conservation if the object is damaged, or the cost of going into the field to collect a similar specimen to replace it if it’s the sort of specimen that doesn’t come up for sale. Either of these possibilities may be far more expensive than a likely sale value.

One of the issues with putting a price on objects is that it may make them more obviously attractive to criminals. For instance, a sudden spike in the street value of illegal rhino horn in parts of Asia around 2009 led to a massive increase in the prices of antique rhino trophies at auction, until special measures were introduced to stop this loophole in trade. In addition it has led to the targeted thefts of hundreds of specimens from collections around the world.

Taxidermy rhino with the horn removed and sign explaining the problem of thefts from museum specimens. (Image by Dr John Hutchinson, 2013)

Taxidermy rhino with the horn removed and sign explaining the problem of thefts from museum specimens. (Image by Dr John Hutchinson, 2013)

Of course, by being aware of the changing value of specimens and therefore the changing risk of theft, museums are able to take steps to ensure that appropriate security measures are put in place to properly care for their objects. So although the financial value of objects can be complex to address, it is clear that there is a need for museums to know how much their collections are worth, since other people may be only too aware.

Charles Jamrach: Exotic Animal Collector

Charles-Jamrach-Shop

The week before last saw historian Elle Larsson speaking at PubSci. The talk centred around the exotic animal trade and, in particular, the life of Charles Jamrach: a trader of animal specimens – both living and dead.

Charles’ father was an entrepreneur from Hamburg who noticed that sailors were bringing back exotic animals in the hull of their ships and selling them. There was such huge interest in these peculiar beasts that sailors were able to retire from the profits. Jamrach Senior wanted a cut of the action. It soon became apparent that London was the hub of the exotic animal trade and Charles moved to London in 1840 to set up his business after the death of his father.

Charles began forming a network of contacts and runners between Liverpool, Marseilles, and Bordeaux. He was soon able to boast that he could get ‘any animal except a Koala’. The relationship between Koalas and gum trees had not been fully realised at this point and three unsuccessful attempts to secure one had resulted in failure. Jamrach was forced to concede this one shortcoming. Jamrach was buying between a shilling and five pounds, depending on the specimen. With the middle men involved it was no longer possible for a sailor to make his fortune selling exotic animals as the profit was split among too many people. Even Jamrach sometimes had to take a lower asking price for one of his animals than he had originally paid for it: He was certainly not guaranteed a better price later and the cost of keeping the animal in sellable condition was not cheap.

He sold living specimens to zoos and private collectors, dead specimens to museums. Whatever these groups turned down, the taxidermists picked up. In late Victorian London there was a fashion for furniture made from animal parts. People would choose an animal (often still alive) that they wanted turned into cutlery, a chair, or piano and the poor beast would be sent to the taxidermist for production. It is hard to imagine such a situation today, though the culinary world still has a “choose live product” remnant of these bygone days.

There’s one area in which Charles Jamrach reminds me of Archcancellor Ridcully, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld – in the sense that they both did their bit for endangered species… by keeping them that way: in 1851 Jamrach acquired a quagga for the Zoological gardens. In 1883 the quagga was declared extinct in the wild.

The interest in unusual wildlife had a political motive in many cases: a zoo of the British Empire showcasing species from elsewhere was not just introducing the public to animals they had never heard of, it was showing the dominion that man had over the animal and the empire had over the animals’ home land. On one occasion a bengal tiger managed to back out of a poorly made transport crate and run off down the road – grabbing hold of a young boy. Jamrach managed to subdue the tiger with his truncheon but the boy’s parents still, understandably, sued. Jamrach was now famous: not only was he bringing back animals that represented empiric might, he now personally symbolised Britain beating down the tiger, symbol of rebellion against it.

Not everyone was a fan of Jamrach: awareness of animal welfare was in its infancy but this was the generation that saw it develop – the RSPCA was formed during the late Victorian era during Jamrach’s lifetime and he received a good deal of complaints abou the way his animals were treated. Complaints about Jamrach centred around the cramped transport conditions, stressed overcrowding of predators near their prey, and the malnourished states they reached London in. This was a time when the accepted wisdom for “reforming” a vicious and malnourished crocodile was to tie it down and force feed it. It is unclear whether Jamrach participated in this but he escaped criticism by dying in 1891 – the year that the practice was challenged. He left a vast sum of £7108 inheritance to his son: the equivalent of half a million pounds in today’s money.

To learn more about Elle Larsson’s research, visit the animal history museum – an online exhibition about the trade.