Listening and learning: Reflections on the Second Workshop of the People and Plants Project

Written by Fiona Roberts. Collaborative ESRC PhD student, Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales Decolonising biocultural curation of South Asian medicinal plants.

Monday 7th November, National Museums Collections Centre

In early November, a group of academics, researchers, curators, artists and knowledge holders gathered at Edinburgh’s National Museums Collections Centre. The second workshop of the year-long AHRC-funded ‘People and Plants’ project focused on ‘reactivating ethnobotanical collections as material archives of Indigenous ecological knowledge.’

During the object handling session (Photo by Dr Ali Clark, National Museums Scotland)

The People and Plants Project

Led by National Museums Scotland, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Powell-Cotton Museum, the project investigates current debates on decolonising museum practices, including the interplay between natural history and ethnography collections, creating a conversation about these among varied experts.

The project’s previous workshop, held at the Powell-Cotton Museum in March 2022, brought together Somali knowledge holders from UK diasporic communities and was run in partnership with the University of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation and the NOMAD project, which engages Somali communities in heritage projects. To read more, see this previous blogpost, and view workshop talks on YouTube [People and Plants – YouTube].

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Ostracod Odessey – Broadcasting the Brady Collection

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

The Great North Museum : Hancock is home to many remarkable collections, but one of the most important is perhaps one of the most unfamiliar to our visitors. The Brady collection of Ostracods.

Ostracods, sometimes called Seed Shrimp, are distinctive Class of crustaceans. A shell of two intricately textured valves almost entirely envelopes their shrimp-like bodies, with just a small opening for a cluster of rapidly moving legs to poke out. As their common name suggests, most species are very small, mostly invisible to human eye, but they’re ubiquitous, busily going about their lives wherever there is permanent or temporary water, from the poles to the tropics. Some swarm the world’s oceans in vast planktonic shoals, while others live in the still, dark pools of caves, in garden ponds or even puddles.

They’re poorly known outside of academic communities, which is a real shame, because despite being fascinating creatures in their own right, they have important roles in many aquatic ecosystems, and significantly, they’re commonly encountered in the fossil record, which means that they are particularly important indicator fossils. In addition, the chemical make-up of their distinctive shells tells us about ocean acidity and temperature, which can tell us about ocean warming and climate change.

The collection was the work of George Stewardson Brady, a local man, born in Gateshead in 1832, and one of the people who pioneered the study of these animals at a time when they were relatively poorly understood.  Housed in a row of cabinets, the Brady collection is made up of nearly 3000 microscope slides with up to 100 Ostracods on each. These specimens were collected all over the world, many of them by well-known expeditions such as the HMS Challenger expeditions in the 1870s. It contains many Types, and provides a valuable resource for the study of these animals today.

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A Collection of Sri Lankan Bird Skins.

Written by Eimear Ashe, Documentation Officer, National Museum of Ireland – Natural History.

The Temporary Number

During the course of my work in the Natural History Division of the National Museum of Ireland, (NMI) I came across a couple of boxes of bird skins that were in the wrong place. By deciding to move them to their correct place, I opened a metaphorical can of worms. It turned out that these 200 bird skins had been assigned modern numbers during a volunteer project 16 years ago. In the intervening period, the original accession number had been discovered. Never one to leave a wrong number in place, I took on the challenge to renumber this collection before rehousing them.

The Donor

First, I read the acquisition register and found the donor to be a gentleman named Colonel James Grove White, a career British Army officer. Upon retirement, Grove White came to live in Co. Cork in the south of Ireland, and like many British men in Ireland at that time, he came to hold high office during various periods, and was very active in the local community. It was during his time in Ireland, almost 100 years ago, that he donated his collection of “Ceylonese” bird skins. Presumably these were collected by him while on duty in Sri Lanka, although there is no documentation in the NMI to contribute the field collection details, other than the labels on the birds themselves.

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Exploring Materials in Natural History Dioramas

Written by Claire Dean, Curatorial Assistant at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, and MA Preventive Conservation student at Northumbria University.

The wildlife dome at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery
The wildlife dome at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Carlisle, C. Dean

In many old dioramas, material mysteries abound. As a Curatorial Assistant at Tullie House, I’ve encountered a tree trunk made from a Robinson’s fruit juice box, a fake roof that contained fibrous signs of asbestos, and a hodgepodge of unidentifiable paints and old plastics. The museum’s new-in-post Biodiversity Curator discovered pests thriving amongst the real vegetation and a 30-year-old slice of bread in a garden scene.

Dioramas aim to create the illusion of real habitats for their taxidermy inhabitants, and they use a huge range of materials to do so. After decades of neglect and destruction there is now wider recognition that habitat dioramas can instil a sense of wonder in visitors that no amount of digital wizardry can replace. Through my dissertation research for an MA in Preventive Conservation at Northumbria University, I wanted to find out more about what materials have been used in dioramas over time, how these might impact the preservation of specimens, and what we can do to better protect the dioramas that remain. I put a call out to ask, ‘What’s in your dioramas?’ through an online survey and received 30 responses from people with experience in a range of different sized institutions and private practice.

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Museo Giovanni Capellini – Wunderkammer or Modern Museum?

Written by Michela Contessi, Conservator, Museum University Network, Collezione di Geologia “Museo Giovanni Capellini”, Alma Mater Studiorum – Università di Bologna.

The Geological Collection “Museo Giovanni Capellini” is part of the University Museum Network in Bologna (SMA – Sistema Museale di Ateneo). The museum is in an 18th-century building and includes a core of 16th-century geological and paleontological collections dating back to one of the oldest natural history museums in the world, created by Ulisse Aldrovandi in 1556. Most of the two million specimens now hosted in the museum though, were acquired by Professor Giovanni Capellini (1833-1922), holder of the first chair of geology established in Italy and rector of the University of Bologna. The museum holds important (both historically and scientifically) collections of rocks, fossils and documents from all around the world (Europe, Africa, North and South America), including the 1909 cast of Diplodocus carnegii, which is a popular touristic attraction in Bologna.

Facade of The Geological Collection "Museo Giovanni Capellini"
Figure 1 – Museum facade. © @Sistema Museale di Ateneo – University of Bologna

However, and here comes the problem…

After Capellini’s death in 1922 little was done for the museum, in the early 1960s, when the new-born Institute of Geology and Paleontology was built, the museum building was literally cut in half and the collections crowded into half the original space.

Figure 2 – Museum plan in 1911, shown in red is the current available space.
Figure 2 – Museum plan in 1911, shown in red is the current available space. © @Sistema Museale di Ateneo – University of Bologna

Structural issues arose due to this move, and the museum was closed to the public for almost 30 years. After a major renovation, funded for the ninth centenary anniversary of the University in 1988, the museum was given a new lighting and heating system, reopened to the public and it welcomes several thousand visitors a year since then. The building is now solid (as an old 500-year-old lady can be), but again nothing has been done since, and what looked like a good compromise in the eighties is now obsolete.

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