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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Why Cultivated Plants Matter in an Urban Environment

A subject close to our hearts at the Horticultural Taxonomy department of the Royal Horticultural Society is the vastness of the UK cultivated flora – in fact, the latest RHS Plant Finder 2018 lists over 76,000 plants grown in the UK. Stroll through any village, town or city and it is clear that the botanical life of our urban places is dominated by cultivated plants. However, cultivated plants appear only rarely in Floras, the scientific work that catalogues the plant life of a given area. Recording introduced plants is essential if the ecosystems of our towns and cities are to be fully understood.

London street trees providing welcome shade for pedestrians on a sunny day. © Yvette Harvey.

Why Does this Matter?

There is increasing evidence that plants grown for ornament serve more than just an aesthetic function. The flexibility of fauna in adapting to available vegetation has been documented in a 30-year study of a suburban domestic garden (Owen, 2010). The four-year RHS experiment known as Plants for Bugs found that to encourage pollinating insects in gardens the best strategy is to plant a mixture of native and exotic flowering plants (Salisbury et al., 2015). There is also a greater understanding that the human environment can be managed by an informed use of cultivated plants. Examples include the value of street trees and green walls in mitigating heat island effect and the role of green spaces in reducing water runoff.

Pollinators visiting an ornamental flower bed. © Yvette Harvey.

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We Are All Experts…

I recently attended a conference where one of the speakers happily declared ‘We are all experts’. I have heard this said a few times, but feel it misunderstands what an expert is, devalues expertise and misses out the joy and benefits of learning new things.

Maybe I would say this wouldn’t I? After all, I am employed as an expert in my field as Curator of Earth Sciences at Manchester Museum and am a NatSCA committee member. But there are good reasons why experts are important and are vital to museums being relevant to society and changing people’s lives for the better.

Installing Manchester Museum’s Nature’s Library gallery showcasing how the collection is used. © The University of Manchester, Manchester Museum.

Everyone brings their opinions, feelings, and ideas about collections, and experts are no exception but crucially experts also bring the knowledge, ideas and understanding of those who have gone before, many of which have been rigorously scientifically tested and challenged.

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Meet the Committee – Jennifer Gallichan

What is your role on the NatSCA committee?

I am new to the NatSCA committee so am just starting to feel my way and find what my role might be as an Ordinary Member. I have considered joining the committee for many years, so I am really excited to finally be a part of it and just looking forward to getting involved, helping out and learning as much as I can.

Job title and institution

Curator: Mollusca & Vertebrates at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Cardiff

Twitter Username

@jennifergallich

Tell us about your day job

I have been at National Museum Cardiff for 17 years and for the large part of this time my role has been to work as part of the team curating the mollusc collections. We have one of the largest collections of molluscs in the UK, and it is taxonomically and historically significant. In recent years however, I have also taken on the role of facilitating access to the Vertebrate Collections. As you can imagine, this has been a significant learning curve and I am still in the process of developing in this role. As with many curators, a large part of my job is making collections accessible to everyone, be it through enquiries, loans, collection tours, open days, workshops, talks, visits and everything else. My job also includes curation – adding collections to our databases, sorting labels, etc, but with so many things to cover, I don’t get as much opportunity to do this as I would like. In recent years I have been involved with collections-based research, locating and investigating Type specimens in both our own collections and those in other institutions.

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Meet the Committee – Donna Young

What is your role on the NatSCA committee?

My main role over for the last four years has been organising our annual conferences at York, Bristol, Derby and Cambridge museums.

There’s a lot of work involved in putting the programme together and it’s a great team effort, along with our fantastic treasurer and the staff based at the various venues. I have found it very rewarding to see us expand our audience and develop our programme themes.

I am currently a member of the of the journal editorial board and NatSCA bursaries/grants sub-committee.

Job Title & Institution

Curator of the Herbarium: World Museum, National Museums Liverpool.

Twitter Username

@HerbariumDonna

Donna Young, hard at work on the herbarium. (C) National Museums Liverpool.

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Meet the Committee – Isla Gladstone

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee?

I help promote information sharing and collaboration between NatSCA and closely allied subject specialist network the Geological Curators’ Group. These groups share core aims and, increasingly with loss of specialist curatorial posts, a membership. It’s exciting to explore how we can capitalise their individual strengths for the benefit of natural sciences collections and the people who work with them. 

Job title and institution

Senior Curator (Natural Sciences), Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Bristol Culture

Twitter username

@isla_gladstone

Tell us about your day job

I work with a small team (Biology Curator Rhian Rowson and Geology Curator Deborah Hutchinson) to curate over one million natural sciences specimens of all shapes and sizes. As many a curator will recognise, this varies from high level strategic work to lifting, shifting, labelling and cleaning – a medley of activities to enable diverse access to and preserve these astonishing collections.

Medicinal plant on a page from Bristol’s earliest natural sciences collection – the Broughton herbarium, Bristol & Jamaica, 1779-90. (C) Bristol Culture.

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Meet the Committee – Roberto Portela Miguez

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee?

I have been the Secretary for the Society since 2014 and on the committee, since 2011. NatSCA and its membership have contributed significantly to my development as a curator and collection manager, so I am very grateful for the opportunity to serve the society in this capacity now.

Job title and institution

I am the Senior Curator in Charge for the Mammal Section at the Natural History Museum, London.

The Museum collection contains an estimated 500,000 mammal specimens and over 8,000 of those are type specimens. This makes it one of the largest and most comprehensive collections in the world.

Twitter username

@bertieportela

“Fashion is key for fieldwork” says Roberto

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