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

NatSCA Digital Digest – April

Colobus monkey © E-L Nicholls

What Should I Read?

I came across a very entertaining blog by Lily Nadine Wilks which looks at the frustrations of museum documentation in Mysteries of the Past. She has been working on the Charles Lyell digitisation project at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Having noticed lately that there are more harlequin ladybirds in my house than there are Lego sets*, I was interested to come across A decade of invasion – a story of Harlequin Ladybird in the UK. I can’t believe THAT many ladybirds exist in the UK having only arrived in 2004. They are clearly a prolific species, if only I could teach them to write research papers.

What Should I Do?

The long awaited 2017 reopening of the Cambridge Museum of Zoology has been put back slightly, and they are still trying to raise funds to get their iconic whale skeleton conserved and remounted. So you may not be able to visit (yet) but what you can do if you’d like is to help fund the whale through the delightfully named Help us #RaisetheWhale fundraising project. Plus you can reap a whaley reward to boot. You can also get the inside scoop on progress if you’re coming to the NatSCA conference later this month!

It is currently Hippo Week at Leeds City Museum. Having popped by yesterday I can say with authority it’s a great museum if you haven’t visited yet, with the ex-rug tiger taxidermy a particular highlight! Until the 9th April, you can also see the entries to the Armley Hippo & Friends drawing and story competition.

What’s Can  I Apply For?

The senior management teams of all natural history collections appear to have got together and declared a moratorium on vacancies at the moment. Don’t despair though, something will come along.

In the mean time, there are two positions at the Horniman Museum if you prefer your collections alive to dead, and quite a few at Kew if your preferred subjects are both alive and botany-shaped, details here.

Before You Go…

If you have seen an exhibition, visited a museum, or want to tell us about your work, do get in touch as we are always looking for material from external authors. Email us with your ideas at blog@natsca.org.

* Several hundred

Top Ten Most Read Blogs of 2016

Blogs to shout about (Dakshin, 2013, image in public domain)

Blogs to shout about (Dakshin, 2013, image in public domain)

2016 was a busy year for the NatSCA blog, we published 27 blogs from a super range of authors on an exciting variety of topics. When looking at the analytics of the blog to see what’s popular, it became apparent that people don’t just read what’s current in terms of publication date, they read what’s relevant to them at the time. This means that on top of the 27 blogs published last year, a further 102 blogs dating back to 2012 were also viewed from our archive, in 2016.

Since its inception in August 2012, there have been 182 blogs published on the NatSCA website, and so with such a large number, it’s really interesting to see what grabbed people’s attention, or search engines, the most.

The top ten most read blogs in 2016 are as follows:

1- Project Airless (2016)

2- Micromuseum: The slide collection of J T Quekett (2016)

3- Cold Case Curation (2016)

4- Vote for the NatSCA Editor (2016)

5- Curators of the Caribbean (2016)

6- How to Store Taxidermy (2016)

7- Margaret Gatty’s Algal Herbarium in St Andrews (2013)

8- Bournemouth’s ‘New’ Museum (2016)

9- Art, Nature, Engagement, and Rural Life (2016)

10- Handle with Care: Bringing Museum Egg Collections to Life (2016)

Of course, the top ten most read blogs in 2016 is different from the top ten blogs OF 2016. As you can see from the dates, only eight of the above ten were published last year. If we discount this archival material, then in ninth place would be Meet the NatSCA Committee: Paolo Viscardi and in tenth place, I was overly excited to see, is the NatSCA Digital Digest; October 2016 (smug face).

2017 has already seen the publication of four blogs posts (five including this one), and a host of exciting goodies are awaiting your perusal in February. You lucky, lucky people.

As editors, my colleagues and I are always looking for new content and avenues of excitement to merrily skip down. So if you would like to get in touch, please email us at blog@natsca.org.

Conservation of a Venus Flower Basket

Venus flower basket. (NOAA, 2012, Image in public domain)

Venus flower basket. (NOAA, 2012, Image in public domain)

At The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum, a proposed case re-display was to focus on design. Thus the Art Curator and the Natural Historian got together and produced 13 grubby Venus flower baskets (a type of glass sponge).

As a trained objects conservator I have seen many items come across my desk, however these were a first. Never having seen these deep sea siliceous sponges before, I found them quite fascinating. There are 13 in our collection and at least one of them came from the Challenger Expedition of 1870. The sponges themselves offer a fascinating insight into the first date hotel; a young shrimp couple enter the skeleton of the sponge and mate for life – a jolly good love affair or entrapment? Whichever side you fall on, the actual construction of the sponge is what fascinated the Art Curator. The lattice work formation of the skeleton, which is incredibly strong and functional yet also beautiful, has inspired architects and engineers. Norman Foster’s ‘Gherkin’ building owes a lot to this design of nature. Even David Attenborough listed them in his ‘Attenborough’s Ark’ aired in 2012.

But, how was I to treat them?

As luck would have it I was due to attend a Fluid Preservation course at the University of Dundee, delivered by Natural History Conservator Simon Moore. After some gentle persuasion he came of his own free will to our Museum store to look at them and gave some very sound advice.

I subsequently embarked upon treatment of our 13 specimens, which were verging on 50 shades of grey. They were all housed in the same box with no separation. Although some had lost the long fibres that would have anchored them to the sea bed, most were intact, showing how resistant they are to mechanical forces. All were photographed prior to treatment.

Venus flower basket, before and after conservation. © McManus Collections Unit

Venus flower basket, before and after conservation treatment. © McManus Collections Unit

I started with a bath of acetone to remove any possible historic consolidant which looked to have been sprayed on (no past treatment reports could be found to confirm this). This was followed by a bath in the ultrasonic cleaner, just in water, where the dust could be seen lifting away from the sponges. Repeating the steps produced the difference seen in the image above. They were then left to air dry on blotting paper.

A local company made one of the sponges a bespoke perspex mount and it now sits happily in the new display. The others are now housed in a drawer in a plastazote support with bespoke cut outs for each sponge.

Venus flower basket on display. © McManus Collections Unit

Venus flower basket on display, post-conservation. © McManus Collections Unit

We are not sure why they would have been sprayed with consolidant as they hold their form perfectly well post treatment. A more invasive treatment involving hydrogen peroxide and ammonia was discussed, but this drastic measure was not needed as the conservation treatment was a complete success, and now the only shades of grey we look at is the sky!

Written by Rebecca Jackson-Hunt, Conservator, The McManus Collections Unit

How to Store Taxidermy

We all know that discussing issues with other museum professionals within Subject Specialist Networks is an efficient way of disseminating information within the sector, but the following article provides a perspective from a generalist commercial storage company; a voice we don’t usually hear from.

Safestore, the UK’s largest self-storage provider, recently made a video series called ‘Stuff is Great‘ which focused on collectors and their individual passions. Among other client case studies, the series featured Suzette Field and her collection of taxidermy specimens. The following article, How to Store Taxidermy, was written by Safestore themselves and provides useful guidance on how to use these public facilities for storing such material.

This taxidermy collection featured in the Safestore project 'Stuff is Great'. © Safestore

This taxidermy collection featured in the Safestore project ‘Stuff is Great’. © Safestore

As any taxidermy enthusiast will know, a sizable collection can take years to build.  During that time your life and circumstances will change; you may welcome children into your life, move home, change job, all the while accumulating more pieces.  At some point you may be faced with the challenge of storing your taxidermy and with the right know-how it’s not as painful a process as it sounds!

Safestore recently stored a taxidermy collection and found it to be the safest environment for high value taxidermy.  Your attic or garage may seem like a cheaper alternative but both locations are affected by the changing climate throughout the year, putting undue stress on your collection.

Follow these tips for storing your taxidermy safely…

  1. Use wooden crates.

Using a wooden crate for each taxidermy piece means you can affix the mounts to the inside of the crates.  This will keep the taxidermy from touching the inside of the crate and allow air to circulate the piece.  Cardboard isn’t sturdy enough for large taxidermy pieces and doesn’t offer the same protection.

  1. Keep the damp away.

Storage units are typically very dry but the climate can vary from time to time.  Add silica gel packets to each crate as they will absorb any moisture in the air and keep your taxidermy dry.

  1. Keep the pests away.

Moths and small bugs would love nothing more than nibbling away at your taxidermy pieces so using ‘no pest strips’ or moth killer strips will help to keep your crates critter free.

  1. Climate and humidity.

When looking for self storage units for your taxidermy, ensure your unit is somewhat climate controlled.  Units on the outer edge of the building may be more prone to temperature changes so ask for a unit that remains cool and dry throughout the year.

Taxidermy is expensive and some pieces are one of a kind, therefore it is imperative to ensure your items are safe and secure once in storage.  Look for self storage facilities with 24hr CCTV, restricted access, sole key holder policies and intruder alarms.

  1. Check!

It’s super important to check your taxidermy from time to time, especially if you’re storing for a number of months.  Make sure you replace the pest strips and silica packets and check for any signs of damage or stress.  It’s easier to rectify a problem sooner rather than later!

Ultimately taxidermy is for displaying and enjoying, however if you’re in need of an interim home for your collection you’re not short of options.  Keeping your pieces safe and in good condition is easy so long as each item is packed with due care and is stored somewhere out of harm’s reach.

By Tiffiny Franklin, Digital Outreach Executive, Safestore

Cold Case Curation

Museums have many curious objects behind closed doors. Recently, volunteers discovered some ‘cold ones’ at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust.

Behind Closed Doors

If museums are icebergs, then museum exhibits are just the tip; and the remaining 90% or so of specimens are tucked away safely behind closed doors. Many people, lucky enough to have visited these museum storage areas (‘behind-the-scenes’), will be familiar with almost endless rows of racks and shelves packed with all sorts of different objects, ranging from Chinese vases to taxidermy monitor lizards. But few non-curators would be familiar with the idea of freezers full of dead animals!

We have two large freezers, at our off-site storage facility, packed full of animals; we needed to know exactly how many animals were in there and where they were from, hence this project- Cold Case Curation. The specimens also have excellent provenance; labels with location details including specific grid references and dates. Therefore this Cold Case Curation project was as much a biological survey (albeit indoors) as a detailed museum inventory.

Cold Case Curation in action; the team of five volunteers “surveying” the “fauna” of our freezers

Cold Case Curation in action; the team of five volunteers surveying the ‘Fauna of our Freezers’.

Volunteer-Power

Enter our team of volunteers. They were specially recruited for a day for this Cold Case Curation task; to survey the frozen fauna, matching specimens against existing inventory records. This was a joint initiative with our Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre (hosted at the Museum), to capture biological records. Most of our volunteers are long-term with the Museum and the Centre, and are current university students.

As our team of five volunteers eagerly crowded around the two huge freezers, they were fascinated with the idea of freezing animals to preserve them before they are stuffed and prepared as taxidermy specimens (but don’t worry, they all died naturally!).

In teams, the volunteers enthusiastically worked their way through documenting the freezer contents. 241 individual specimens later, we had documented 11 species of mammal and 48 species of bird. Interesting discoveries included a bittern, a little grebe chick, 10 waxwings and a white-tailed tropic bird (with stomach contents). Volunteers delighted in handling iconic British species including 54 red squirrels and 24 barn owls.

Volunteer, Jessica Mitchell proudly wielding a polecat from the freezer “faunal assemblage"

Volunteer, Jessica Mitchell proudly wielding a polecat from the freezer faunal assemblage.

Their experiences are best summarised in their own words;

“After helping out at Tullie House with their cold case curation, recording everything they had in the freezers, we found some amazing specimens from polecats to owls, your typical garden birds to brown hares, but I have to say my favourite by far was the river otter. This otter was fantastic and it was brilliant to see it so upclose as it is a creature I have only seen from afar in the wild. This event was extremely educational and rewarding to myself as I’m studying zoology here in Carlisle”.  Volunteer, Laura Carter.

Volunteer, Laura Carter with River Otter discovery from freezer

Volunteer, Laura Carter with a River Otter discovery from the freezer.

Another volunteer, Donna Salter was also drawn to the otter:

“It’s a bit obvious to go for the big, furry, cute mammal, but my favourite has to be the otter. I was somewhat of an otter obsessed child: other girls wrote fan letters to Mark Owen or Ronan Keating while I wrote to Philip Wayre, founder of the Otter Trust (he sent back a signed visitors guide – I still have it). So for me, getting to hold and see the details of an otter can’t really be beaten!”

Cold Case Reflections; Learning from the Model

The Museum has greatly benefited from this exercise with our detailed inventories and biological records which will go into our database and ultimately end up on the Global Biodiversity Network Gateway for public access (and we also have the data we need to make more informed decisions over which specimens we decide to formally accession). However, this project proved to be a particularly successful public engagement event. It was a combination of the fact that volunteers were seeing and handling a variety of animals and that they were ‘discovering specimens’, whilst working together as a team, which is vastly more enjoyable than lone working. The event was enhanced with use of Twitter  (#coldcasecuration), which captured some of the magical moments of discovery.

This exercise illustrates how a relatively routine (inventory) collections management exercise can be turned into an exciting public engagement project, capturing critical data for the museum and inspiring a future generation of potential young scientists and curators.

By Simon Jackson, Curator, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust

Curators of the Caribbean

300-year-old plant collection brings Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and the Natural History Museum Jamaica together!

vol_3_jamaican_p324

A digitised page from Volume 4 of the Jamaican herbaria

In the autumn of 2014, I was fortunate to be contracted by Bristol Museum to conserve and digitise 4 bound volumes of plant specimens dating from the 1770s and collected by the prestigious botanist Dr Arthur Broughton. The conservation and digitisation was completed in early 2015, yet two years on I am still working with and fascinated by this fabulous collection.

slide1

Rhian Rowson and the 4 volumes of 18th century bound herbaria

Dr Arthur Broughton, was a Bristolian who made the mammoth journey to Jamaica, due to ill health, and myself and Rhian Rowson, biology curator at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, are trying to piece together his years studying botany in Jamaica and the impact this renowned botanist has had on the island and the world of botany. The volumes are large, heavy, leather bound books holding c. 1000 specimens including extremely rare and type material. The books were analysed for biocides, cleaned in preparation for digitisation, digitised and then each specimen was painstakingly removed from the volumes and re-mounted onto archival sheets. This project has mitigated the risk of contamination from handling the treated pages, has increased access and ease of handling but most importantly the images have been shared with other institutions. The ebook highlights some of the star specimens in the collections

The most exciting connection made during the research side of this project was with the Natural history museum of Jamaica (NHMJ). Through this collaboration, the opportunity has arisen for both me and Rhian to travel to Jamaica to collect modern material, research the historic plant specimens and illustrations held in Bristol museum and the collectors behind them. We have been extremely fortunate to gain funding from both WIRP (Working Internationally Regional Project) and the Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant. Both funders were extremely supportive and constructive in helping towards our submitting a successful application.

Victoria Purewal viewing Broughton plant specimens

Victoria Purewal viewing remounted specimens from one of the Jamaican volumes.

We fly into Kingston, Jamaica on Tuesday 27th September and will be gathering historical data on Dr Broughton and other prestigious botanists including Robert Long and the Reverend Lindsay, both of whom were collecting and working during this interesting time in history. We will be met by Keron Campbell, the botany curator at the NHMJ and together with the natural history team we will be escorted around the island, helping us to identify and verify plant specimens and localities. Modern day specimens will be collected to help interpret our historic material and provide a contemporary and fresh perspective that we can use to engage with our Bristol and Jamaican communities. We will be keeping active on social media whilst there, and hopefully offer some insight on the specialisms and research being conducted in Jamaica but also on the botany and the habitats on the island of Jamaica.

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