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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Nature’s Empire

Opportunities for international research are rare when working in a regional museum. So when one arose I grabbed it with both hands.

Thanks to two external specialists, Martyn Rix and Henry Noltie (of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Edinburgh respectively), we already knew that a group of 86 beautiful Indian paintings of plants and animals in RAMM’s collection were important. The works were painted by Indian artists under the instruction of European scientists while India was under British rule.  They also recognised that the plants depicted were economically useful for medicines, dyes and timbers. So in 2016 RAMM displayed half of the works in an exhibition called Flower Power – Botanical Drawings from India. The artworks were all conserved through funding from Arts Council England’s PRISM fund, as outlined in this article Preparing for Flower Power.

Sheah Gosh. Watercolour and gouache, c.1770-80 by an unknown artist. Cresswell collection. © 2018 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council. This depiction of a lynx is by an unknown artist. In Urdu it is known as ‘siyah gosh’ meaning ‘black-eared’. The animal was probably kept in a menagerie.

The collection caught the attention of two University of Exeter lecturers, Dr Nandini Chatterjee and Dr Andrew Rudd, as well as Dr Jayanta Sengupta; a visiting curator from India. I explained that although we had learnt a lot about the collection already, there was still much we did not know. Such as:

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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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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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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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