Rocks of Death and Fizzing Fossil Fish

In what must surely be one of the most excitingly themed workshops known to scientists, Monica Price (formerly of Oxford University Museum of Natural History) and Jana Horak (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales) recently ran a day-long workshop called Hazards in Geological Collections. We’re not talking hazards like booklice eating your specimen labels, we’re talking The Big Guns. It was Christmas come early for the attendees who had gathered from the ‘four corners’ of the British Isles to learn what villainstreasures might be lurking in their collections.

Hazards in geological collections take many forms. © Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Each of the three tables of eager minds was presented with a box of unlabelled specimens from which to try and list the potential hazards. After a very thorough health and safety briefing, we all leaned cautiously in towards the box. Decked out in nitrile gloves and face masks, we were the picture of professionalism. The excitement of the workshop was definitely heightened by the real, LIVE specimens in front of us. Had any of us had been stupid enough to open up and breathe in the contents of an asbestos tube, or rub ourselves all over with a toxic mineral, we could have done ourselves some serious harm. But as it was, the 20 or so geologists in the room were suitably well-behaved.

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Waving Goodbye to the Walrus: Reflections on Leaving (and Starting)

To paraphrase that great Disney wildlife documentary, The Lion King: change is good, but it’s not easy.

Leaving any job after a long time is always strange, and I’ve been lucky enough to have spent (almost!) seven years at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. In that time I’ve worked on several large projects, learned more than I thought I ever would about anthropology collections, and made some wonderful friends. But sadly, I have now had to move on. Happily, I’ve been able to move on to the wonderful Powell-Cotton Museum, where I will be spending the next year curating the natural history collections.

This has meant quite a large change: I’ve moved to a different part of the country, and started a new job that is very different to what I’ve been doing for the last few years. I’ll admit to feeling some imposter syndrome – I have been working almost exclusively with anthropology objects for a long time now (not my subject specialism: I studied zoology), and worried that I might have forgotten some of my natural history knowledge! Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to have been the case, and in fact working with anthropology collections has taught me a surprising amount about working with natural history collections… from identifying worked animal materials (such as ivory and bone) to documentation standards and procedures (I was a Documentation Assistant at the Horniman), I have gained skills and knowledge that will be invaluable in my new role.

Sad to say goodbye to the Horniman Walrus. (C) Horniman Museum and Gardens

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NatSCA Digital Digest – April

Dear Digital Digest-digesters, it has been an extremely busy month but there are just enough hours in the month to put out the April edition. Continue reading for a round up of all the things you need to know…

What Should I Read?

After much to-ing and fro-ing and panicking from various factions, it has been announced that “accredited museums and galleries will be granted an exemption in legislation… that bans the trade of elephant ivory in almost all circumstances”. This is great news for museums. Read the full story on the Museums Association website here.

There has been a lot of coverage of the dinosaur tracks found in Scotland, but if you missed it all, here’s what the BBC had to report. Both sauropod and theropod tracks are present and they’ve gotten everyone all excited.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is in the news for another year as another photographer falls foul of either not reading, or else ignoring, the rules. The anteater in one of the winning images has been investigated and concluded to be a taxidermy specimen. The image was therefore disqualified and the photographer told to er… get stuffed.

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Borderless Collections – Starting a Collections Community (R)evolution

by Deborah Paul (iDigBio) and Isla Gladstone (Senior Curator of Natural Sciences, Bristol Culture)

The heroes. Our natural sciences collections, collections staff, the planet and all the players worldwide (thanks Shakespeare).

Some of the heroes’ dilemmas. Need for online access to collection specimen data for research, dwindling habitat, damaged planet resources, one-of-a-kind objects, minimal staff, need for financial support and expertise, and an urgent need to reach and engage a broader audience if we are to succeed in addressing these dilemmas. Some actors know their roles, others don’t even know they are part of the story.

With support from the John Ellerman Foundation for the South West Area Natural Sciences collections (SWANS) project, Bristol City Council’s Culture Team (based at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery), the Natural History Museum (UK), and iDigBio, jointly created two workshops. Both of these events serve as part of a coordinated effort to envision and create a robust UK regional digital natural sciences collections program that supports research, engagement and skills, and connects directly to local, national, and international programs now and in the future. The vision includes plans to repeat the second workshop across the UK.

Materials. All materials and talks can be found on the respective workshop wikis: UK Strategy and SWANS Practical Digitisation.

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Willows in the Wind: Digitisation of the Tullie House Herbarium

Excited (botanical) chatter, the inexorable flashing of camera equipment, intrigued visitors gathering around our new gallery space; this was our Virtual Flora of Tullie Herbarium Project, funded by the Bill Pettit Memorial Award at the start of 2017.

The scope of the project, between 30th of May to 26th of September 2017, was to use a team of volunteers to begin photographing and cataloguing our (“ex”) University of Lancaster herbarium. This significant acquisition of 35,000 vascular plant sheets is a highly data rich and well-provenanced collection with invaluable information on the historical and contemporary distribution of species across the UK and beyond. Almost a third of the specimens were collected from Cumbria, much of it collected during a major 30 year survey of the flora of Cumbria; an exemplar model of field surveying which is aspired to by Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) recorders today. The survey work culminated in the team leader’s (Geoffrey Halliday) highly comprehensive publication of A Flora of Cumbria. No other herbarium has a comparable recent (1968+) collection of Cumbrian material.  But despite the importance of this recent acquisition, none of these specimens were digitised.

Thanks to the Bill Pettit Memorial Award funding this was all about to change.

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Making the Most of a Move

Making the Most of a Move: Geological Curators’ Group Conference, Day Two

We like to share the goodies in the field of natural history, so in the first ever cross-over of its kind, Part I (comprising Day One) of this blog can be found over on the Geological Curator’s Group website. No need to take the time to google it, let me give you a hand over there.

Night Early Morning at the Museum

The only thing that beats going to a natural history museum is visiting it when you’re not meant to be. The trump card of such a visit, is when you’re allowed to go to parts of the collections, not normally accessible to the general public. After a day in the lecture theatre, the 35+ members of the “Making the Most of a Move” conference assembled the following morning outside the Natural History gallery of the National Museum of Ireland, in order to tick off every one of the above, on the Museum Treats Bingo Card*.

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The Legacy of Entomologist Harold Edward Hammond

A Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, Harold Edward Hammond, (1902 – 1963), was a keen Lepidopterist. Coupled with this affinity for butterflies and moths he was also interested in entomology generally and would take up a new order every couple of seasons, afterwards giving the carefully mounted specimens to some young aspiring student of the subject. Before his health failed a few years before his death, it was not unusual to find Hammond out in the snow on Boxing Day, splitting logs with an axe to find beetle larvae. Generous, almost to a fault, he was content with gaining new knowledge and found reward in encouraging a new generation of enthusiasts.

Hammond’s main focus was on the larvae of Lepidoptera and, as can be seen by the associated article, he became an expert in their preservation. Raising many larvae into a suitable size for mounting could be somewhat problematic, so his Birmingham garden became a cross between a sanctuary and a fattening pen for many caterpillars. This miniature farm was orderly and well maintained, where trees were pruned to the size of bushes for easy access and micro habitats were constructed to help manage conditions for more demanding food plants.

The skills that Hammond developed in preserving caterpillars were much in demand by fellow entomologists, and he would sometimes receive dozens of boxes of live larvae a week, all dutifully delivered by a postman oblivious to their wriggling contents. His fee for this service was a request that he could have a larva or two for his own collection. During his preparations he encountered many parasitic hymenopteran and dipteran larvae, so he became quite the expert on those also, co-authoring several papers in the Entomologist’s Gazette.

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