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.

Approximately 200 bird skins were donated, and in his correspondence with the NMI, Grove White said “I am glad to know that some of the birds may be useful. I know that there were 2 or 3 rather rare ones.”

Fig 1: Letter from Colonel Grove White to Mr. A. R. Nicholls, Keeper of the Natural History Division, 04-04-1923.

Once I had renumbered the specimens, and integrated them taxonomically in our bird skin housing, I wanted to investigate just how rare these particular specimens are now, and how valuable they are to our existing collection.

Fig 2: bird skin specimens integrated into existing bird skin storage.

Of interest to me was: IUCN status of the birds, endemicity, and uniqueness in the collection. One of the limitations of this brief study, however, was that I did not have the time to reidentify dubious taxonomy.

IUCN Status

The vast majority of the Grove White bird collection is currently considered to be of least concern thankfully. One of the species, Dicaeum vincens (Sclater, 1872), is near threatened and one, Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus (Pennant, 1769), is vulnerable.

Endemicity

As can be seen below, almost three quarters of the species collected are widespread. Almost 20% are endemic to Sri Lanka. 10% are commonly found in Sri Lanka and neigbouring countries. One species, Turnix suscitator bengalensis Blyth, 1852, appears to be endemic to neighbouring countries, but not Sri Lanka, so that is an interesting find (see Avibase and GBIF).

Fig 3: how endemic or widespread were the specimens the Grove White donated?

Uniqueness in Collections

How important are these specimens to our existing collections? One way to ascertain this is to check our database see if we already have those species represented, and if so, by how many specimens?

Fig 4: uniqueness in collections

Here we can see that of all the species donated, almost 30% of them are the sole representatives of their taxa in the NMI collection. Another almost 30% have a small number of specimens already in the collection, and these existing specimens can allow us to investigate intra-specific variation and also assist with future identifications. Lastly, almost 45% of the taxa donated were already represented in the collection in abundance.

Conclusion

The benefits of this body of work are manifold:

  • I have assigned the correct accession numbers to the specimens, confirming their provenance.
  • All object records in our collections management system, Axiell Collections, have been improved by the addition of the acquisition details.
  • The biographical research relating to the donor has been added to the Persons and Institutions module of Axiell Collections.
  • The Sri Lankan geographic locations in the database were also tidied and improved to enhance searchability.
  • The specimens are now integrated taxonomically and can be found alongside their conspecifics and are available for research.
  • Finally, analysis of historic and potential acquisitions can help us to realise the contribution that specimens can make to systematics, biogeography, genomics, morphology and other areas of avian research.

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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NatSCA Digital Digest – November 2022

Compiled by Olivia Beavers, Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at World Museum, National Museums Liverpool.

Welcome to the November edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.

A monthly blog series featuring the latest on where to go, what to see and do in the natural history sector including jobs, exhibitions, conferences and training opportunities. We are really keen to hear from you if you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest, please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Sector News

Museum Association Conference 2022 & The Wild Escape

Last week, the Museum Association held their Annual Conference from 3rd – 5th November in Edinburgh. The conference was online and in person for those that could attend.

One of the projects mentioned, that may be of interest to some, was The Wild Escape project led by Art Fund – ‘a major participatory project for museums and schools inspired by the wildlife found in museum and gallery collections’. The project was previously called the Great Escape but aims to connect nature and biodiversity particularly for children aged 7-11 but is relevant for all ages. The project runs from January to June 2023 but can be shortened/lengthened to your museum’s specific needs. Resources are currently online and more are still to come. Grants are still available in Scotland and Wales.

Visit their website to find out more about how to get involved in The Wild Escape project.

Online Symposium: Uniting Earth Science Collections

The Geological Curators Group (GCG) and The Society of Mineral Museum Professionals (SMMP)have scheduled a meeting and seminar: Uniting Earth Science Collections. The one-day, online symposium takes place via Zoom on December 1st 2022. The 49th AGM of the Geological Curators Group will follow the first session of the seminar. Find out more and register here.

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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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NatSCA Digital Digest – October 2022

Compiled by Glenn Roadley, NatSCA Committee Member, Curator of Natural Science at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

Welcome to the October edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.

A monthly blog series featuring the latest on where to go, what to see and do in the natural history sector including jobs, exhibitions, conferences and training opportunities. We are really keen to hear from you if you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest, please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Sector News

COP27 and Action for Climate Empowerment
COP27 will be happening in Egypt, in November, as the international meeting of governments to progress climate action. The main programme for the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that relates to the work of museums was already adopted at COP26, in Glasgow. This is called the Glasgow Work Programme on Action for Climate Empowerment and runs from 2021-31. It covers the public-facing aspect of the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement, relating to education, training, public awareness, access to information, public participation and international co-operation on climate change matters. The new programme also sets out a framework for stronger climate action, through effective policies, co-ordinated action, sharing tools and support, and more effective monitoring and communication of climate actions. The new programme specifically points out the important role of a range of sectors, including museums, educational and cultural institutions. Climate action is not just for COP, nor is it just for governments, and the new programme is both a recognition and an invitation for sectors to play their part.

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