Provenance, Provenance, Provenance

Written by Yvette Harvey, Keeper of the Herbarium, Royal Horticultural Society, RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey.

When all is quiet, the crowds have long-gone home and the lights have been dimmed, the back rooms come alive for the curators who have long finished their official hours. For it is the time for tracking down rogue specimens, delving into the past or anticipating the future. What I am trying to say is that it is the time for research and the inevitable Miss Marple style adventures to be discovered when finding details to add to the current knowledge of a historic specimen. I say current because invariably details will have been lost or not even deemed worthy to have been recorded on labels, or written in a language so obscure as to not be recognised by the modern eye.

Perhaps lost details are just a phenomenon of the botanical world, but I suspect not, and I will explain what I am alluding to above using just a couple of examples of specimens made by a single collector, John Forbes, who undertook a voyage from 1822 until his death in 1823, almost 200 years ago.

John Forbes was one of the Horticultural Society of London’s (now the Royal Horticultural Society) early plant collectors. Head-hunted from the Liverpool Botanical Garden for his horticultural skills, he was employed to travel to Southern Africa to bring back plants to introduce to British gardens. He sailed with Captain Owen on the HMS Leven, a voyage tasked with making a survey of the east coast of Africa, visiting (in the following order): Madeira, Tenerife, Santa Cruz, Cape Verde Islands, Brazil, South Africa, Mozambique (Forbes is noted as the second botanist to collect there (Exell & Hayes: 130)), Madagascar, Comoros, Mozambique, South Africa and finally Mozambique (where Forbes died, 16th August 1823).

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The Land of the Oran-utan

Written by John Wilson, Curator (Vertebrate Zoology), World Museum, Liverpool

This article was first published as a blog for National Museums Liverpool, 16 August 2019.

150 years ago Alfred Russel Wallace wrote about “the land of the orang-utan” and sent specimens to Liverpool.

2019 is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago: The land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise. A narrative of travel, with studies of man and nature.

Although best known as the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection alongside Charles Darwin, The Malay Archipelago firmly established Wallace as one of the greatest natural history explorers.

Title page of the first edition of The Malay Archipelago published in 1869, 150 years ago.

The Malay Archipelago is a vivid, first-person account of Wallace’s travels, studies and natural history collecting in Southeast Asia. During 8 years Wallace travelled over 14,000 miles and collected 125,000 specimens. Orangutans feature prominently in the book’s title, and chapter four is largely devoted to Wallace’s adventures with orangutans in Sarawak, Borneo.

Wallace wrote: “… one of my chief objects in coming to stay at Simunjon [a river in Sarawak] was to see the Orang-utan (or great man-like ape of Borneo) in his native haunts, to study his habitats, and obtain good specimens of the different varieties and species of both sexes, and of the adult and young animals. In all these objects I succeeded beyond my expectations, …”

The orangutans of Borneo are now generally considered to be a single species (Pongo pygmaeus), with a single subspecies found in Sarawak. However, Wallace and his contemporaries thought these animals comprised multiple species, including “Simia satyrus” and “Simia morio”.

Chapter four recounts Wallace’s collection of around twenty orangutans, about ten of which he shot himself. Wallace also recalls fostering a female baby orangutan orphaned after her mother was shot out of the canopy. Wallace’s emotional attachment to the “poor little thing” (page 68) provides a dramatic counterpoint to his hard-headed hunting of adults.

Among the orangutans collected by Wallace in Sarawak, he specifically mentions: the first full grown specimen he obtained (a female) (page 64); a “giant” male with a perfectly preserved skeleton (page 76); and the “only other male specimen of Simia morio” (page 87); as being in the “Derby Museum”. World Museum was originally called the Derby Museum in honour of the 13th Earl of Derby whose natural history collection founded the Liverpool public museums.

In total five orangutans obtained by Wallace in Sarawak had arrived at World Museum on the 18th March 1857 purchased through Wallace’s London agent Samuel Stevens. These were one adult male Simia satyrus (stuffed skin and mounted skeleton); one adult female Simia satyrus (stuffed skin and mounted skeleton); one juvenile Simia satyrus (stuffed skin), one adult male Simia morio (stuffed skin and articulated skull), and one adult female Simia morio (stuffed skin and articulated skull).

Of these specimens the Simia morio male and female skulls can still be found in the World Museum collection. The skulls are labelled in pencil “S. morio”.

“Simia morio” female skull collected in Sarawak by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1855. © National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

Simia morio” female skull collected in Sarawak by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1855.

“Simia morio” male skull collected in Menyille, Sarawak by Alfred Russel Wallace in August 1855. The cranium and mandible are inscribed with “S. morio” and the catalogue number 31. The cranium was likely sectioned into two for the “ascent of man” display. At this point the mandible became separated from the cranium and was accessioned into the collection as a “chimpanzee”. They have now been reunited. © National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

For some fortunate reason the male Simia morio skin, shipped in a casket of arrack, was never mounted as a taxidermy specimen so didn’t go on display in the gallery. It remains folded (now dry) as originally received demonstrating Wallace’s procedure for preservation and packing.

“Simia morio” male collected in Menyille, Sarawak by Alfred Russel Wallace in August 1855. © National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

It is likely the other skins and mounted skeletons were prepared for public display and lost in the museum’s Upper Horseshoe Gallery during the blitz of 3 May 1941. The orangutans appear to have been mounted similarly to those collected by Wallace in Sarawak and now in the Natural History Museum, London.

Mammals in the museums’ Upper Horseshoe Gallery before the blitz, including on the left what appears to be a juvenile and adult orangutan.

Wallace’ reputation has fared well in the century since his death: “an adventurer who does not present himself as adventurous; he is a Victorian Englishman abroad with all the self-assurance but without the lordly superiority of the coloniser; he is the chronicler of wonders who refuses to exaggerate…”. However, there is an impetus to recognise the local people who enabled Wallace’s achievements – the Dayak, Malay, ethnic Chinese and other indigenous peoples of Sarawak. Later this year the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in Singapore will unveil a statue of Wallace and Ali, Wallace’s “faithful companion of almost all my journeyings among the islands of the far East”.

As a researcher and lecturer working in Malaysia I attended the 2013 Alfred Russel Wallace- His Predecessors and Successors conference in Kuching, Sarawak. Like Wallace 150 years before, I was eager “to see the Orang-utan (or great man-like ape of Borneo) in his native haunts”. I visited the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, a sanctuary run by the Sarawak State Government for semi wild orangutans which have been injured, orphaned or kept illegally as pets.

Myself and orangutan at the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, Sarawak in November 2013.

As recently brought to public attention in Iceland’s “banned” TV advert, habitat loss and hunting have decimated the orangutan population of Borneo (read the hard science: Global demand for natural resources eliminated more than 100,000 Bornean orangutans).

The Malay Archipelago has inspired scientists, naturalists and novelists for 150 years, from Joseph Conrad to David Attenborough. Let’s hope it can help inspire the current generation to do everything they possibly can to ensure the survival of the critically endangered orangutans of Borneo.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the Earl of Cranbrook for kindly providing his research into specimens collected by Wallace, Wan Faridah Wan Jusoh for information on locations in Sarawak, Muhammad Dzaki Safaruan (Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum) and Barry Clarke for information about the Wallace and Ali Statue and Amanda Naaum for photos from Semanggoh Nature Reserve.

 

NatSCA Digital Digest – November

Compiled by Glenn Roadley, Curator (Natural Science), The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

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. If you have visited an exhibition/museum, have something to say about a current topic, or perhaps you want to tell us what you’ve been working on, please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Where Should I Visit?

The Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne is opening a temporary exhibition curated by Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s first MP. BRINK opens on Saturday 23rd November and continues until Sunday 10th May 2020. The exhibition consists of a selection of art works chosen to reflect and resonate with Caroline’s passions and interests, from her environmental work, issues of climate change and effects on our landscape, to her love of living in Sussex.

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Meet the NatSCA Committee – Kirsty Lloyd

Written by Kirsty Lloyd, BBSRC CryoArks Technician at the Natural History Museum, London.

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee?

I have recently become a member of the NatSCA committee after attending their conferences and events for several years.

Thus far I have taken on the role of tracking and supporting collections at risk. A natural sciences collection provides a perpetual physical snapshot of the natural world and holds important information which can help us better understand our planet today. However, this valuable resource is often the first to experience the strain of funding cuts, staff shortages and redundancies. Collections in long-term storage, especially those that exist outside of the public eye, are frequently underutilized and therefore undervalued.

NatSCA is trying to keep track of threats to collections and offer our support to those in need; with the intention of increasing awareness and acknowledgement of the value of natural sciences collection and the people with the skills to care for them. If you know of any collections that are at risk from staff loss or collection disposal, please get in touch at advocacy@natsca.org.

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Making the Most of What You’ve Got

Written by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The Collection

The Horniman Museum is the custodian of a collection of ca. 175,000 fossil specimens, collected by Walter Hellyer Bennett (1892-1971). A mining geologist and palaeontology enthusiast, Bennett collected somewhat indiscriminately, not pausing to favour geography, strata, or taxa, which makes it a collection of great interest to a wide variety of academics, and for other uses such as exhibitions and loans.

This huge collection was bequeathed to the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society in the 1970s, where choice pieces were put out on open display whilst the rest remained stored in Bennett’s original wooden cabinets. It contains some beautiful material, such as this Isotelus gigas trilobite, and Eryon propinguus lobster.

A) Isotelus gigas, and Ordovician trilobite from the Trenton Limestone. B) Eryon propinquus, a Jurassic lobster from the Solnhofen Limestone. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

The collection is approximately 10% vertebrate material, 85% invertebrates, and 5% plants and trace fossils. In case you are interested in particular taxonomic groups (as we are keen on facilitating research enquiries and visits… fyi) the invertebrates are mostly bivalves, brachiopods, cephalopods, corals, and gastropods, with a large variety of other taxonomic groups represented in small numbers as well (please do get in touch if you’re interested in getting more information), and the vertebrates are primarily conodonts, crocodilians, dinosaurs, fish (including sharks), ichthyosaurs, mammals, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, and turtles. Geographically, around 87% of the material was collected within Europe, primarily from the UK (50%) and France (15%). A further 10% is from North America whilst small amounts of material were collected from across Africa, South America, the Middle East, Asia and Australasia. Notable sites include the Solnhofen Limestone and the Burgess Shale.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – October

Compiled by Jennifer Gallichan, Curator: Vertebrates/Mollusca, Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

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. If you have visited an exhibition/museum, have something to say about a current topic, or perhaps you want to tell us what you’ve been working on, please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Where Should I Visit?

It is definitely worth visiting Beavers to Weavers: The Wonderful World of Animal Makers exhibition at Leeds City Museum as they have just won a Museums Change Lives award in the category of environmental sustainability. More than 48,000 people visited this exhibition last year, so if you’ve not yet been, it’s worth checking out. The exhibition has an environmental focus displaying beautiful objects made by animals. Discover how animals build homes, make armour or camouflage, craft tools and traps to catch food or change their appearances to attract each other. If you want to know more there is also a great blog about it.

After its recent stay in Great North Museum: Hancock, Dippy On Tour finally comes to National Museum Cardiff this month! This will be Dippy’s only sojourn in Wales, and so is a fantastic opportunity for many to see this iconic specimen. Croeso Dippy i Gymru! There are tonnes of related events programmed, you can dance around Dippy at our Silent disco, or find your inner calm at Dippy about Yoga, so well worth a visit.

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Meet The NatSCA Committee – Glenn Roadley

Written by Glenn Roadley, Curator (Natural Science), The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

What is your role on the NatSCA committee?

Though new to the committee, I’ve been volunteering for NatSCA for about 5 years, primarily updating the NatSCA Jobs Listings web page. I’ll be continuing to help out with keeping our website up to date, and I’m looking forward to assisting with the organisation of future NatSCA conferences.

Job title and institution

Curator (Natural Science), The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Twitter username

@batdrawer1

Tell us about your day job

As Curator of Natural Science at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, I am responsible for caring for and providing access to the ~150,000 Natural Science specimens held by Stoke-on-Trent City Council. As the main repository for Natural Science specimens in Staffordshire, the museum holds a robust representation of local flora and fauna, backed by strong links with the local biological recording community. My day to day work usually involves answering enquiries (usually requests for identification), organising both Natural Science and cross-disciplinary displays and exhibitions, developing the collections through both acquisitions and disposals and facilitating visitors and loans. I’m lucky to work with a great team of volunteers, who perform invaluable work documenting and digitising our specimens.

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