Reflecting on a Collections Move During the Pandemic, the Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium one year on.

Written by Clare Booth-Downs, Herbarium Curator, Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium,

Moving On Up, To Move On Out

The Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium (RHS), which holds approximately 150,000 specimens and associated ancillary collections, had outgrown its original storage space.  The building of a new dedicated science and collections centre, RHS Hilltop, which opened in late June 2021, provided a solution to this. Hilltop, the home of gardening science, includes a larger, purpose built facility, the 1851 Royal Commission Herbarium.

The Laboratory, RHS Wisley, Surrey. Image by Clare Booth-Downs. © Royal Horticultural Society.
Interior of the original RHS Herbarium showing the overspill on top of the cabinets. Image: Yvette Harvey.

Increasing the capacity of the herbarium was vital as the collection is expected to expand at a fast pace over the next few years.  With a full time plant collector now in place, the RHS’ ultimate aim is to hold a specimen of every species and cultivar of garden plant growing in the U.K. It is estimated this will be a collection numbering 400,000 specimens by 2050.

This repository will act as a reference point for gardeners, breeders, students and researchers as well as for ‘non-traditional’ herbarium visitors, for example, artists and designers looking for inspiration for fabrics and jewellery.  This is alongside one of the Society’s own research foci, as described by Professor Alistair Griffiths, RHS Director of Science & Collections, “In the UK, we’ve got a massive diversity of cultivated plants, originating from around the world, and all have potential for nature-based solutions.  We’re going to work towards a database of the garden plants and their uses from an environmental, and health and wellbeing perspective”.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – July 2022

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

Welcome to the July 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 any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Sector News

SPNHC / BHL / NatSCA Conference 2022

Just over a month ago the SPNHC/ BHL / NatSCA conference was underway. As my first SPNHC and first NatSCA conferences, it was a great introduction into the sector and I enjoyed meeting all of the NatSCA members that were able to attend the event! One of the highlights were the National Museums Scotland store tours! If you missed out, you can get a glimpse of the natural history collections here.

Yorkshire Natural History Museum

The Yorkshire Natural History Museum is a new, small public museum opening in Sheffield – Saturday August 13th 2022! The museum includes geology, palaeontology and botany collections with a significant research collection of fossils from the Yorkshire Lias. Their website is currently under construction but you can check out their twitter account @YorkshireNHM.

Harnessing the Power of Natural Science Collections – Community Event

This event is currently underway, but if you’re quick you might catch the last half! The event is open to all UK natural science collection holders, interested in attending and learning more about the scoping work and the next steps in the plans for a national digitisation programme. Held via Microsoft Teams, July 14th, between 10:00-12:00. Please follow this link to access the meeting. 

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‘Tom’ The Burlingham Bird

Written by Anthony Roach FLS (He/Him), Archives Assistant, Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service.

Whilst we do have some objects held at Worcestershire Archives, a mummified bird filed in a plastic pocket was a hugely surprising find all the same! The bird was ‘filed’ – its place as important as other key events in the history of Burlingham & Co., Evesham, a business, which from the late 19th century onwards was managed by Henry Burlingham.  

Image of the Burlingham bird when first discovered Ref 705.1373 BA12963.6.63 © WAAS

Either side of the mummified bird contains photographs of the Evesham premises charting its changing fortunes, a catalogue of products sold, adverts and circulars sent out to clients. Whilst Burlingham & Co. began as merchants and agents of a wide range of goods, including coal, their interests narrowed as sellers of construction materials, garden machinery, and fertiliser.

Close up of the Burlingham Bird Ref 705.1373 BA12963.63 © WAAS

I was excited by ‘The Burlingham Bird’ find and set about the challenge of learning more about it and also how best to conserve and safely store the specimen in our archives.

The Mummy Bird

Close up of image with text ‘Mummified seabird found in bag of Arabian Guano’ c.1957-8 Ref 705.1373 BA12963.6.63 © WAAS

As you can see it was described as ‘Mummified sea bird found in bag of Arabian Guano c.1957/8’  When I first examined it, I thought it most resembled either a cormorant or a shag having been used to seeing both around the coasts and estuaries in Devon. Having reviewed the different species found in Arabia using the image supplied with the bird and the morphology of the mummified bird itself, it most closely resembles the Socotra cormorant (Phalacrocorax nigrogularis) – endemic to the Persian Gulf and the south-east coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

Socotra cormorant – Phalacrocorax nigrogularis – Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macauley Library © Oscar Campbell
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Freezing Specimens And How To Mitigate Freezer Burn.

Written by Jazmine Miles Long, Taxidermist. https://www.jazminemileslong.com, Twitter: @TaxidermyLondon; Instagram: @Jazmine_miles_long

In my opinion there isn’t one system to do things correctly in taxidermy, every museum or taxidermist may have their own preferences and strategies already in place. This is simply a guideline that works for me, and I hope it can help others to mitigate some of the problems I encounter when working with skins that have been frozen in a way that has accelerated freezer burn. Following this advice might get more time out of frozen specimens and give you a greater chance that they can be mounted once the budget or staff time is there to pay for taxidermy or processing cabinet skins.

What is freezer burn?

Freezer burn happens when the moisture is evaporated out of the animal’s skin and muscles over time in the freezer. Most specimens even if they are well packed in the freezer will still get some freezer burn over a long period of time but it will be much worse if the specimen is poorly packaged or has something absorbent (like a paper label) inside the bag with it.

You can tell if a specimen has freezer burn because it will look white and dry in areas such as the feet, hands, around the eyes, ears, and mouth. And when you start skinning the skin will be yellowed and hard to remove rather than red, fleshy, and easy to peel away.

Firstly, I advise to always freeze your specimens before handling or skinning them. At a minimum you could record the specimen’s weight before freezing as this measurement is affected slightly after freezing. I personally would not take any other measurements until after they have been thoroughly frozen (unless you want to collect live parasites). As the animal dies, any parasites on the skin of the animal will leave the body as it cools and hop onto the next willing subject which will be you or any living creature in your lab! A note that fleas are not killed over night, if you freeze a fox for example leave it in there for at least two weeks before defrosting. It completely depends on the temperature of your freezer however so if you start to defrost an animal the fleas will defrost first, so if there is movement you know to refreeze! Obviously very large animals may need to be skinned straight away, so in this case my advice is wear appropriate PPE.

Great Spotted woodpecker. Image by Jazmine Miles Long.
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The ‘Social History of Natural History: People and Plants’ Workshop One

March 11th 2022, Powell-Cotton Museum

Written by Alexandra Slucky (Assistant Heritage Consultant & Environmental Archaeologist, Atkins, York Office) and Fiona Roberts (Collaborative ESRC PhD student, Cardiff University & Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales).

Decolonizing collections has been at the forefront of museums for quite some time. Thinking beyond the Western museum structure, many institutions have taken new opportunities to view indigenous knowledge from indigenous perspectives by revisiting old collections of anthropological material intermixed with botanical specimens. Four years in the making, Workshop One is part of a one-year project called People and Plants: reactivating ethnobotanical collections as material archives of indigenous ecological knowledge, beginning in January 2022. It is led by National Museums Scotland, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Powell-Cotton Museum, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Entrance to Powell Cotton Museum, Birchington-on-Sea, England, Photo by Alexandra Slucky

The main aim of the project is to engage with three unique indigenous collections located in UK institutions; Somalian, Amazonian, and Aboriginal Australian. The project examines the value and relevance of ethnobotanical collections, both in the present and the future, aiming to bring academics, researchers, museum professionals, botanists and indigenous knowledge holders together in conversation. To focus on sharing authority, it gives a museum voice to women of colour through a process of reactivation, recovery, and relationships, with the result creating more inclusive conditions for future collections.

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