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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Crochetdermy® at the Horniman

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

We all have our hobbies, though some are definitely more gloat-worthy than others. Personally, I do have some respectable things on my list like visiting other natural history collections and reading history books, but then I also have less conventional interests like attending Destination Star Trek, and building model WWII airplanes. Whatever makes you happy, I say! Last Christmas I got a new hobby- I was given a Star Wars crochet set and, having wiled away the cold winter nights using it to learn how to knot wool into shapes*, I used my new found ‘skills’ to make this awesome, if far from perfect, crochet Yoda for my sister’s birthday. I was pretty chuffed with myself to be frank**, but if you happen to know my sister, don’t look at Yoda’s cloak too closely next time you pop round to see her.

My first crochet project; A little Yoda for my sister. © Emma Nicholls.

It is through the eyes of someone with this specific level of skill (loose term in my case) that I introduce you with awe to the new installation in the Inspired by Nature temporary exhibition space at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. When I first saw the lioness peering out over the Natural History Gallery, I let out an audible and involuntary ‘wow’. The exhibition, by artist Shauna Richardson, is called EVOLUTION of The Artist and the Exhibited Works. The exhibition comprises seven 3-dimensional sculptures, and one ‘skin’; a baboon that hasn’t been stuffed in order to show, in part, the process of how her sculptures have been created. Shauna devised the term ‘Crochetdermy®’ as an obvious yet genius amalgamation of the words ‘crochet’ and ‘taxidermy’ to describe her sculptures, which it does really rather well I’d say. The skill required to produce these life-size pieces, speaking from the bottom rung of the crochet skill set ladder, is phenomenal (and I think people on much higher steps than I would have to agree). You can see the muscles in the lioness’s neck, the facial features are as realistic as you like, and the size and impact of the pieces on the visitors is obvious, whenever I walk past.

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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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NatSCA Digital Digest – August

Welcome to the slightly late August edition of the NatSCA Digital Digest!

What Shall I Do?

Don’t forget to book your places for the Caring for Natural Science Collections workshop on the 17th October, if you haven’t already. It’s being held at the Oxford Museum of Natural History and should be lots of fun.

If you were planning on attending TetzooCon this year, time is running out: the dinner is already booked up (there is an alt-dinner, speak to Beth Windle for details) and I’m given to understand that over half the tickets have been sold already. Don’t miss out, it’s going to be bigger and better than ever.

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A Year of Coraling and Coralling

International Year of the Reef

The Aquarium at the Horniman Museum and Gardens dates back, in one form or another, to the early 1900s. In more recent times the Aquarium has been home to Project Coral; where pioneering research is being undertaken in coral spawning. The project team, led by Aquarium Curator Jamie Craggs, is successfully developing in-vitro fertilisation techniques for captive corals and they have instigated the first successful spawning of captive coral in the world. Their research will further scientific understanding of the impact of climate change on coral reproduction and has potential to serve as a method of restoring damaged coral reefs.

Coral spawning taking place at the Horniman Museum Aquarium, as part of ongoing research by Project Coral under lead scientist Jamie Craggs. © Horniman Museum and Gardens and Jamie Craggs

Being the home of such an important coral conservation project made it an obvious thing to do to get involved with International Year of the Reef. 2018 marks the third IYOR (International Year of the Reef), and to celebrate it, the Horniman Museum is hosting a year of special events, exhibitions, online content and family activities to highlight both Project Coral, and the ongoing plight of coral reefs around the world. As Project Coordinator of the IYOR programme at the Horniman, my role was to help set up and run six projects devised by a team of collaborators. The project was extremely multidisciplinary; utilising the natural history collections, the live aquarium exhibits, art installations, dance performances, and collaborating with external researchers from around the world.

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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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The Mass Migration of the Cole Museum of Zoology

This article has been reposted from The Mass Migration of the Cole Museum of Zoology blog.

Spreading the word

We’re back!

There has been a lot of progress made in organising the move of our animals, and there will be a series of blog posts here to update you on what we’ve been up to behind the scenes.

In front of the scenes (as it were), some of our invaluable undergraduate volunteers have created and started to roll out an outreach/awareness focused Pop-Up Museum.

The pop-up features specimens (that aren’t part of the official museum collections!) and an information sheet about each species, with members of the public able to pick up and explore them. The volunteers are there to engage in enthusiastic conversation, to educate people about animal life and raise awareness of the Cole Museum itself.

The Featured Image of this post shows Max and Amelia at a local primary school’s summer fair, and below is the huge amount of interest the museum got from young zoologists on its first ever outing:

Max and Amelia at a local primary school’s summer fair. © Cole Museum of Zoology

The beauty of the pop-up museum lies in its portability and flexibility of content; it can include games, sweets and toys for sale if being run in the museum during holidays or at schools but could also include more in-depth specimen information, a more grown-up friendly range of merchandise and quizzes. The whole thing packs into 2 or 3 boxes, and requires only a table to set up.

For the Cole, our pop-up museum encompasses so many things that are really important to us; great undergraduate student experiences, public outreach, inspiring the next generations of zoologists and raising awareness/funds for the Cole Museum and its upcoming move. It’s a win-win-win…win-win…

Written by Meg Cathcart-James, Project Officer at Cole Museum of Zoology