Five Lessons for Life from Working on the Horniman’s Historical Herbarium

Written by Imogen Crarer during a student placement at the Horniman Museum and Gardens early last year. Imogen recently graduated from King’s College, London with an MA in Modern History with Distinction and is currently training as a curator at the Museum of Cornish Life.

You may think that I have taken slight leave of my senses or perhaps am being a pinch too ambitious in claiming that the Horniman’s historical botany collection is the source of 5 significant life lessons. However, “Yes! To science and history but also yes to life!” is my cheerful reply. Instead of dancing away merrily in a fit of musical theatre style exuberance, I shall explain how my student placement with the Natural History department researching the Herbarium gave me such insight.

Life Lesson Number 1: Often, the Simple or Basic Tasks are the Most Important.

Everything starts somewhere. My time at the Horniman highlighted that research processes and the museum journey of cataloguing, conserving and interpreting specimens for scholarly and public benefit has to begin with the basic “’ello ‘ello, what have we here?”. In my case, what we had were unbound volumes of Flora Britannica- physical specimens attached to annotated sheets collected mostly within the 1840s.

Having never previously been catalogued, the data from the handwritten labels on these specimens needed entering into the Horniman’s Collections Management System, Mimsy XG. Recording information on the database, such as scientific name, locality, and date collected, allows Horniman staff, volunteers and future researchers to know what is in the herbarium and explore its significance without having to disturb the specimens. While handy for convenience, it also helps us to conserve the specimens as repeated handling can damage these fragile, and beautiful, preserved plants. However it soon became apparent that the basic task of deciphering the handwriting and researching historical localities and common names was time-consuming, frustrating but also very rewarding. Transcribing the data from the specimens onto the database, I felt was my most useful contribution to the Horniman, and therefore my biggest achievement. It reminded me that taking the time to give yourself a solid foundation helps in anything that you do!

The collections management database used by the Horniman Museum; Mimsy XG. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Life Lesson Number 2: Little Things can Tell us a Great Deal.

The 175+ year old botanical specimens preserved in the herbaria have both historical and scientific significance. The specimens vary in size from approximately 2 cm to 30 cm in length, and the detail of delicate moss spores, flower buds, and leaf structures for example is wonderful. The specimen sheets tell us about the plants themselves. They also reveal a snapshot of the English countryside in the 1840s, particularly around Thame, Oxfordshire. Knowing the historical what, when and where allows us to make comparisons with current ecological data. This helps us to understand if and how plant species have spread or declined. This is particularly important for meadow flowers (represented strongly in the volumes I was working on) given that 97% of British meadows have been lost since 1945[1]. I feel that the Horniman’s historical botany collection and the present drive to conserve Britain’s green spaces and limit climate change, habitat destruction and pollution are much more linked than we might think.

One of a number of unbound herbaria held in the collections. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – January

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

What Should I Read?

Prolific author Darren Naish (of TetZoo) has pulled together a collection of exciting tetrapod-based scientific discoveries of 2018 in his latest article The Most Amazing TetZoo Themed Discoveries of 2018.

The government of New Zealand is under pressure to act on the trade of moa bones. This article is good food for thought re private sales of fossils; Moa for sale: trade in extinct birds’ bones threatens New Zealand’s history.

Of interest to many more of us than just curators, the top three most popular 2018 blogs posted on the Geological Curators’ Group website are:

1) Pyrite Oxidation: Where Are We Now? an excellent and informative article on the menace of pyrite decay

2) Up Inside Historic Dinosaurs about the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, and

3) Contradictions, Conundrums and Lies which looks at the issues we face in museums!

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Hands-On Time with the Bird Collections at Glasgow

Written by Maggie Reilly, Curator of Zoology at The Hunterian Museum (Zoology), University of Glasgow.

“Huzzah!” (or something similar) my colleague Adam and I cried as we put the last of our bird skin collection in its new home – the rather swanky Bruynzeel (other brands are available) drawers that are part of the new storage arrangements for the Hunterian at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. We don’t have a huge bird collection here at the Hunterian – well, not by some people’s standards, but we do have some pretty special stuff. Cataloguing is not complete (is it ever?), but to date here are the stats: Bird skins 3,587; Bird mounts ca. 450; National Nest Reference Collection ca. 2000; Eggs ca. 1000; Bones ca. 100?; Wet-preserved>30. I am going to focus on the skin collection here.

New storage at the Kelvin Hall for mammal, bird skin and mount collections. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

Most of the skins were moved along with the rest of the Hunterian’s study collections, over the last two years to our new home the Hunterian Collections Study and Access Centre at the Kelvin Hall. The latter, adjacent to University, is an iconic building in Glasgow which has served many purposes in its 100 year history. It is now a partnership between the University of Glasgow, Glasgow Life and National Libraries of Scotland, to provide access to museum and library collections, and sports facilities.

Organising and moving the collections has been a monumental task and is still underway for other parts of the collection.  Thankfully it has mandated much hands-on time with the collections, previously a rare treat.

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Wild About Portsmouth – Discovering Portsmouth’s Natural History Collection

Written by Christine Taylor, Curator of Natural History, Portsmouth Museums

In March 2018 Portsmouth City Council was awarded a £79,700 grant to deliver a ‘Wild about Portsmouth project in order to raise the profile of the city’s Natural History collection. In addition to appointing a curator and an assistant, the project enables the development of natural history advocates and a team of volunteers to work on and promote the collection. The project also aims to engage with people in a variety of ways, from family activities to specialist workshops, with the view of participants helping to inform priorities for collection development and new displays.

As a curator with over 20 years’ experience in Hampshire, I have always been aware of the collection but had very little knowledge of it. The last Natural History Curator was 10 years ago and, apart from the occasional request, little had been done to develop the collection. An initial overview showed that the collection was (mainly) in good condition, packed into archival and museum quality boxes awaiting rediscovery.

One of the first tasks was to get an idea of the scope of the collections and their associated collectors. Another task was to recruit volunteers to assist with rearranging the collections to get them into taxonomic order and to catalogue them or update the Modes database with provenance data. To date 10 volunteers have been recruited and are currently working on the geology, shell and botany collections. Once the entomology collections have rehoused over the next few months (the cabinets are currently stored side-on making access to them rather difficult), volunteers will be recruited to re-stage, re-organise and catalogue them.

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And the Winner is…

Written by Lucie Mascord, Natural History Conservator, and NatSCA Committee Member.

Through August to October this year, NatSCA ran its very first competition. Running up to the Caring for Natural Science Collections one-day conference at Oxford University Museum of Natural History (on 17th October 2018), the competition asked participants to post natural history conservation themed photographs to Twitter with the hashtags #NatSCAConservation and #photocomp.

Whilst it took a little while to warm up, buoyed by some fantastic images posted by the NatSCA conservation working group, we received some excellent entries, resulting in a close competition for first place.

The entries ranged from geology to taxidermy, from the humorous to the technical. This was the exact response we were looking for, illustrating the variety and accessibility of conservation.

When it came down to it, the winning photograph was an excellent composition, highlighting the complexities of conserving an unusual object.

The winner is this fantastic entry from Anastasia van Gaver, which features Anastasia and her colleague Samuel Suarez Ferreira on their first day at work at the Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge, (@ZoologyMuseum), image taken by Natalie Jones. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end with this monster of a giant spider crab. Both Anastasia and Sam attended the conference in October and gave talks on specific conservation experiences during their contracts at the Museum of Zoology. To be able to spotlight emerging professionals working with natural history collections was one of the main achievements of the conference and competition.

The winning entry from Anastasia van Gaver, Natalie Jones, and Samuel Suarez Ferreira. © Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge.

Anastasia says; “The Cambridge University Museum of Zoology reopened in June, following a major HLF funded redevelopment. I was lucky to be one of the conservators to join the team for this project and this picture was taken on my very first day at the Museum, in August 2017. Having just visited the stores and the lab, my new colleague Samuel Suarrez Ferreira and I got given the task of making this Japanese spider crab fit for display! I submitted this picture for the competition not only because of the great memories I have of the best possible first day a natural sciences conservator could ask for, but also because it is a good example of team work: Sam and I decided on treatment together, then each conserved one side of ‘Krabby’, before the mountmaker Rebecca Ash designed an intricate bespoke metal support for it.”

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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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