Bringing the Dead Back to Life, with Paolo Viscardi

Paolo at the Museum of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Last week saw the first PubSci talk by NatSCA Chair Paolo Viscardi since we moved venues to the King’s Arms near London Bridge. The subject, Bringing the Dead to Life, is less a Frankenstein manual and more of a description of his role as Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. He works with dead things every day and he does so for the public’s benefit, because these collections are yours: both yours as a national collective, and yours as an individual if you want to do something with them.1

A large part of the reason we have these amazing collections is due to massive amount of world exploration by wealthy industrialists, tradesmen, and philanthropists. Frederick John Horniman was a tea trader, and collected all sorts of things in his travels. The stuff he brought back captured the public imagination because it introduced them to international cultures they would otherwise have no idea about. We take global information for granted today because we all have access to internet resources in our pockets, so it is hard for us to grasp how unusual it must have been for people in 1948 to see frescoes from Ceylon temples for the first time.

One of the fun side effects of this close encounter with the unusual is that oftentimes people preparing the specimens from overseas were only going by descriptions, and were not at all familiar with the species they were working on. A great example of this is the iconic Horniman Walrus, who was overfilled until he was wrinkle-free – in the style of a seal. There is an exhibit at the Grant Museum of Zoology at the moment discussing this phenomenon and featuring a lovely Stubbs painting of a kangaroo that resembles a giant mouse. Knowing how meticulous Stubbs was about his animal anatomy, one has to believe that this is exactly how he understood them to look and is not in any way an accident of the proportions.

The topic of proportions and measurement brings me on to a study done by Paolo et al. in 2010, looking at the variation in measurements taken of a section of owl bone, so naturally the paper was titled How long is a piece of Strix. Comparative measurement is a fundamental part of species identification, so naturally one would assume a consensus of readings taken by professionals. The results were somewhat different: when working alone, the measurements were accurate. When working as part of a team, the measurements strayed, and the more people collaborating, the greater the disparity between measurements.

As a science communicator both at the museum and through his blog, Paolo has had the opportunity to work on some interesting projects: he has advised BBC television series such as our patron Ben Garrod‘s Secrets of Bones and he has been interviewed for The One Show to explain why cats get stuck up trees (they can’t rotate their ankles). This allowed Paolo to introduce the viewing audience to the Margay (Leopardus wiedii): a cat that can rotate its ankles. He has shared his love of osteology with 13-year-old fellow-blogger Jake McGowan-Lowe, which led to Jake publishing a book on the subject! To promote a recent Horniman exhibition on extreme animal adaptations, Paolo was subjected to the harshest elements in nature, which earned him the title ‘Extreme Curator’, and his very own Lego action figure.

Margay

Margay. By Clément Bardot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Where next for Paolo’s science communication? You’ll have to ask him at the next PubSci with Professor Ian Barnes. If you’re a fan of pleistocene megafauna (and, let’s face it, who isn’t), I wouldn’t miss it.

Sam Barnett, NatSCA Blog Editor

1. Depending on what it is you want to do with them and how run-ragged the museum staff are.

An Interview with the Next Generation

Last week we covered the history of Charles Jamrach: a Victorian animal trader who, though his methods would be considered questionable today, was nevertheless the source of many museum and zoo specimens in his day.

Today I’d like to talk about the future – specifically the fresh lay-enthusiasts who could one day be museum professionals. At the RSPB Conference last week, Nick Clegg said that “Many young people now know more about playing Angry Birds on their phone than they do about spotting real birds when they’re outside”. That may well be true but there is hope for the next generation, with lots of up and coming young naturalists.

I caught up with two of them to ask them about their passion for natural history: Melanie and Sam.

Sam's mounted swallow

Sam’s mounted swallow

1. What first got you interested in natural history collection?

Melanie:

“The thing that first really got me interested in natural history collecting was seeing Ben Garrod‘s series Secrets of Bones on tv. I was still a little bit freaked out by bones and skulls before seeing this series. This made me see bones as interesting. I have always had a massive love for animals and wildlife, so this helps me to see them from a new angle.”

Sam:

“Well when ever i see an animal i wonder how i can learn more about it, sure you can look online and in books but nothings works as well as … Looking at whats behind its beauty skills and adaptation, the bones and the feathers.”

2. How big is your collection today?

Melanie:

“My collection total stands at 70, but I am continuing to find new specimens constantly. This includes: Great Bustard, buzzard, owls, polecat, mink, African striped weasel and African pygmy hedgehog.”

Sam:

“My collection at the moment consists of 45-47 skulls, 1-5 hundred feathers and all sorts. It’s still growing.”

3. What is the specimen that you are most pleased with and why?

Melanie:

“I don’t really have a single specimen to answer this question. But I have a collection of 4 owls inside (2x tawny, 1x barn, and 1x Eurasian scops) and they are by far my favourites. I also have a third tawny owl rotting at the moment. Owl skulls are especially interesting to me as I love owls when they are alive!”

Sam

“My favourite and most amazing cleaned specimen is my swallow skeleton. I’m incredibly pleased with it as i articulated it myself and the skull is very interesting in the way it is shaped.”

4. What are the top 3 on your wish list?

Melanie:

“The top three specimens on my wish list are all owls: a snowy, great grey, and an eagle owl; but any skulls are always welcome in my collection.”

Sam

“My top 3 specimens on my most wanted list would be a puffin, a green woodpecker, and a seal.”

5. What has been the best advice that you have been given so far?

Melanie:

“The best advice I have been given so far was from Jake McGowan Lowe, he has helped me loads with my collection, from a good way of documenting it, cleaning advice, identifying and even the legal side of things!”

Sam

“I think the best advice anyone has ever given me is to simply just ignore when people say that it’s morbid to collect dead animals”

Melanie's owl skulls.

Melanie’s owl skulls.

6. How do you document your specimens?

Melanie:

“I document my specimens by giving each of them a tag with their name, English specie name, date they came into my collection, ID number and who found it. Each specimen then has half of a A4 sheet of paper with all of its details on it. Occasionally if its a rare skull it has a full A4 page of information linked to it by its ID number.”

Sam

“I keep a record of all my skulls hand written in my notebook and digitally on a record list and a picture profile.”

7. Has a student or scientist wanted to study one of your specimens as part of their research?

Melanie:

“No-one has yet wanted to study one of my specimens for research. I wouldn’t mind them coming and handling my specimens at all and would find it a complement if they wanted to know more about something in my collection. I would be careful about who takes them though: they are my pride and joy after all!”

Sam

“If someone wanted to study one of my specimens i would be happy for them to study them and not only that but i would be honoured.”

8. Do you see this as a hobby or would you like to get a natural history-related job someday?

Melanie:

“I see it as a hobby but I also would love to become a zoologist or osteologist one day! So being able to have a collection of my own specimens is really useful and I really love doing it!”

Sam

“when im older i would like a natural history related job and this is not just a hobby its my way of learning more about nature.”

9. If someone were to question whether your specimens were collected ethically, what steps are you taking to demonstrate that they are?

Melanie:

“The measures I take to prove that my specimens were ethically acquired are: take photos if I can of any injures to prove that it was not shot; write down where it was found/who I bought it from, and where it came from. I keep documents linked to all my specimens with all of this info on it, and also try to acquire only car killed or naturally found specimens. I have one grey squirrel that was shot, and have kept the bullet with it and taken notes about it. Its really important to keep all of this written down and have it to hand so that if I needed to I could prove how it died. I also do lots of research into whether or not I need any licences to be able to keep that particular skull.”

Sam:

“Well I take photos of where they are found and keep them a folder that shows where it was found sometimes who was there and proof of the death from the bones.”


So you can see there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the subject material, which should always be encouraged. The idea As long as amateur collectors are informed and guided by the subject specialists towards conscientious and ethical collecting this can only be a positive thing. If you would like to learn more about these young collectors and their collections, they are very active on Twitter and Sam’s collection has it’s own blog at Nature Based.