Virtual Fieldwork during Lockdown – Part 2

Travelling to Socotra with the British and Liverpool Museums Expedition (1898/99).

This is part two of a blog written by John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool. See Part One here.

The journey continues…

Homhil proved a “successful and delightful sojourn, adding largely to both the flora and fauna [collected]”. The camp, surrounded by the iconic Dragon’s Blood Trees (see them yourself here), had an ideal climate, 26°C during the day, 18°C at night.

Sketch of the cucumber tree of Socotra by J. R. Wellsted, another unusual endemic tree, made during an earlier expedition to Socotra. The sketch is part of the Royle collection at LIV herbarium, World Museum. © National Museums Liverpool (World Museum).

Ten days later, after difficulties agreeing the onward route, the party retraced their steps to the Hadibu Plain. Turning southwards they pitched tents at Elhe and spent two days preparing fresh camels. On the second day, Forbes forgot to put one of his gaiters on and suffered a severe sunburn on his leg (having my own prominent sunburn scar, this is another field experience I can empathise with). While back on the plain, Ogilvie-Grant collected the endemic – Socotra Grosbeak, Socotra Starling, and Socotra Warbler – amongst other animals.

Socotra Grosbeak – Rhynchostruthus socotranus Sclater and Hartlaub, 1881 [accession number: 31.12.1900.164a] (top); Socotra Starling – Onychognathus fratus (Sclater and Hartlaub, 1881) [accession number: 31.12.1900.160e] (middle); and Socotra Warbler – Incana incana (Slater and Hartlaub, 1881) [accession number: 31.12.1900.175m] (bottom). © National Museums Liverpool (World Museum).

The party resumed their trek into the mountains, reaching an elevation with stunning sea views. They remained at Adho Dimellus (also spelt Adhoh di-Melhoh), the “roof of Sokotra”, until February 17th. Fieldwork often fuels friendships and an evening was spent entertaining an Austrian expedition party Forbes had met earlier in Aden.

Photograph of the camp at Adho Dimellus (H. O. Forbes from The Natural History of Sokotra and Abd-el-Kuri). Public Domain.

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Virtual Fieldwork during Lockdown – Part 1

Travelling to Socotra with the British and Liverpool Museums Expedition (1898/99).

By John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool

I’m one of the many field biologists whose fieldwork has been cancelled due to the coronavirus lockdown. It’s a tiny price to pay to get this unprecedented global pandemic under control but it’s hard not to dream about the tropical adventures that could have been. Fortunately for natural history curators, re-living the fieldwork of our predecessors while exploring (from home) the collections we look after, can go some way to satiate the travel bug.

The Socotra Archipelago (also spelt Soqotra or Sokotra) probably doesn’t feature in many people’s lockdown travel dreams. The archipelago is politically part of Yemen, a country tragically suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis as the result of ongoing civil war. However, in 1898, Socotra was firmly on the bucket list of Henry Ogg Forbes, Director and ornithologist at the Liverpool Museums (now World Museum, National Museums Liverpool).

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What Is That Spiny Thing?

Written by Ranee Om Prakash, Senior Curator – General Herbarium IV, Algae, Fungi and Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum (NHM) holds over 80 million specimens and every single specimen tells a story.

Amongst these 80 million objects, one such object is a specimen (Fig. 1) that the museum acquired from Mexico over 2 decades ago. This object excites curiosity amongst novices, students and the general public alike. Whenever anyone looks at this, the first thing they ask is what is that? A pineapple? A furry cat? Is it a sponge? The imaginations are limitless….

Fig. 1. Flower of Melocactus (© The Trustees, Natural History Museum, London)

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Exeter Shell Collection Designated by Arts Council England

Written by Holly Morgenroth, Collections Officer, Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM).

On 30 January 2020 Arts Council England’s (ACE) awarded Designated status to the George Montagu collection of Molluscs at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM). Just 152 collections in the country hold the coveted Designation award, and only a few of these collections are Natural History. Tullie House’s natural science collection recently received this accolade. The Designation scheme is a mark of distinction awarded to the finest cultural collections housed in non-national museums, libraries and archives across England.

Pioneering naturalist George Montagu (1753-1815)

George Montagu was the first person to collect and name British molluscs in a truly scientific manner. The shells were not just attractive curios. His work revolutionised the study of molluscs and his collection at RAMM is Britain’s most intact and taxonomically-important, early 19th-century collection of British shells (1800-1816). Today it is an essential resource for taxonomic research.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – February

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

Welcome to the February 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?

Plenty of events and exhibitions to keep you busy this month. The Royal Academy of Arts (London) exhibition ‘Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency’ runs until Sunday 23rd February. Through film, installation, architectural models and photography, the works in this exhibition interrogate how architecture, art and design are reacting to a rapidly changing world, From climate change to species extinction and resource depletion.

Exploration: From Deep Time to Outer Space’ continues at The Hunterian, Glasgow. The Hunterian is home to many important historical and modern natural history specimens and the associated materials related to them. Many of the most interesting and scientifically valuable are the product of fascinating field investigations and expeditions. This exhibition explores the scientific discoveries of the University of Glasgow’s staff, students and associates since the 18th century. Open until 15th March.

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The Power of People and Collections in the Climate Emergency

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, The Manchester Museum and Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth (formerly Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery).

Museums are most powerful when they connect real objects and research with real people. Natural science objects elicit deep emotional responses to the climate emergency; they help people to care and when done right, empower action.

This message is central to the NatSCA conference this year:

Changing the World: Environmental Breakdown, Decolonisation and Natural Science Collections

We’d love to hear your experience in a talk at the conference, the deadline for submissions is the 7th February.

Natural science collections are unique records of past biodiversity and climate across Britain, and the world, and are essential for climate change research taking place in museums every day. They allow access to historical information about millions of different species, providing an incredible amount of detail. They show how plants and animals have responded to past climate change, they show long-term population trends, and they show what we have lost.

These are all stories essential to bring clear factual science to an emotionally-charged debate. Research on these collections has directly shaped conservation work and climate change mitigation. In short, natural science collections are a powerful way to help save the world and give people hope for a better future.

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Decolonising Natural Sciences Collections

Written by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, The Manchester Museum.

Decolonising museums is in the headlines a lot at the moment and so it should be. I’ve chatted to a few people about this recently and it isn’t very clear what it means, how it relates to natural science collections and how we can start to decolonise our collections, so I thought I’d share my own thoughts.

Much of the discussion in the museum sector has been around ethnography collections with some great work that goes some way to redress our colonial past (including from my own institution Manchester Museum who have returned sacred aboriginal objects). Some ethnography objects are made from bark, fur or ivory, but these materials don’t often form part of the decolonisation debate.

The reality is that many natural history collections, particularly in the western world have a colonial origin. Many objects were traded on slave ships and were an attempt to map and tame the British Empire. Miranda Lowe and Subhadra Das have done some brilliant work to highlight this and the Grant Museum’s new exhibition on their Colonial Histories is a great first step in bringing this to the public.

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