Handle with care: bringing museum egg collections to life

This post is another in our series of presentation write-ups from the 2015 NatSCA Conference, Museums Unleashed!


How can we bring museum egg collections to life?

Egg collecting is now illegal in the UK and has been for many years. Possibly because of the legal situation, and the social stigma understandably attached to egg collecting today, museums can be reluctant to publicise their egg collections, even though they are entitled to do so. For example, out of the thousands of eggs held by Glasgow Museums, only a handful are currently on public display, which is a pity as they are beautiful and fascinating objects.

These issues form the basis of my PhD, which is a Collaborative Doctoral Award with Glasgow Museums and the Geography Department at the University of Glasgow. I have been researching the cultural and social aspects of egg collecting (also known as ‘oology’), which was a very popular pastime among both adults and children from the Victorian era well into the twentieth century. I have been researching collectors’ diaries held by Glasgow Museums, and also investigating the wider world of British egg collecting via old egg collecting magazines. This material has revealed some of the people, places, and practices of egg-collecting, which could provide new possibilities for communicating the stories of the birds’ eggs held by Glasgow Museums.

A selection of egg collectors' notebooks and diaries

A selection of egg collectors’ notebooks and diaries

Egg-collecting interconnections

One of the most striking aspects of this research has been the interconnectedness of the British egg-collecting world. These connections can take various different forms. For example, egg collections have been donated to Glasgow Museums by individual collectors who knew each other, such as Captain Donald Cross and Peter Hay, who both lived in Ayrshire in the 1940s, where Cross was a farmer and Hay was a schoolboy. Cross shared his collecting knowledge with Hay, and sometimes even gave him eggs to add to his collection.

Eggs taken by a collector called E. S. Steward over 100 years ago have arrived at Glasgow Museums by two very different routes. Some were given by Steward to his friend Robert Arbuthnott, whose son donated his collection in 1967. More recently, in 2014, we received an egg collection confiscated by police after a collector was convicted of trading in eggs, some of which were very old. A few of these eggs were also taken by Steward, and must have passed through various different intermediate collections, along convoluted geographical journeys, before arriving at Glasgow Museums.

Eggs taken by another collector have ended up at different museums. On National Handwriting Day in January, the Natural History Museum’s brilliant oology Twitter feed featured a beautifully scribed red-legged cormorant egg from a collector called John MacNaught Campbell. He was the second Natural History curator at Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, and one of the earliest egg collectors to visit South America. Glasgow Museums also have some of his eggs, including this Antarctic goose set collected just three days after the Natural History Museum’s egg, on 3 December 1871.

Clutch of Antarctic goose eggs collected by John MacNaught Campbell in 1871

Label for Campbell's goose egg clutch

Clutch of Antarctic goose eggs collected by J. M. Campbell in 1871

Telling the interconnecting stories of these collectors, and others, could be a way of showing the human side of egg collecting, while being careful not to encourage the practice today. This could be via traditional media, such as museum exhibitions, online catalogues, or using social media.

Finally, a request: I’m keen to trace any other eggs that were collected by ES Steward, as I’d like to see how widely his collection has been dispersed. If any of you know of any of his eggs in your collections, I’d be very interested to hear from you, at e.cole.1@research.gla.ac.uk.


Edward Cole
PhD student, University of Glasgow/Glasgow Museums

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?


“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.”


“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?


“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.”


“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?


“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!”


“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?


“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.”


“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?


“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!”


“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?


“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.”


“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?


“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!”


“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?


“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!”


“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?


“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.”


“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.