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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Derby Museums showcases 200 year old Captain Cook shells

200 years after being collected, a group of sea shells with links to Captain Cook’s voyages have been fully documented and photographed for the first time, and put on display in Derby Museum & Art Gallery, thanks to one of the museum’s Super Nature volunteers, Hannah Maddix. Donated to the museum in 1961, along with original documents dating to 1815, they are key to unlocking the secrets of 18th century shell studies. Fred Woodward, former president of the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland, said: “The collection could be considered an equivalent to the Rosetta Stone since it contains shells with common names and Latin names not only used by Humphrey in his catalogues but also numbered by Humphrey himself, which until now has not been known.”

Shell. Image: Derby Museums

Image: Derby Museums

The shells have a fascinating history. They were bought by a Mrs Borough in 1815 from George Humphrey, a London dealer in shells and ‘curiosities’ who in turn had bought shells collected on Captain Cook’s second and third voyages of discovery to Australia and New Zealand in the 1770s. It is almost certain that the Australian and New Zealand shells in the collection came from Captain Cook’s voyages. George Humphrey was one of the world’s first conchologists, and wrote numerous catalogues of important shell collections. The shells in Derby Museum have tiny numbers written on them by George Humphrey, and his original lists survived with the collection. This unique combination of actual specimens related to original lists provides a missing link for modern shell specialists, allowing them to translate long forgotten 18th century shell names into their modern equivalents.

Rachel Atherton, Co-production Curator at Derby Museums said:

“This wonderful collection of shells not only links to Captain Cook and the discovery of a continent, but also give us a glimpse into the early scientific study of shells.”

Shell. Image: Derby Museums

Image: Derby Museums

Hannah Maddix, who catalogued the collection, said:

“It was such a delight to research these shells and discover that we have specimens collected from all over the world. For over two hundred years they have remained desirable and beautiful objects, commonplace and yet still precious.”

The Borough family was once a prominent Derby family, originally called Borrow, living at Castlefields House, before moving to Chetwynd House, Shropshire in 1803. Mrs Borough’s shell collection was passed down in the Borough family until they were donated to Derby Museums in 1961, along with six Joseph Wright oil paintings and a portrait of Isaac Borrow, twice Mayor of Derby in 1730 and 1742.

The shells are on display in Derby Museum’s new nature gallery ‘notice nature feel joy’.