A Collection of Sri Lankan Bird Skins.

Written by Eimear Ashe, Documentation Officer, National Museum of Ireland – Natural History.

The Temporary Number

During the course of my work in the Natural History Division of the National Museum of Ireland, (NMI) I came across a couple of boxes of bird skins that were in the wrong place. By deciding to move them to their correct place, I opened a metaphorical can of worms. It turned out that these 200 bird skins had been assigned modern numbers during a volunteer project 16 years ago. In the intervening period, the original accession number had been discovered. Never one to leave a wrong number in place, I took on the challenge to renumber this collection before rehousing them.

The Donor

First, I read the acquisition register and found the donor to be a gentleman named Colonel James Grove White, a career British Army officer. Upon retirement, Grove White came to live in Co. Cork in the south of Ireland, and like many British men in Ireland at that time, he came to hold high office during various periods, and was very active in the local community. It was during his time in Ireland, almost 100 years ago, that he donated his collection of “Ceylonese” bird skins. Presumably these were collected by him while on duty in Sri Lanka, although there is no documentation in the NMI to contribute the field collection details, other than the labels on the birds themselves.

Approximately 200 bird skins were donated, and in his correspondence with the NMI, Grove White said “I am glad to know that some of the birds may be useful. I know that there were 2 or 3 rather rare ones.”

Fig 1: Letter from Colonel Grove White to Mr. A. R. Nicholls, Keeper of the Natural History Division, 04-04-1923.

Once I had renumbered the specimens, and integrated them taxonomically in our bird skin housing, I wanted to investigate just how rare these particular specimens are now, and how valuable they are to our existing collection.

Fig 2: bird skin specimens integrated into existing bird skin storage.

Of interest to me was: IUCN status of the birds, endemicity, and uniqueness in the collection. One of the limitations of this brief study, however, was that I did not have the time to reidentify dubious taxonomy.

IUCN Status

The vast majority of the Grove White bird collection is currently considered to be of least concern thankfully. One of the species, Dicaeum vincens (Sclater, 1872), is near threatened and one, Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus (Pennant, 1769), is vulnerable.

Endemicity

As can be seen below, almost three quarters of the species collected are widespread. Almost 20% are endemic to Sri Lanka. 10% are commonly found in Sri Lanka and neigbouring countries. One species, Turnix suscitator bengalensis Blyth, 1852, appears to be endemic to neighbouring countries, but not Sri Lanka, so that is an interesting find (see Avibase and GBIF).

Fig 3: how endemic or widespread were the specimens the Grove White donated?

Uniqueness in Collections

How important are these specimens to our existing collections? One way to ascertain this is to check our database see if we already have those species represented, and if so, by how many specimens?

Fig 4: uniqueness in collections

Here we can see that of all the species donated, almost 30% of them are the sole representatives of their taxa in the NMI collection. Another almost 30% have a small number of specimens already in the collection, and these existing specimens can allow us to investigate intra-specific variation and also assist with future identifications. Lastly, almost 45% of the taxa donated were already represented in the collection in abundance.

Conclusion

The benefits of this body of work are manifold:

  • I have assigned the correct accession numbers to the specimens, confirming their provenance.
  • All object records in our collections management system, Axiell Collections, have been improved by the addition of the acquisition details.
  • The biographical research relating to the donor has been added to the Persons and Institutions module of Axiell Collections.
  • The Sri Lankan geographic locations in the database were also tidied and improved to enhance searchability.
  • The specimens are now integrated taxonomically and can be found alongside their conspecifics and are available for research.
  • Finally, analysis of historic and potential acquisitions can help us to realise the contribution that specimens can make to systematics, biogeography, genomics, morphology and other areas of avian research.

A Foot In The Door – Finding Collections Work As A Trailing Spouse In A Foreign Country

Written by Caroline Grounds, Freelance Zoological Collections Assistant, Musée national d’histoire naturelle, Luxembourg.

I arrived in Luxembourg 8 years ago when my husband accepted a job offer here, not knowing much about the tiny country (“where exactly is Luxembourg?”), and with a new baby in tow.

I had become accustomed to the trailing expat spouse role, so I was happy for a new adventure, though the hardest part about moving, especially to a country where you don’t speak the language, is finding your niche in which you can carve out something of your own.

As a former Biology teacher, most of my previous museum experience was in science education, as a volunteer at the NHM in London, and the George C. Page museum (La Brea Tar Pits) in Los Angeles, and I was keen to get involved in the Luxembourg Natural History Museum in any way, shape or form. Something about being around the wonders of nature, whether outside or housed in a building, is inspiring to me and, surrounded by like-minded people, where I truly feel like I’m supposed to be.

Not speaking any of the official local languages however (Luxembourgish, German and French), I quickly found that it would be difficult to find work, even on a voluntary basis as I had before. I submitted my CV to the museum anyway, and endured a rather painful phone call in very bad schoolgirl French (mine, not theirs!), which, much to my amazement, led to one of the researchers contacting me for help proofreading his research papers, which were being published in English. That schoolgirl French came in useful after all!

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Unravelling the Golden Thread: The Silk and Cocoon Collection at the Manchester Museum

Written by Piotr Korpak, Visitor Team Assistant, Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester.

Last August saw the Manchester Museum entering the final phase of its capital project called hello future when it closed to the public for over a year, until February 2023. Major redevelopments like this tend to be quite stressful for most institutions, but also bring a lot of excitement and many valuable opportunities for individuals. Being closed to the public meant no visitors and so I was able to support work in other departments. Always interested in natural history collections, I welcomed the chance to work with the Curatorial Team in the Entomology Department with true delight.

The Museum’s arthropod collections are amongst the top three in the UK, with over 3 million specimens, out of which about 2.5 million are insects (Logunov and Merriman, 2012). As is the case with many museums, the collections are vast, the staff numbers small, and it can be difficult for curators to catch up with the backlog of past acquisitions and historic materials. No doubt one could find boxes, cabinets, and all other imaginable storage units full of specimens still awaiting their official accessioning, cataloguing, research, and digitisation in any museum.

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