A Tale of Two Playing Cards

The Museum Ethnographers Group conference is being held on Monday and Tuesday at the excellent Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent. The theme is ‘Nature and Culture in Museums’, and the relationship between the two.

I am a zoologist by background, but for the last three years I have been immersed in a different world, working on a review of the Anthropology collections at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. I have learned an enormous amount about material culture from all over the world, seen some incredibly stunning objects, and been surprised by how relevant my Natural History knowledge has been. Many of our objects are made of animal materials, and it’s been a great opportunity to learn new skills in identifying ivories, bone, and antler. Only a few weeks ago I was very excited to be able to identify an Inuit flint-sharpening tool as being made of mammoth ivory!

I have also been asked to add taxonomic data to some Anthropology object records in our Collections Management System, so that we can record the species that are represented by objects. This provides richer contextual data, and links between objects that can be navigated on our website.

Victorian playing cards featuring exotic species (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Victorian playing cards featuring exotic species (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

One such group of objects is this set of Victorian playing cards. They are cute: on one side is a cryptic clue to the identity of an animal, and on the other is an illustration of that animal. I didn’t anticipate how much the taxonomic information would add to our understanding of the objects, or that it would enable them to tell a story about discovery and extinction…

Two cards in the pack, together, tell this tale. The first is the ‘Black-diver’:

Black-diver playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Black-diver playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Mounted Great Auk specimen (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Mounted Great Auk specimen (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Which is actually a Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis). I have never heard ‘black diver’ used as a common name for this bird, but the likeness is unmistakable. The last recorded sighting of this species is from 1852, following the death of the last individuals to be shot, in 1844. I was intrigued to see this species represented in the pack, and was left wondering whether any of the Victorian children who played with the cards had ever actually seen a live Auk.

A second card could potentially hold the clue to this:


Reverse of animal playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Reverse of animal playing card (Horniman Museum &Gardens)

Gorilla playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Gorilla playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

The Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei) was not described until 1903, so it seems much more likely that this card represents the Western Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), described in 1847.

The date of the discovery of the Western Gorilla, combined with that of the extinction of the Great Auk, could potentially narrow down the date at which these cards were made enormously: there is only a five-year period in which both species were known to exist together, between 1847 and 1852. However, the actual date of manufacture could be much later: following their discovery, gorillas were incredibly popular with the public for many years, particularly in the 1860s after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, and the first live specimen reached a European zoo in 1876. ‘The Auk’ was taken as the title of the American Ornithologists’ Union’s journal, founded in 1884. So the Great Auk was clearly still in the public consciousness long after its extinction. Given this information, it seems quite possible that the original owners of the playing cards may never have seen either species in the flesh!

But that is as far as my research has taken me for now. This is a story that I hadn’t expected to find in these objects. As museum professionals, we are custodians of more than just collections: we are the keepers of specialist knowledge that we use to interpret our collections, to tell stories that will engage our audiences. Sometimes, to find their stories, you need to look at objects from more than one perspective. By working across disciplines and sharing our expertise, we can find new tales and new ways to tell them.


Rachel Jennings
Documentation Assistant, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Unidentified, Not Unloved: On New Species and Stewardship

There are hundreds of millions of specimens held in natural history collections in museums worldwide, collected over centuries by thousands of experts and enthusiasts. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that new species are ‘discovered’ in museums on a regular basis. These discoveries generally fall into two categories:

  1. Specimens that have never previously been identified
  2. Specimens that have been re-identified

All museums have unidentified and misidentified material in their collections. It is inevitable, given the enormous number of specimens and species that are involved. These are all potential new species, just waiting to be described.

Since I took on the voluntary role of Facebook Editor for NatSCA last year, I’ve read a lot of news stories while searching for content to share on the page, many of them about new species being found in museum collections. And I’ve been more than a little disappointed at the language chosen by the journalists to describe the specimens. The words ‘forgotten’ and ‘overlooked’ crop up frequently in headlines, and stories often describe specimens as having been ‘ignored’, ‘languishing’ in collections, or left ‘sitting in boxes’. This choice of words adds drama to a story for the papers, but it reflects poorly on the museums involved, and the inherent implications of neglect are both unfair and untrue. Having unidentified or wrongly identified specimens in a collection does not imply a failing on the part of the curatorial staff; nobody can be an expert in everything, and to identify one specimen among thousands as belonging to a previously unknown species requires an enormous amount of specialist knowledge and lots of research (often taking years). The important thing is that the specimens are preserved and cared for, so that experts are able to come in and examine them.

Drawer of various brightly coloured beetles, organised in neat rows with labels

Things Organised Neatly: Stewardship is fundamental to curatorship

Stewardship is the fundamental responsibility of the curators in charge of their collections. An unidentified specimen has not been forgotten. The average ‘shelf life’ of a specimen belonging to a new species, from discovery to publication, is over 20 years, and can be more than 200 years! This is due to the sheer volume of material that is collected in the field and donated to museums every year, and the expertise needed for identification. As the study of biodiversity (and the loss thereof) becomes more important to conservation efforts, more academics are turning to museums for data on population trends over time. The negative language used in these news articles could harm this relationship, and possibly deter specialists from engaging with museums. And with budget cuts increasingly affecting museum resources, curators want to engage with academics, artists, and other users, now more than ever.

The good news is that this problem is not entirely universal: recent news coverage of the discovery of a new species of ichthyosaur in Doncaster Museum was generally very positive about the value of natural history collections, mainly due to the enthusiasm of the researchers, which came across strongly in their quotes.

Rachel Jennings
NatSCA Facebook/Blog Editor