Making the Most of What You’ve Got

Written by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The Collection

The Horniman Museum is the custodian of a collection of ca. 175,000 fossil specimens, collected by Walter Hellyer Bennett (1892-1971). A mining geologist and palaeontology enthusiast, Bennett collected somewhat indiscriminately, not pausing to favour geography, strata, or taxa, which makes it a collection of great interest to a wide variety of academics, and for other uses such as exhibitions and loans.

This huge collection was bequeathed to the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society in the 1970s, where choice pieces were put out on open display whilst the rest remained stored in Bennett’s original wooden cabinets. It contains some beautiful material, such as this Isotelus gigas trilobite, and Eryon propinguus lobster.

A) Isotelus gigas, and Ordovician trilobite from the Trenton Limestone. B) Eryon propinquus, a Jurassic lobster from the Solnhofen Limestone. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

The collection is approximately 10% vertebrate material, 85% invertebrates, and 5% plants and trace fossils. In case you are interested in particular taxonomic groups (as we are keen on facilitating research enquiries and visits… fyi) the invertebrates are mostly bivalves, brachiopods, cephalopods, corals, and gastropods, with a large variety of other taxonomic groups represented in small numbers as well (please do get in touch if you’re interested in getting more information), and the vertebrates are primarily conodonts, crocodilians, dinosaurs, fish (including sharks), ichthyosaurs, mammals, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, and turtles. Geographically, around 87% of the material was collected within Europe, primarily from the UK (50%) and France (15%). A further 10% is from North America whilst small amounts of material were collected from across Africa, South America, the Middle East, Asia and Australasia. Notable sites include the Solnhofen Limestone and the Burgess Shale.

Continue reading

NatSCA Digital Digest – September

Compiled by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.

Welcome to the September edition of NatSCA Digital Digest!

Where Should I Go?

A new exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, First Animals explores the evolution of the earliest animal life more than 500 million years ago. Highlights include 55 exceptionally-preserved fossils from the Chengjiang biota, on loan from Yunnan University and displayed outside of China for the very first time, and virtual reconstructions of the early Cambrian sea floor, made possible through close collaboration between researchers at the two universities. The exhibition is open until 24th February 2020.

How can we highlight the biggest issues threatening our planet today? It’s difficult with permanent displays, but not impossible. Bristol Museum & Art Gallery have addressed biodiversity loss and extinction in a unique way without new display cases. The natural science curators have covered endangered animals on display with a black veil. Standing out from the other animals, this has a huge visual impact on visitors. This innovative way of showing our impact on the planet was covered by The Guardian last month.

A chimpanzee on permanent display, covered with the black veil. © Bristol Culture

I recently visited As I Live and Breathe at the Horniman Museum, a very impactful exhibit about plastics. At the front of the natural history gallery, taxidermy animals were displayed as if they were dead, with thousands of pieces of black plastic erupting from their mouths, and a hedgehog dead in a fast food container. The message is clear: plastic pollution is killing our wildlife.

A powerful display at the Horniman museum. A dead fox with plastic erupting from it’s mouth. (Image by Jan Freedman)

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery recently were awarded a certificate of excellence by the Curry Fund. This amazing acknowledgment was for the engaging exhibition, Pliosaur! about the life of the almost complete Pliosaur specimen found at Westbury, Wiltshire. The exhibition, which received funding from The Curry Fund, took the visitor into the past to explore the world that this giant reptile lived in.

What Should I Read?

With many of us holding Pleistocene collections, a new book written by Dr Ross Barnett, The Missing Lynx, can help us understand them more. It looks at the lost mammals of Britain. Mammoths, sabre tooth cats, beavers, and more fill this prehistoric safari. It is full of life histories of the animals and their extinction, the history of their finds, and if they could be reintroduced into Britain. It’s a fascinating, and fun read, and highly recommended! Our very own Jack Ashby has just written a great review of it for our blog.

The Missing Lynx, the new book about Britain’s lost beasts. (Image Jan Freedman)

Where Should I Work?

The Royal Horticultural Society is looking for a horticultural taxonomist to join their horticultural taxonomy team at Wisley, working with one of the largest plant collections in the UK.

Job title: Horticultural taxonomist. Full time. £26,498 per annum. For more information, click here.

Kew Gardens is looking for a botanical horticulturalist to work with their tropical nurseries.

Job title: Botanical Horticulturist – decorative nursery. 1 year, fixed term. £18,590 per annum. For more information, click here.

Before You Go…

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 Jen an email at blog@natsca.org. Thanks!

NatSCA Digital Digest – June

Compiled by Sam Barnett, NatSCA Volunteer and PubSci Committee Member.

Welcome one and all to the June 2019 edition of the Digest.

What should I read?

New experiments in flight design don’t crop up every day – which is why the discovery of Yi qi, the creature that looked like a bird had tried to imitate a bat and an aye-aye at the same time, was so surprising. The problem was that the remains were so scrappy it left a lot of interpretation as to how that membrane of skin fit around its wing (see image from the paper for a couple of proposals). Thankfully that picture is getting clearer due to the discovery of a second member of the family: named Ambopteryx, this little beauty helps fill the gaps in our understanding. You can read more about Ambopteryx in the Nature paper or over at The Atlantic for the lowdown by Ed Yong.

Continue reading

NatSCA Digital Digest – March

Compiled by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.

It’s that time again when we look at some great events and conferences, writing, and jobs, chosen just for you!

What Should I Read?

Dodo’s in Leeds. Not alive, obviously, but still extremely fascinating. A lovely post by Clare Brown at Leeds Museums and Galleries. Harry Higginson: Distributing dodos in the 1860s.

Plants. Pressed. Old. Difficult to look after. Here’s a nice post by Imogen Crarey: Five lessons for life from working on the Horniman’s Historical Herbarium.

How do you print a dinosaur to make it look lifelike and realistic? Let Alex Peaker tell you: Printing a dinosaur.

Want to discover some incredible women in science? Of course you do! Scroll through excellent, engaging and accessible blog posts all about female archaeologists and palaeontologists on the TrowelBlazers website.

What Should I Do?

Perhaps the biggest event of the year, the annual NatSCA conference, is now taking bookings!

Dead Interesting: Secrets of Collections Success
Wednesday 1st – Friday 3rd May 2019
National Museum of Ireland, Dublin – Collins Barracks site
The #NatSCA2019 conference aims to unlock the secrets of collections success by sharing how our members and colleagues in the wider sector have used collections to benefit their organisations, communities and the wider world.
We will host three themed sessions, with a focus on:
Collections: Reveal your collections care, research and access secrets.
Engagement: What are your engagement success stories and how did you make them happen?
Museums and Tech: How has technology helped you unlock, understand and unleash your collections?

Continue reading

Five Lessons for Life from Working on the Horniman’s Historical Herbarium

Written by Imogen Crarer during a student placement at the Horniman Museum and Gardens early last year. Imogen recently graduated from King’s College, London with an MA in Modern History with Distinction and is currently training as a curator at the Museum of Cornish Life.

You may think that I have taken slight leave of my senses or perhaps am being a pinch too ambitious in claiming that the Horniman’s historical botany collection is the source of 5 significant life lessons. However, “Yes! To science and history but also yes to life!” is my cheerful reply. Instead of dancing away merrily in a fit of musical theatre style exuberance, I shall explain how my student placement with the Natural History department researching the Herbarium gave me such insight.

Life Lesson Number 1: Often, the Simple or Basic Tasks are the Most Important.

Everything starts somewhere. My time at the Horniman highlighted that research processes and the museum journey of cataloguing, conserving and interpreting specimens for scholarly and public benefit has to begin with the basic “’ello ‘ello, what have we here?”. In my case, what we had were unbound volumes of Flora Britannica- physical specimens attached to annotated sheets collected mostly within the 1840s.

Having never previously been catalogued, the data from the handwritten labels on these specimens needed entering into the Horniman’s Collections Management System, Mimsy XG. Recording information on the database, such as scientific name, locality, and date collected, allows Horniman staff, volunteers and future researchers to know what is in the herbarium and explore its significance without having to disturb the specimens. While handy for convenience, it also helps us to conserve the specimens as repeated handling can damage these fragile, and beautiful, preserved plants. However it soon became apparent that the basic task of deciphering the handwriting and researching historical localities and common names was time-consuming, frustrating but also very rewarding. Transcribing the data from the specimens onto the database, I felt was my most useful contribution to the Horniman, and therefore my biggest achievement. It reminded me that taking the time to give yourself a solid foundation helps in anything that you do!

The collections management database used by the Horniman Museum; Mimsy XG. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Life Lesson Number 2: Little Things can Tell us a Great Deal.

The 175+ year old botanical specimens preserved in the herbaria have both historical and scientific significance. The specimens vary in size from approximately 2 cm to 30 cm in length, and the detail of delicate moss spores, flower buds, and leaf structures for example is wonderful. The specimen sheets tell us about the plants themselves. They also reveal a snapshot of the English countryside in the 1840s, particularly around Thame, Oxfordshire. Knowing the historical what, when and where allows us to make comparisons with current ecological data. This helps us to understand if and how plant species have spread or declined. This is particularly important for meadow flowers (represented strongly in the volumes I was working on) given that 97% of British meadows have been lost since 1945[1]. I feel that the Horniman’s historical botany collection and the present drive to conserve Britain’s green spaces and limit climate change, habitat destruction and pollution are much more linked than we might think.

One of a number of unbound herbaria held in the collections. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Continue reading

NatSCA Digital Digest – January

Compiled by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

What Should I Read?

Prolific author Darren Naish (of TetZoo) has pulled together a collection of exciting tetrapod-based scientific discoveries of 2018 in his latest article The Most Amazing TetZoo Themed Discoveries of 2018.

The government of New Zealand is under pressure to act on the trade of moa bones. This article is good food for thought re private sales of fossils; Moa for sale: trade in extinct birds’ bones threatens New Zealand’s history.

Of interest to many more of us than just curators, the top three most popular 2018 blogs posted on the Geological Curators’ Group website are:

1) Pyrite Oxidation: Where Are We Now? an excellent and informative article on the menace of pyrite decay

2) Up Inside Historic Dinosaurs about the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, and

3) Contradictions, Conundrums and Lies which looks at the issues we face in museums!

Continue reading

A Year of Coraling and Coralling

International Year of the Reef

The Aquarium at the Horniman Museum and Gardens dates back, in one form or another, to the early 1900s. In more recent times the Aquarium has been home to Project Coral; where pioneering research is being undertaken in coral spawning. The project team, led by Aquarium Curator Jamie Craggs, is successfully developing in-vitro fertilisation techniques for captive corals and they have instigated the first successful spawning of captive coral in the world. Their research will further scientific understanding of the impact of climate change on coral reproduction and has potential to serve as a method of restoring damaged coral reefs.

Coral spawning taking place at the Horniman Museum Aquarium, as part of ongoing research by Project Coral under lead scientist Jamie Craggs. © Horniman Museum and Gardens and Jamie Craggs

Being the home of such an important coral conservation project made it an obvious thing to do to get involved with International Year of the Reef. 2018 marks the third IYOR (International Year of the Reef), and to celebrate it, the Horniman Museum is hosting a year of special events, exhibitions, online content and family activities to highlight both Project Coral, and the ongoing plight of coral reefs around the world. As Project Coordinator of the IYOR programme at the Horniman, my role was to help set up and run six projects devised by a team of collaborators. The project was extremely multidisciplinary; utilising the natural history collections, the live aquarium exhibits, art installations, dance performances, and collaborating with external researchers from around the world.

Continue reading