Bringing the Dead Back to Life, with Paolo Viscardi

Paolo at the Museum of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Last week saw the first PubSci talk by NatSCA Chair Paolo Viscardi since we moved venues to the King’s Arms near London Bridge. The subject, Bringing the Dead to Life, is less a Frankenstein manual and more of a description of his role as Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. He works with dead things every day and he does so for the public’s benefit, because these collections are yours: both yours as a national collective, and yours as an individual if you want to do something with them.1

A large part of the reason we have these amazing collections is due to massive amount of world exploration by wealthy industrialists, tradesmen, and philanthropists. Frederick John Horniman was a tea trader, and collected all sorts of things in his travels. The stuff he brought back captured the public imagination because it introduced them to international cultures they would otherwise have no idea about. We take global information for granted today because we all have access to internet resources in our pockets, so it is hard for us to grasp how unusual it must have been for people in 1948 to see frescoes from Ceylon temples for the first time.

One of the fun side effects of this close encounter with the unusual is that oftentimes people preparing the specimens from overseas were only going by descriptions, and were not at all familiar with the species they were working on. A great example of this is the iconic Horniman Walrus, who was overfilled until he was wrinkle-free – in the style of a seal. There is an exhibit at the Grant Museum of Zoology at the moment discussing this phenomenon and featuring a lovely Stubbs painting of a kangaroo that resembles a giant mouse. Knowing how meticulous Stubbs was about his animal anatomy, one has to believe that this is exactly how he understood them to look and is not in any way an accident of the proportions.

The topic of proportions and measurement brings me on to a study done by Paolo et al. in 2010, looking at the variation in measurements taken of a section of owl bone, so naturally the paper was titled How long is a piece of Strix. Comparative measurement is a fundamental part of species identification, so naturally one would assume a consensus of readings taken by professionals. The results were somewhat different: when working alone, the measurements were accurate. When working as part of a team, the measurements strayed, and the more people collaborating, the greater the disparity between measurements.

As a science communicator both at the museum and through his blog, Paolo has had the opportunity to work on some interesting projects: he has advised BBC television series such as our patron Ben Garrod‘s Secrets of Bones and he has been interviewed for The One Show to explain why cats get stuck up trees (they can’t rotate their ankles). This allowed Paolo to introduce the viewing audience to the Margay (Leopardus wiedii): a cat that can rotate its ankles. He has shared his love of osteology with 13-year-old fellow-blogger Jake McGowan-Lowe, which led to Jake publishing a book on the subject! To promote a recent Horniman exhibition on extreme animal adaptations, Paolo was subjected to the harshest elements in nature, which earned him the title ‘Extreme Curator’, and his very own Lego action figure.


Margay. By Clément Bardot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Where next for Paolo’s science communication? You’ll have to ask him at the next PubSci with Professor Ian Barnes. If you’re a fan of pleistocene megafauna (and, let’s face it, who isn’t), I wouldn’t miss it.

Sam Barnett, NatSCA Blog Editor

1. Depending on what it is you want to do with them and how run-ragged the museum staff are.

Recreating the Past: In LEGO®

By Christine Taylor, Keeper of Natural Sciences, Hampshire County Council Arts and Museums Service (HCCAMS)

An Ice Age animal, a sabre-toothed cat, made from LEGO bricks. (C) Julian Wright (HCCAMS)

An Ice Age animal, a sabre-toothed cat, made from LEGO bricks. (C) Julian Wright (HCCAMS)

Reaching new audiences for natural science collections is always a challenge, especially if the museum concerned is a network of recreated Victorian and 1930s streets.

However, the opportunity of working with artists from British company ‘Bright Bricks’ has enabled the creation of extinct animals made from LEGO, based on the Natural Science collections of the Hampshire County Council Arts and Museums Service (HCCAMS).

Leg bones, gizzard stones and a replica egg of a giant moa. (C) Julian Wright (HCCAMS)

Leg bones, gizzard stones and a replica egg of a giant moa. (C) Julian Wright (HCCAMS)

The Natural Science collections provided the inspiration for many of the specially commissioned builds for ‘Lost World Zoo’, a menagerie of animals built using LEGO bricks from different periods in time. Original specimens from the collections have been displayed alongside these model animals. The Victorian street settings at Milestones Museum, Basingstoke, enabled a ‘back story’ of a Victorian explorer discovering an uncharted island where the animals still lived.

The railway station at Milestones has been transformed into an aquarium filled with aquatic animals, which provided the opportunity to display Cretaceous marine fossils in bubbles (perspex domes) in the ‘ticket office’. Lamp posts decorated with Meganeura, the giant dragonflies of the Carboniferous and large butterflies and other insects provide an introduction to the origins of insects and an opportunity to display some of the large foreign insect material from the collections.

Bones and teeth of Ice Age animals. (C) Julian Wright (HCCAMS)

Bones and teeth of Ice Age animals. (C) Julian Wright (HCCAMS)

Dodo bones, collected by George Clarke in the mid 19th century, inspired a flock of dodos and the advance marketing campaign featured a dodo made from LEGO, visiting various places around Hampshire and beyond. Other visits included a trip to see the Oxford dodo and a hot air balloon factory in Bristol to investigate flying!

Other models included a sabre-toothed cat, a giant moa bird (full height!), a huge turtle called Archelon made from DUPLO®, a neanderthal, a Megalosaurus head and a woolly mammoth built during the exhibition, as well as displays of smaller models and a spotter trail.

Giant moa made from LEGO. (C) Julian Wright (HCCAMS)

Each of the models have habitat, locality, size and extinction details on banners, with many of the banners displaying a QR code to video podcasts about the Natural Science collections. Throughout the exhibition, which runs until 27th April, and then splits to tour some of the smaller HCCAMS museums, sessions based on fossils, mammoths, giant dragonflies and neanderthals provide visitors with the opportunities to handle collections and to discover more about the collections.

The exhibition has provided a wonderful opportunity for the Keeper of Natural Sciences to exhibit areas of the collections which have rarely been seen on display, to devote time to researching the specimens, enable conservation work to take place and the great excitement of un-wrapping the models made from LEGO!!