Collecting with Lao Chao [Zhao Chengzhang]: Decolonising the Collecting Trips of George Forrest

Written by Yvette Harvey, Keeper of the Herbarium, Royal Horticultural Society, RHS Garden Wisley.

Lao Chao (left) and team. McLean (2004: 193) wrote that Forrest called Lao Chao his ‘best card in this business’ © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

This is the essence of a talk that was recently presented at the virtual conference of the US based Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC). Inspired by Das & Lowe in their 2017 NatSCA conference talk and subsequent paper (2018), in a similar way mentioned by Machin (2020) in her recent blog, I have started looking at stories by and about some of our revered plant collectors, or rather, hunting for small clues about their escapades from the perspective of others on their teams. This is with the aim of decolonising narratives for present and future interpretation, having finally opened my eyes and realised that current interpretation for living collections can fall way short of acknowledging what really happened and where credit should lie. And being mindful of different concepts of decolonisation, discussed by Gelsthorpe (2020) in an earlier blog.

For years, the curators of museums and living collections, and their visitors have been programmed to respond to and expect talks of the grand, death-defying adventures of our collectors – so much so that we appear to have closed our minds to the realities and injustices of what really happened on expeditions.

George Forrest © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

The main focus here is on George Forrest, born in 1873, the Scottish plant collector whose collections still have a huge impact on what is grown in our gardens today. Son of a draper’s shop assistant, Forrest had an interesting earlier career after leaving school at 18 – he worked in a pharmaceutical chemists prior to getting a small inheritance that gave him the opportunity to travel to Australia where he undertook a few jobs including sheep shearing and gold-mining (McLean 2004). On his return to the UK, through a serendipitous stroke of luck in discovering a rare archaeological find whilst out botanising, he landed a job as an assistant in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1903 – gaining curatorial skills and insights necessary to make him an ideal plant collector in the field.

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Wild about Portsmouth – Life in Lockdown

Written by Christine Taylor (Curator of Natural History), Bradley Foster (Natural History Collections Assistant), Portsmouth Museums.

Until lockdown, the Wild about Portsmouth project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, had been a whirlwind of activity, working with volunteers to re-house, reorganise and catalogue the natural history collections, developing school sessions, putting on and attending events as well as setting up displays.

In the four weeks prior to lockdown, the curator, volunteers and the newly appointed (14 February 2020) Natural History Collections Assistant installed an exhibition, ‘D is for Dodo, E is for Extinct’; attended a work placement fair at the University of Portsmouth, a family fun day at Dinosaur Isle, a STEM fair and the HBIC Hampshire Recorders Forum. We also created a Pop-Up Museum one-day event and ran a trial school session on rocks and fossils at Cumberland House Natural History Museum.

One of the online activities created for Cumberland House Natural History Museum website © Portsmouth Museum

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Playing with Wire: The Conservation of a Wallaby Skeleton

Written by Caitlin Jenkins, MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University and volunteer at National Museum Cardiff.

While volunteering with natural history conservator Julian Carter at National Museum Cardiff, I was given the opportunity to work on a wallaby skeleton. This was the first skeleton of any kind I had conserved. Although it initially appeared to be in relatively good condition, there were lots of small areas needing attention that made it a surprisingly complicated job.

A bony jigsaw…

The first step was to remove dirt that had built up on the bones over the years. This was cleaned away using cotton swabs and small interdental brushes dipped in a sodium bicarbonate solution; care was taken to not over-wet the bones as this can damage them.

One of the main conservation tasks was to re-wire a portion of ribcage that was hanging loose and distorting the alignment of the left side. In keeping with the pre-existing work, this required me to stabilise the free end of each rib using a single piece of wire twisted at intervals. This provided support and appropriate spacing of the bones. I had previously made jewellery using a similar technique, so my experience came in handy during the fiddliest parts!

Beginning the ribcage wiring

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Virtual Fieldwork during Lockdown – Part 2

Travelling to Socotra with the British and Liverpool Museums Expedition (1898/99).

This is part two of a blog written by John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool. See Part One here.

The journey continues…

Homhil proved a “successful and delightful sojourn, adding largely to both the flora and fauna [collected]”. The camp, surrounded by the iconic Dragon’s Blood Trees (see them yourself here), had an ideal climate, 26°C during the day, 18°C at night.

Sketch of the cucumber tree of Socotra by J. R. Wellsted, another unusual endemic tree, made during an earlier expedition to Socotra. The sketch is part of the Royle collection at LIV herbarium, World Museum. © National Museums Liverpool (World Museum).

Ten days later, after difficulties agreeing the onward route, the party retraced their steps to the Hadibu Plain. Turning southwards they pitched tents at Elhe and spent two days preparing fresh camels. On the second day, Forbes forgot to put one of his gaiters on and suffered a severe sunburn on his leg (having my own prominent sunburn scar, this is another field experience I can empathise with). While back on the plain, Ogilvie-Grant collected the endemic – Socotra Grosbeak, Socotra Starling, and Socotra Warbler – amongst other animals.

Socotra Grosbeak – Rhynchostruthus socotranus Sclater and Hartlaub, 1881 [accession number: 31.12.1900.164a] (top); Socotra Starling – Onychognathus fratus (Sclater and Hartlaub, 1881) [accession number: 31.12.1900.160e] (middle); and Socotra Warbler – Incana incana (Slater and Hartlaub, 1881) [accession number: 31.12.1900.175m] (bottom). © National Museums Liverpool (World Museum).

The party resumed their trek into the mountains, reaching an elevation with stunning sea views. They remained at Adho Dimellus (also spelt Adhoh di-Melhoh), the “roof of Sokotra”, until February 17th. Fieldwork often fuels friendships and an evening was spent entertaining an Austrian expedition party Forbes had met earlier in Aden.

Photograph of the camp at Adho Dimellus (H. O. Forbes from The Natural History of Sokotra and Abd-el-Kuri). Public Domain.

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Giant Sequoia at the Natural History Museum

Written by Lu Allington-Jones, Senior Conservator & Chelsea McKibbin, Conservator, at the Natural History Museum, London.

In 2016 a team undertook conservation of the slice of giant sequoia tree which is on display in Hintze Hall of the Natural History Museum in London. Following condition mapping, the treatment involved dry cleaning, removal of the old varnish with solvent gel and applying a fresh coat of varnish. A time-lapse video was taken of the whole process, which spanned 12 weeks, and can be viewed at the end of this post.

Figure 1. The stages of treatment

The Specimen

The giant sequoia (from Kings Canyon National Park, California, USA) was felled in 1891 at the age of 1,341 years. It had been 101 m tall and just over 5 m in diameter. Two sections were cut for display. The bottom and slightly larger one was sent to the AMNH while the top section was split into 12 pieces: one central disc and 11 radial segments to enable shipping to the UK. They arrived at the South Kensington site in April 1893.

Figure 2. The tree when it was felled

The giant sequoia section went on display the following year, in one of the bays of the central hall. It was moved in 1902 to stand against the wall dividing the north and central halls, and again in 1971 to its current location on the second-floor balcony.

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