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.

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Wild About Portsmouth – Discovering and Uncovering a Little Known Natural History Collection

Written by Christine Taylor, Curator of Natural History, Portsmouth Museums

Wild about Portsmouth is a two-year Heritage Lottery Funded project to share and raise the profile of the city’s natural history collections.  In addition to enabling visitors to get more hands on with the collections through events and activities, work is being carried out to make them more accessible for museum staff and researchers.

Challenges

The collections are held at three sites across the city and housed in environmentally controlled stores with many specimens held in archival quality boxes. However, the absence of a natural history curator for over 10 years has led to a series of challenges with accessing them:

Little Knowledge of Collections

Apart from the sizeable and substantial HLF Guermonprez Collection transferred from Bognor Regis Museum in the 1970s, very little was known about the collectors associated with the remainder of the natural history collections. In-depth knowledge of the HLF Guermonprez Collection has also been lost over time, although it is occasionally cited in publications by Sussex naturalists.

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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.

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Our Top Ten Most Fantastic Blogs of 2018

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

In case you missed out on any of our articles from last year, here is a handy round-up of the ‘must-reads’, as voted* for by you, the public. It is always useful for us at NatSCA to look back at what blogs from the previous year readers have found the most interesting. It helps to inform us of what types of articles we should look to be publishing in the coming months. Last year you seemed captivated by a wide variety of things, from Crochetdermy® to conservation, and booze to bones. Here’s a look back at 2018, and the top ten most read NatSCA blogs of the year!

Coming in at number 10…

10- Private Bone/Taxidermy Collection: The Good, The Bad and The Illegal

9- Wild About Portsmouth – Discovering Portsmouth’s Natural History Collection

8- Caring for Natural Science Collections – My First NatSCA Conference

7- Harry Higginson: Distributing Dodos in the 1860s

6- Transforming Scientific Natural History 3D Data into an Immersive Interactive Exhibition Experience

5- NatSCA Conservation Photo Competition

4- Crochetdermy® at the Horniman

3- The Curious Life of a Museum Curator

2- When Art Recreates the Workings of Natural History it can Stimulate Curiosity and Emotion

…and in first place…

1- When Museums Get it Wrong – Did We Accidentally Accession Someone’s Holiday Booze?

If you have an idea for an article you would like to submit, or if you would like to write something but need help with the inspiration, do get in touch with us at blog@NatSCA.org.

* These articles received the top number of hits for the year. We didn’t take an actual vote!

The Curious Life of a Museum Curator

Working as a curator in a museum is an odd job. It is the best job on the planet. But it is like no other I know of. There are an enormous range of daily tasks a curator carries out, and these are not without their quirks. Here are a few oddities museum curators deal with regularly:

Curators are not Indiana Jones

I’ve written about this before in more detail, but no, we are not Indiana Jones. When we introduce ourselves to new people, the response is sometimes ‘oh, just like Indiana Jones.’ This is a common misconception, albeit a rather flattering one. We do see some dangerous action in the field: dozens of beetles and flies on family friendly bug hunts, slipping on jagged rocks when rock pooling. However, some, many, most do not have whips under their beds. Curators do not steal ancient relics from temples (there are laws against those sorts of things). We are just as determined and passionate as Indy, but very different.

 

A museum curator and Indiana Jones. Can you tell the two apart? (Photo left Public Domain. Photo right by author)

 

“You’re Ross from Friends

This is a another common response when a museum curator tells someone what they do. And yes, Ross Geller (played by the excellent David Schwimmer), was a museum curator before becoming a university lecturer in the wonderful sit-com Friends. Ross worked at the fictional Museum of Natural History as a palaeontology curator. His work spanned enormously for a national museum, where his expertise ranged from human evolution to dinosaurs. Ross Geller is the closest thing to a museum personality curators have ever had. To be honest, this isn’t a bad thing. He was pretty cool. Curators can relate to his slightly obsessive geekiness and matter of fact way of thinking. For me, Ross is a legend on screen. As a teen watching Friends his character was actually extremely influential – I could relate to his nerdy, slightly awkward persona. In fact, without Ross Geller I wouldn’t have thought about a career in museums.

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Improving Specimen-Data Recording and Access in a Life Sciences Museum

The Museum of Life Sciences at King’s College London contains teaching and research material from King’s College London (KCL) and elsewhere. The collections include Botany, Zoology and Pharmacy specimens, including microscope slides, from around the world and a small, unique exhibition of glass sculptures recently created to commemorate the role of KCL in the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Paper and electronic (Access) databases were first created in 2003 and contained data for the then KCL Zoology and Botany Collections. In the last few years, volunteers have been recording specimens in paper (form-based) or electronic (Excel) formats and we have all been learning ‘on the job’. Inevitably specimens have been catalogued in different ways to record various kinds of information and many specimens remain uncatalogued. Some groups of specimens from a single collector/preparer or from a single source have been catalogued together as eg ‘The Daws Collection’, The Challenger Collection’.  The accumulating data were becoming unwieldy as there are now more than 8000 records. Continue reading

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