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