Crochetdermy® at the Horniman

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

We all have our hobbies, though some are definitely more gloat-worthy than others. Personally, I do have some respectable things on my list like visiting other natural history collections and reading history books, but then I also have less conventional interests like attending Destination Star Trek, and building model WWII airplanes. Whatever makes you happy, I say! Last Christmas I got a new hobby- I was given a Star Wars crochet set and, having wiled away the cold winter nights using it to learn how to knot wool into shapes*, I used my new found ‘skills’ to make this awesome, if far from perfect, crochet Yoda for my sister’s birthday. I was pretty chuffed with myself to be frank**, but if you happen to know my sister, don’t look at Yoda’s cloak too closely next time you pop round to see her.

My first crochet project; A little Yoda for my sister. © Emma Nicholls.

It is through the eyes of someone with this specific level of skill (loose term in my case) that I introduce you with awe to the new installation in the Inspired by Nature temporary exhibition space at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. When I first saw the lioness peering out over the Natural History Gallery, I let out an audible and involuntary ‘wow’. The exhibition, by artist Shauna Richardson, is called EVOLUTION of The Artist and the Exhibited Works. The exhibition comprises seven 3-dimensional sculptures, and one ‘skin’; a baboon that hasn’t been stuffed in order to show, in part, the process of how her sculptures have been created. Shauna devised the term ‘Crochetdermy®’ as an obvious yet genius amalgamation of the words ‘crochet’ and ‘taxidermy’ to describe her sculptures, which it does really rather well I’d say. The skill required to produce these life-size pieces, speaking from the bottom rung of the crochet skill set ladder, is phenomenal (and I think people on much higher steps than I would have to agree). You can see the muscles in the lioness’s neck, the facial features are as realistic as you like, and the size and impact of the pieces on the visitors is obvious, whenever I walk past.

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Waving Goodbye to the Walrus: Reflections on Leaving (and Starting)

To paraphrase that great Disney wildlife documentary, The Lion King: change is good, but it’s not easy.

Leaving any job after a long time is always strange, and I’ve been lucky enough to have spent (almost!) seven years at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. In that time I’ve worked on several large projects, learned more than I thought I ever would about anthropology collections, and made some wonderful friends. But sadly, I have now had to move on. Happily, I’ve been able to move on to the wonderful Powell-Cotton Museum, where I will be spending the next year curating the natural history collections.

This has meant quite a large change: I’ve moved to a different part of the country, and started a new job that is very different to what I’ve been doing for the last few years. I’ll admit to feeling some imposter syndrome – I have been working almost exclusively with anthropology objects for a long time now (not my subject specialism: I studied zoology), and worried that I might have forgotten some of my natural history knowledge! Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to have been the case, and in fact working with anthropology collections has taught me a surprising amount about working with natural history collections… from identifying worked animal materials (such as ivory and bone) to documentation standards and procedures (I was a Documentation Assistant at the Horniman), I have gained skills and knowledge that will be invaluable in my new role.

Sad to say goodbye to the Horniman Walrus. (C) Horniman Museum and Gardens

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Top Ten Most Read Blogs of 2017

This year has been a riotous 365 days of wolves in dresses, spiral poo, and googly-eyed owls, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve had more articles (up by *84%* on 2016) (that number surely requires bold text), more comments, more feedback, and most importantly- more authors than ever before. The NatSCA blog is clearly the place to find stupendous stories, pretty pictures, wondrous wisdom, and… alluring alliteration it seems. To round up 2017, we have identified the top ten most read blogs of 2017, and, because we are super nice, we have even included links to save you searching for them and facilitate your viewing pleasure. You’re welcome, enjoy, and…

Happy New Year to you all!

The top ten most read blogs in 2017:

1- The curious life of a museum curator

2- Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be?

3- Stirring the hornet’s nest – are natural science collections even legal?

4- National Gorilla Day! (or Racist Skeletons in our Closets)

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

6- Famous Flies – Petiver

7- Top Ten Most Read Blogs of 2016   (curiously)

8- It’s All In The Subconscious

9- Making Nature; at Wellcome Collection

10- What is a museum curator made of? Slugs and snails and puppy dog tails, and then some…

The number of blogs that have been published through NatSCA this year is the highest we’ve ever had, but next year we want to beat that record so do get in touch with your idea/s if you would like to submit an article to us. You don’t have to be a professional in natural history, as blogs are relatively informal by nature (no pun intended), it just needs to be related to a natural sciences subject which, let’s face it, with the right twist can encompass just about anything. So drop us an email, or peruse the guidelines and then send us a submission; blog@natsca.org. We look forward to hearing from you after you’ve recovered from the turkey and mince pies.

Written by Dr Emma-Louise Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens and NatSCA Blog Manager.

A Blog from the Up and Coming

In 2016 I graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Zoology from the University of Reading. I picked the degree because I always loved animals and really enjoyed science at school. But studying zoology has given me a whole new appreciation for the natural world and a new interest in palaeontology and natural history collections. During my degree, I had access to the university’s lovely little museum, called the Cole Museum of Zoology. I had many practical lessons based on the Cole’s collections, and even did my final year dissertation on studying their ichthyosaur fossils.

In addition to this, I was lucky enough to gain a lot of work experience there through volunteering and doing summer placements. Initially, I helped with cataloguing the Cole’s seashell collection into a little notebook. But eventually I was assisting with rehousing a huge fossil collection, which involved re-boxing specimens, identifying the material, generating unique accession numbers for them and creating new records for a database. I enjoyed my time at the Cole very much and was sad to say goodbye after graduating and moving back to London.

Some beautiful cone shells, belonging to the Cole Museum of Zoology’s shell collection.

Life after graduation was fairly chilled at first, free from university deadlines and the horrors of exam stress! Eventually I began working in retail while I continued to look for a career in science research or more interestingly… natural history museums. But I was beginning to lose hope as these kinds of opportunities were very competitive and felt very rare. I really started to miss being in the museum environment (and dislike being in retail… sales assistants have feelings too!). Continue reading

NatSCA Digital Digest

natscaYour weekly round-up of news and events happening in the world of natural sciences

Jobs

Curator, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL I can tell you from three years of first-hand experience (pseudo-first-hand; as curatorial assistant) that this is the job all curators should be applying for. The Grant Museum of Zoology is an amazing place to work and in this role I know you will have the opportunity to spread your curatorial wings and make a real difference in the natural history sector. The kind of job where you don’t mind getting up in the morning. Closing date for applications is 3rd August. Good luck!

If only for the superb job title, anyone with experience of learning programmes for families and children with ASC (Autistic Spectrum Condition) should definitely take a look at the current vacancy for the Dawnosaurs Programme Co-ordinator at the Natural History Museum. This looks like an amazing opportunity for the right person. The closing date for applications is the 22nd July.

See the job page of the NatSCA website for more exciting opportunities.

News

The next Museums Association exhibition and conference is due to take place on 5th and 6th November, in Birmingham. There is still time to register as an early bird who gets the cheaper worm rates. Early bird registration ends on the 7th August, click here for more.

Around the Web

Sun bear, fox, hippo or pangolin. What tickles your natural history bones the most? Choose your favourite to be the new museum mascot for Derby Museum and Art Gallery! If you are on Twitter, you can whip up some support for the sun bear, errr, I mean, your favourite using: @DMNature and @derbymuseums. The winning specimen will be announced on the 7th August. I’ve already chosen mine, can you guess what it is…?

The Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs have been working up a storm of support lately, with ongoing events at the park complemented by a very dynamic talk at the Grant Museum by the master of science comedy- Prof Joe Cain, from UCL. These incredible statues are a vivid reminder of the evolution our concept of dinosaur appearances has gone through. They are also an important part of our British cultural heritage, that helped shape the palaeontological world in the mid 1800s. Find out more about these iconic statues that are in desperate need of conservation on the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs website.

 

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

Collections at Risk

The biggest problems facing collections today are almost certainly posed by reductions in funding. The financial support for museums of all sizes has been decreasing every year, with jobs being lost and stored collections often bearing the brunt of cuts, since they are usually out of sight and therefore out of mind for many decision makers.

Hidden treasurers? Specimens in storage can be overlooked by decision makers in favour of public-facing elements of museum business.

Hidden treasurers? Specimens in storage can be overlooked by decision makers in favour of public-facing elements of museum business.

NatSCA has been to trying to keep track of threats to collections and offer our support in an effort to make the vital role of collections, and the people with the skills to care for them, more clearly recognised by management. Much of this work in the UK has been alongside our colleagues in the Geological Curators Group.

The first issue of our new online publication NatSCA Notes & Comments provides a case study of decline from the Midlands, written by Geoffrey Hall. Although the picture painted is bleak, there have been some small wins, as Ludlow have since acknowledged the importance of maintaining a geologist to manage their globally important geology collection.

We have also been looking at the wider societal role of collections and have been working to raise their profile at a variety of levels, including internationally, alongside the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. Our message about the importance of collections is being heard by a wider and more influential audience, something that is reflected in this week’s Nature, which features an article about the importance and decline of collections.

If you know of any collections that are at risk from staff loss or disposal, please let us know by editing our Natural History Near You map or emailing us at advocacy@natsca.org