Exploring Materials in Natural History Dioramas

Written by Claire Dean, Curatorial Assistant at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, and MA Preventive Conservation student at Northumbria University.

The wildlife dome at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery
The wildlife dome at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Carlisle, C. Dean

In many old dioramas, material mysteries abound. As a Curatorial Assistant at Tullie House, I’ve encountered a tree trunk made from a Robinson’s fruit juice box, a fake roof that contained fibrous signs of asbestos, and a hodgepodge of unidentifiable paints and old plastics. The museum’s new-in-post Biodiversity Curator discovered pests thriving amongst the real vegetation and a 30-year-old slice of bread in a garden scene.

Dioramas aim to create the illusion of real habitats for their taxidermy inhabitants, and they use a huge range of materials to do so. After decades of neglect and destruction there is now wider recognition that habitat dioramas can instil a sense of wonder in visitors that no amount of digital wizardry can replace. Through my dissertation research for an MA in Preventive Conservation at Northumbria University, I wanted to find out more about what materials have been used in dioramas over time, how these might impact the preservation of specimens, and what we can do to better protect the dioramas that remain. I put a call out to ask, ‘What’s in your dioramas?’ through an online survey and received 30 responses from people with experience in a range of different sized institutions and private practice.

Continue reading

Museo Giovanni Capellini – Wunderkammer or Modern Museum?

Written by Michela Contessi, Conservator, Museum University Network, Collezione di Geologia “Museo Giovanni Capellini”, Alma Mater Studiorum – Università di Bologna.

The Geological Collection “Museo Giovanni Capellini” is part of the University Museum Network in Bologna (SMA – Sistema Museale di Ateneo). The museum is in an 18th-century building and includes a core of 16th-century geological and paleontological collections dating back to one of the oldest natural history museums in the world, created by Ulisse Aldrovandi in 1556. Most of the two million specimens now hosted in the museum though, were acquired by Professor Giovanni Capellini (1833-1922), holder of the first chair of geology established in Italy and rector of the University of Bologna. The museum holds important (both historically and scientifically) collections of rocks, fossils and documents from all around the world (Europe, Africa, North and South America), including the 1909 cast of Diplodocus carnegii, which is a popular touristic attraction in Bologna.

Facade of The Geological Collection "Museo Giovanni Capellini"
Figure 1 – Museum facade. © @Sistema Museale di Ateneo – University of Bologna

However, and here comes the problem…

After Capellini’s death in 1922 little was done for the museum, in the early 1960s, when the new-born Institute of Geology and Paleontology was built, the museum building was literally cut in half and the collections crowded into half the original space.

Figure 2 – Museum plan in 1911, shown in red is the current available space.
Figure 2 – Museum plan in 1911, shown in red is the current available space. © @Sistema Museale di Ateneo – University of Bologna

Structural issues arose due to this move, and the museum was closed to the public for almost 30 years. After a major renovation, funded for the ninth centenary anniversary of the University in 1988, the museum was given a new lighting and heating system, reopened to the public and it welcomes several thousand visitors a year since then. The building is now solid (as an old 500-year-old lady can be), but again nothing has been done since, and what looked like a good compromise in the eighties is now obsolete.

Continue reading

A Foot In The Door – Finding Collections Work As A Trailing Spouse In A Foreign Country

Written by Caroline Grounds, Freelance Zoological Collections Assistant, Musée national d’histoire naturelle, Luxembourg.

I arrived in Luxembourg 8 years ago when my husband accepted a job offer here, not knowing much about the tiny country (“where exactly is Luxembourg?”), and with a new baby in tow.

I had become accustomed to the trailing expat spouse role, so I was happy for a new adventure, though the hardest part about moving, especially to a country where you don’t speak the language, is finding your niche in which you can carve out something of your own.

As a former Biology teacher, most of my previous museum experience was in science education, as a volunteer at the NHM in London, and the George C. Page museum (La Brea Tar Pits) in Los Angeles, and I was keen to get involved in the Luxembourg Natural History Museum in any way, shape or form. Something about being around the wonders of nature, whether outside or housed in a building, is inspiring to me and, surrounded by like-minded people, where I truly feel like I’m supposed to be.

Not speaking any of the official local languages however (Luxembourgish, German and French), I quickly found that it would be difficult to find work, even on a voluntary basis as I had before. I submitted my CV to the museum anyway, and endured a rather painful phone call in very bad schoolgirl French (mine, not theirs!), which, much to my amazement, led to one of the researchers contacting me for help proofreading his research papers, which were being published in English. That schoolgirl French came in useful after all!

Continue reading

A Remarkable Collection Of Fossil Birds From The Eocene

Written by Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates, National Museums Scotland.

In November 2021 National Museums Scotland acquired a remarkable collection of fossil bird skeletons dating from the Eocene, approximately 54.6-55 million years ago. The story of how this collection ended up in Edinburgh is a very long one and began more than 25 years ago. 

Please can you show me your collection of Eocene birds?” This was the question that greeted me when I first met a Mr Michael Daniels more than 25 years ago. Visiting the museum with his wife Pam and his daughter Caroline, who lived in Edinburgh, this meeting would be the beginning of a long friendship and long-term correspondence, which ended sadly in 2021. My answer was “Well I would love to show you our collection of Eocene birds, but we don’t have any.” Michael proceeded to tell me about his remarkable collection of several hundred skeletons and part skeletons that he had discovered in nodules of the London Clay, which had eroded out of the cliffs at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex. In later years I visited Michael and Pam at their home and got to see the collection in its countless drawers and boxes in his study. I was astonished at the amazing variety of specimens of all shapes and sizes.  Many of the bones were minuscule, requiring great patience and skill to extract from the substrate.

Some of the many hundreds of fossil bird bones from Walton-on-the-Naze © National Museums Scotland

Michael Daniels was a passionate self-taught palaeontologist, who visited various fossil sites outside London and further afield in southern England from his home at Loughton near Epping Forest. He developed a more specialised interest in the Tertiary Eocene London Clay in the early 1970s, having been a founder member of the Tertiary Research Group in 1969. On retirement in 1985 he moved with his wife to Holland-on-Sea, so that he could pursue this interest at Walton-on-the-Naze.

Continue reading

Reflecting on a Collections Move During the Pandemic, the Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium one year on.

Written by Clare Booth-Downs, Herbarium Curator, Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium.

Moving On Up, To Move On Out

The Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium (RHS), which holds approximately 150,000 specimens and associated ancillary collections, had outgrown its original storage space.  The building of a new dedicated science and collections centre, RHS Hilltop, which opened in late June 2021, provided a solution to this. Hilltop, the home of gardening science, includes a larger, purpose built facility, the 1851 Royal Commission Herbarium.

The Laboratory, RHS Wisley, Surrey. Image by Clare Booth-Downs. © Royal Horticultural Society.
Interior of the original RHS Herbarium showing the overspill on top of the cabinets. Image: Yvette Harvey.

Increasing the capacity of the herbarium was vital as the collection is expected to expand at a fast pace over the next few years.  With a full time plant collector now in place, the RHS’ ultimate aim is to hold a specimen of every species and cultivar of garden plant growing in the U.K. It is estimated this will be a collection numbering 400,000 specimens by 2050.

This repository will act as a reference point for gardeners, breeders, students and researchers as well as for ‘non-traditional’ herbarium visitors, for example, artists and designers looking for inspiration for fabrics and jewellery.  This is alongside one of the Society’s own research foci, as described by Professor Alistair Griffiths, RHS Director of Science & Collections, “In the UK, we’ve got a massive diversity of cultivated plants, originating from around the world, and all have potential for nature-based solutions.  We’re going to work towards a database of the garden plants and their uses from an environmental, and health and wellbeing perspective”.

Continue reading