This blog has taken a while to write. It’s a complicated subject that can be hard to condense into a simple blog post. However, I feel that it is now necessary to write about it due to growing, worrying, illegal, and unethical trends that are resurfacing due to a private natural history collection resurgence in recent years. Aside from this, I am aware of the positive aspects of private collections and therefore I do not want to come across as too preachy or completely ridicule those with private collections who work extremely hard to promote conservation and education. But I feel that some things now need to be said, as well as how these new problems need to be fixed with realistic solutions. Continue reading
Bone Collections: Using, conserving and understanding osteology in museums.
Tuesday, 8th September 2015
University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge
The day will include both a workshop on in-depth case studies of bone cleaning, re-articulation, conservation and restoration as well as presentations on bone identification and preparation, covering a wide variety of museum osteology topics.
Spaces are still available for both workshop and talks. The full programme and booking are available here.
Working with, understanding, using, maintaining and conserving bone collections is a large and complex topic. If you have experience and would like to submit a poster, please follow the guidelines below.
We hope that this poster session will facilitate skills-sharing and friendly discussion among participants, as well as providing an opportunity to exchange tips and tricks. Poster presentations are an ideal format for student projects, case studies, innovative ideas, and tried and tested techniques, as well as research related to this topic.
Abstracts must be submitted by 14th August, 2015. All submissions will be acknowledged within a few days. The posters will be on view throughout the day, with an organised time period for authors to discuss posters with conference attendees. Please ensure posters are no larger than A2 (420 x 594mm).
All abstracts will be printed and made available to attendees, and all posters will be made available on the NatSCA blog in pdf format.
- List all authors: surname first, followed by first and middle names or initials. Separate authors’ names with semicolons
- List authors’ institutions and addresses
- Include the title in boldface
Please send your abstracts and any queries to:
T 07786 023709
In November 2015, the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL launched one of the most ambitious conservation projects undertaken at the museum, and our first ever public fundraising campaign, generously supported by NatSCA’s Bill Pettit Memorial Award.
Bone Idols: Protecting our iconic skeletons aims to secure the long-term future of 39 of our rarest and most significant skeletons, some of which have been on display in the museum for 180 years. This includes what can be considered the rarest skeleton in the world: our extinct quagga – an unusual half-striped zebra.
Preserving the uncollectable
It is the only mounted quagga skeleton in the UK, and no more than seven quagga skeletons survive globally. In April the quagga returned to the museum, having been treated by natural history conservator Nigel Larkin. The work involved completely dismantling and chemically cleaning the irreplaceable skeleton, and then remounting it on a modified skeleton-friendly frame in a more anatomically correct position.
This major treatment has also been given to the Museum’s largest skeleton – that of a (hornless) one-horned rhino. This has been on open display since 1911, in a room once lit by oil lamps. The particulate pollutants that were removed as part of the project had significantly discoloured the bone. The rhino now stands in a more rhino-like pose, with its legs on the ground and its limbs meeting their sockets – all steps that will safeguard the impressive skeleton for hopefully centuries to come. More about the rhino’s treatment can be read on the museum’s blog.
Curing the quagga
A condition assessment of the museum’s most famous object had uncovered a wealth of problems. The sternum was oozing a black, sticky fat deposit; the femur was far from the pelvis, which is both unsightly and left the skeleton unstable; the neck vertebrae were on upside-down (a feature I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t spotted, despite being a mammal nerd who has worked with this skeleton for ten years); the spine was held unnaturally straight by a horizontal rod; and much of the iron frame was rusting.
These ills, and many others, have been remedied. Although the specimen is the only one of the Bone Idols that has not been on open display, nor had it been regularly handled, the bone had still accrued a shocking amount of dirt and grime. This has been cleaned off using an alcohol ethoxylate (Synperonic A7) in distilled water.
A more detailed account of the quagga’s work appears on the Grant Museum’s blog.
Conservation in the public eye
Another aim of the Bone Idols project was to bring as much of the conservation work as possible to the gallery, allowing the public to engage in this critical work, which normally takes place behind the scenes.
Nigel Larkin is working on 13 of the 39 skeletons (those that require complex metal work), while the remaining 26 are being treated by UCL Museums Conservators. Days were set aside to prepare the large specimens for transport. We scheduled the work so that nearly all of it took place during opening hours (except that which involved dangerous equipment), at the heart of the museum. Staff and Nigel were on hand to explain what was happening.
For the in-house specimens, we have been advertising when this work is going on in the gallery, and even giving visitors a chance to take part in cleaning the skeletons themselves.
I’ll be talking more about the public aspect of the Bone Idols project at NatSCA’s Bone Collections event in September.
We are very grateful to the support of NatSCA and the Arts Council England’s Museum Development Fund for this project, as well as the thousands of pounds of public donations we have received. The work is ongoing, and will cost in excess of £30,000 to complete. If you would like to support the campaign you can make a donation on our online giving page, use this postal donation form (.docx, 63kB), or visit us in person in the museum.
Collectively each small gift will make this project possible, preserving these irreplaceable skeletons for the long-term future.
Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL
Last week saw the first PubSci talk by NatSCA Chair Paolo Viscardi since we moved venues to the King’s Arms near London Bridge. The subject, Bringing the Dead to Life, is less a Frankenstein manual and more of a description of his role as Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. He works with dead things every day and he does so for the public’s benefit, because these collections are yours: both yours as a national collective, and yours as an individual if you want to do something with them.1
A large part of the reason we have these amazing collections is due to massive amount of world exploration by wealthy industrialists, tradesmen, and philanthropists. Frederick John Horniman was a tea trader, and collected all sorts of things in his travels. The stuff he brought back captured the public imagination because it introduced them to international cultures they would otherwise have no idea about. We take global information for granted today because we all have access to internet resources in our pockets, so it is hard for us to grasp how unusual it must have been for people in 1948 to see frescoes from Ceylon temples for the first time.
One of the fun side effects of this close encounter with the unusual is that oftentimes people preparing the specimens from overseas were only going by descriptions, and were not at all familiar with the species they were working on. A great example of this is the iconic Horniman Walrus, who was overfilled until he was wrinkle-free – in the style of a seal. There is an exhibit at the Grant Museum of Zoology at the moment discussing this phenomenon and featuring a lovely Stubbs painting of a kangaroo that resembles a giant mouse. Knowing how meticulous Stubbs was about his animal anatomy, one has to believe that this is exactly how he understood them to look and is not in any way an accident of the proportions.
The topic of proportions and measurement brings me on to a study done by Paolo et al. in 2010, looking at the variation in measurements taken of a section of owl bone, so naturally the paper was titled How long is a piece of Strix. Comparative measurement is a fundamental part of species identification, so naturally one would assume a consensus of readings taken by professionals. The results were somewhat different: when working alone, the measurements were accurate. When working as part of a team, the measurements strayed, and the more people collaborating, the greater the disparity between measurements.
As a science communicator both at the museum and through his blog, Paolo has had the opportunity to work on some interesting projects: he has advised BBC television series such as our patron Ben Garrod‘s Secrets of Bones and he has been interviewed for The One Show to explain why cats get stuck up trees (they can’t rotate their ankles). This allowed Paolo to introduce the viewing audience to the Margay (Leopardus wiedii): a cat that can rotate its ankles. He has shared his love of osteology with 13-year-old fellow-blogger Jake McGowan-Lowe, which led to Jake publishing a book on the subject! To promote a recent Horniman exhibition on extreme animal adaptations, Paolo was subjected to the harshest elements in nature, which earned him the title ‘Extreme Curator’, and his very own Lego action figure.Where next for Paolo’s science communication? You’ll have to ask him at the next PubSci with Professor Ian Barnes. If you’re a fan of pleistocene megafauna (and, let’s face it, who isn’t), I wouldn’t miss it.
Sam Barnett, NatSCA Blog Editor
1. Depending on what it is you want to do with them and how run-ragged the museum staff are.
By Roberto Portela Miguez
When I was asked to review a book written by a twelve year old, I was slightly uncomfortable with the idea, as I thought that I would have to repress my usual critical and negative self and be gentle and considerate with the effort that this young nature enthusiast has put into such work. Needless to say, I did not want to come across as patronising either.
However, all my silly tribulations dissipated once I tucked into the book, and I actually found the publication not just faultless but truly enjoyable.
Jake McGowan-Lowe’s work is illustrated with beautiful photography and contains a wealth of knowledge and sound advice.
Each chapter has images of specimens from Jake’s very own skeletal collection, which ranges from the common British species to more exotic ones like armadillos and leopards. From the first pages one cannot fail to realise that this work was produced by someone with considerable first-hand experience on the topic. Maybe it was the picture of the more than two hundred skulls decorating his bedroom that gave away that the natural world is not just a pass-time for Jake, but something he is genuinely passionate about.
For each of the species included in the book, we are given details of some of the most significant skeletal adaptations and in specimens where a pathology is visible, Jake provides a well-founded interpretation.
The author does not shy away from using technical names for the different skeletal elements, but do not fear, because if you missed that lesson at school, there is a helpful glossary at the end. It is refreshing to see that Jake uses confidently and comfortably the relevant academic terminology. I was thrilled with this aspect of the editing and hold this as a triumph against those exhibition consultants that underestimate the level of knowledge of museum visitors and keep vanishing academic language from our galleries. You may now picture me taking my hat off to Jake for going boldly where museums used to go.
There is no osteological-related material that this studious naturalist cannot write about. From the basic “what is a bone?” to the more advanced ageing of animals from their bones, Jake displays an astonishing degree of knowledge on everything he presents.
The chapters that pleased me the most were the ones on tips for collectors, your bone collection and golden rules. It is easy to be awed by the natural beauty of the objects and their stories, but Jake wisely reminds all that there are a few important things to consider before we start accumulating our very own skeletal collection. Collection management, Health and safety and legislation are covered in these chapters and the author’s style makes it fun to read, so there is no excuse for accidents or incidents.
This is a great piece of work which I would recommend to anybody of any age and have no doubt that this will not be the last we will hear from such a talented science communicator.